Any congregation that consists of more than one person is going to have disagreements and differences among its members. And, given the reality of the human condition, if there was a congregation of one person, that congregation would also experience disagreement and difference. Being a believer doesn’t mean that we miraculously begin agreeing with each other on everything. It doesn’t mean that we will agree that every idea brought forward will automatically be accepted. Our diversity and our divinely given freedom mean that there will always be disagreement and difference when people gather together in a group.
The presence of disagreement and difference in the church isn’t a problem. It is a reality and in the end, probably something to be appreciated and even celebrated–diversity is another of God’s gifts to humanity. The issue the church faces in not that we are different and have different ideas–the issue the church faces is how we deal with those differences.
Because we live in North America, we have a tendency to see differences as something to be overcome–when there are differences, one has to be right. We live in a very competitive culture and difference becomes a reason to compete. So, if one church member prefers worship with the traditional hymns played on an organ while another prefers choruses played by a worship band, that difference almost automatically leads to a contest to see who can gain the most support for their choice so they can win. Winning, you see, is the key point in our culture and this cultural trait has become an essential part of church life in North America.
So, whether it is pastor against congregation, congregational leadership against pastor, congregation members against congregation members, the church has been seriously infected with our cultural love of competition and we firmly believe that it is God’s will that someone win whenever there is a difference or disagreement.
Of course, we have to ignore the cost of winning: unhealthy congregations, church splits; believers who won’t talk to each other; a poor witness in our communities to mention but a few of the consequences of making winning the point.
Christianity was not built on winning–or perhaps it is better to say that Christianity is not built on the North American cultural understanding of winning. In Christ, we are all winners–through our faith response to God’s grace, we win because we are reconciled with God. And the idea of reconciliation provides the Christian pattern of dealing with disagreement.
Jesus puts it this way in Matthew 5.23-24:
Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. (NIV)
Reconciliation, not winning, is the key here. The state of the relationship between Christians is more important than the issues they disagree on. Now, reconciliation doesn’t mean they have to agree on everything. Reconciliation is not a theological word for winning. No, reconciliation occurs when people look beyond the issue and focus on their relationship with each other. Reconciliation is not a sneaky way to win a contest. It is a concrete expression of the love that believers have for each other working itself out by maintaining the bonds of love in spite of difference and disagreement.
If maintaining a loving relationship between believers is not the first and most important consideration in any disagreement, the church has already lost no matter what the outcome. If believers are willing to put their side before the need to love each other as Christ has loved us, the church doesn’t have a chance of winning no matter what the outcome.
Disagreement and difference are basic realities of the human situation, which means they are also basic realities of the church as well. The church wins when it is willing to put more effort into maintaining the quality of relationships than it does into winning the various disagreements that come up. The church can and does exist when its members disagree with each other. The church can and does exist as a powerful witness to the world when it can allow disagreement and difference and still love each other as Christ loved us.
May the peace of God be with you.