Making Room for Dissent. How We Can Disagree Without Destroying Each Other.

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“Scott, I’m not prepared to talk to you because it’s clear you don’t believe what the bible says”. With those words Dave (not his real name), a fellow pastor, hung up the phone.

I don’t believe what the bible says? It was the mid 1990s and the Baptist churches in NSW were locked in fierce and at times ugly debate over the roles of men and women in the church. Dave and I had attended a forum to discuss  the issue. He had argued passionately that there were certain leadership and teaching roles that were prohibited to women, while I had argued just as passionately that there should be no restrictions. We both believed our arguments were grounded in Scripture. So I was taken aback when two weeks later Dave refused to talk to me on an entirely different issue. As far as he was concerned Scripture was clear on gender roles and anyone who didn’t agree with his position was not merely wrong, but had rejected Scripture and proven themselves unfit for pastoral leadership.

It seems that every five to ten years an issue arises that is the focus of passionate debate among Christians. In my lifetime issues arousing controversy have included the inerrancy of the Bible, the order of events surrounding the Second Coming of Christ, the charismatic movement, worship styles, gender roles, asylum seekers, and divorce and remarriage. As I recall the debates that took place in my local church and my denomination, the Baptist Churches of NSW and ACT, it seems that a familiar pattern emerges: passions run high, harsh words are spoken, people feel wounded and aggrieved that fellow believers hold views that seem so contrary to the ‘clear teaching of the Bible’, people argue that the very essence of the faith is at stake, believers threaten to leave their local church and churches threaten to leave the denomination. Somehow we manage to muddle through, lick our wounds, realise the sky hasn’t fallen in and, with the passing of time and the benefit of hindsight, wonder how we managed to become so visceral over these issues.

Surely there is a better way. I believe that better way is founded on the following principles:

1. The foundation of our common life is our shared commitment to the Lordship of Christ. At the heart of the good news is the declaration that Christ calls imperfect and dysfunctional people to follow him. We are not made right with God on the basis of our behavior or our beliefs but because God graciously chooses to embrace us as his children as we place our trust in Christ. If, with all our dysfunction in behavior and belief, we are are embraced by God, we should do no less to one another.

2. Diversity of belief and behavior is to be expected. In the famous passage on love (1 Corinthians 13) the apostle Paul notes that while in the new heavens and earth our knowledge will be complete, for now it is incomplete. This means that even though we are committed to the way of Christ, we will not always agree on what it is Christ says to us.

3. Discerning the will of God on ethical issues is rarely simple and more often complex. We have to interpret various biblical texts in their original historical context, discern the values that inform them and then weigh up how those values plus other relevant biblical themes inform our historical setting. This is why the most gifted biblical scholars can be reach dramatically different conclusions on how biblical texts inform the issues we face today,

4. Our primary calling is not to agree with one another but to love one another. Jesus did not say that the world will know we are Christians by our unified positions on controversial issues but by our love for each other.

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:35)

With these principles in mind, rather than adopting a win/lose approach to difficult issues we should adopt a win/win approach. On the one hand this means we will seek a consensus. Embracing diversity does not mean we embrace all views as equal. Rather as we discuss and debate one or another view will be found more persuasive by the majority of believers or churches. It is quite appropriate that a local church or denomination make public statements and develop policies that reflect the consensus.

On the other hand we should always make space for those who do not share the consensus view. The consensus view will be seen as the understanding of God’s will that has persuaded the majority of us, not as binding on us. In many instances the views of those who dissent will disturb and offend us. Nonetheless we will make space for them because our fellowship is built around our common commitment to the lordship of Christ and to love for one another. And if we are humble enough we will remember that reform always begins with a small group of dissenters. At the same time we are convinced the dissenters are wrong, we will want to remain open to the fact that in the strange positions of these dissenters God may very well be shaping the future of his church.

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20 Comments on "Making Room for Dissent. How We Can Disagree Without Destroying Each Other."

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Luke Norman
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Brilliant article! I think this is one the most important issues facing the church community. On quite a few occasions I’ve felt isolated or excluded because I’ve expressed a viewpoint outside the mainstream, even if I believe it is grounded in Jesus’ teachings. One example was with a discussion with a friend of mine. He had posted something derogatory about homosexuals on his facebook page, and I suggested the church as a whole has a poor relationship with the LGBT community and that we should seek to show them God’s love and grace. He argued that God can’t tolerate sin… Read more »
Geoff Broughton
Guest

Scott, I’ve just started reading your blog and am enjoying the wisdom and theological insights, thanks…. who’d of thought those immature theologs from first year in ’87 would make it this far? Also, congrats on 25 years. Its about time I apologise for being so late to your wedding…

Scott Higgins
Guest

Hi Geoff
Yes it’s a long way we’ve come…. Thinking of the photo

Scott Higgins
Guest

Hi Geoff
Yes it’s a long way we’ve come…. Thinking of the photocopier incident. Very juvenile! How are you finding St Marks

Alan Hood
Guest

It makes it hard when there is a separate interpretation of Scripture for every Baptist out there, oh, and we’re all right too! Unity and love aren’t really our strong points are they. Great article Scott.

Jamie Long
Guest

A good artical Scott. The good old saying “in essentials unity, in nonessentials, liberty, in all things charity.” has often helped me. It is in no way easy though. There is still the question that “on which hill are you prepared to die?”

Scott Higgins
Guest

thanks Jamie…interesting phrase ‘on which hill you are prepared to die’. I assume the metaphor is drawn from war, defending my position to the death and taking out as many of my opponents as possible. But if we let the metaphor refer to the hill on which Christ dies the model is one of self sacrifice.

Jamie Long
Guest
Yes i simply mean one must decide which convictions one is willing to die for or in our context lose a job for or even leave a church for. It’s hard because, as your article sugests, there are some things that may ignight passion and may be important but may, in the end, not be worth the all or nothing sacrifice. Then there are convictions where to do anything but sacrifice is to sell out. To have the discerment to know which one is which is the trick. To ‘take out as many oponents as possible’ is not part of… Read more »
Scott Higgins
Guest

Hi Jamie, Agree entirely with you. Wasn’t suggesting you were arguing for taking out opponents, just reflecting a little on the metaphor.

Ian Altman
Guest

Great Article Scott – also loving The End Of Greed stuff as well – it’s making my people slightly uncomfortable – we have to much stuff.

Scott Higgins
Guest

Hi Ian, great to hear End of Greed is going well

David Willersdorf
Guest

It’s interesting that the primary way that people learn and embrace new understandings is through discussion. It’s where you can look someone in the eye and see where the heart behind what they are saying is at. I have plenty of friends I disagree with on certain issues, but the discussions make my life with God deeper. I like the passage in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 – “Test everything and hold onto the good.” Even amongst another person’s opinions that I might disagree with, there is usually some grains of gold worth keeping.

David Ayliffe
Guest
Hi David. This is so very important. I run a men’s group called Secret Men’s Business which has a facebook group too. We come from a few different churches and no churches at all and are trying to continue discussion on all kinds of issues without necessarily starting from a position of agreement. So far so good. On church issues one of the most common questions is “Why can’t we ask this question in church?” Those who struggle most with us are those from a conservative Christian background who like the pastor in the article have a view of the… Read more »
David Willersdorf
Guest

One thing that I’ve realised that has been lacking in Church life is the place for people to be able to come, care for each other and have a “fail-safe” environment – a place where they are not branded a heretic if they innocently ask the wrong question or get caught out in the middle of processing a thought. I think that too often we have embraced intellect over love. (And yes, they can go together).

Lance Bignell
Guest

I’m all for discussion Dave but…..I can’t seem to get a word in……ur just so dominant.

David Willersdorf
Guest

Haha – and here is someone that I really enjoy talking with!

Elen Gerakios
Guest
Good article Scott. I especially agree with your statement: “remember that reform always begins with a small group of dissenters…we are convinced the dissenters are wrong, we will want to remain open to the fact that in the strange positions of these dissenters God may very well be shaping the future of his church.” Too often though those on leadership struggle to separate a person’s differing opinion (albiet negative to them) and the person themselves. Any thought of that person then becomes clouded by their perception and judgement even if it is not voiced publically – but in action. Oh… Read more »
Elen Gerakios
Guest

Good article Scott. I especially agree with your last statement: “And if we are humble enough we will remember that reform always begins with a small group of dissenters. At the same time we are convinced the dissenters are wrong, we will want to remain open to the fact that in the strange positions of these dissenters God may very well be shaping the future of his church.” The challenge of course is…to all of us…can we truly practice what we preach. Food for thought!

Lyn Jackson
Guest
Hello Scott. This was very opportune. We had a discussion about this very topic last night in our home fellowship group, and I’ve sent the link on to the folk who were there. I’ve often struggled with why it is that, with the Holy Spirit as our teacher & guide, we so consistently come up with diametrically opposite views of what God is saying through Scripture. I think a lot is to do with our wanting THE RIGHT INTERPRETATION of Scripture, which is pretty well impossible. But it grieves me that we are so nasty to those who don’t agree… Read more »
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