“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.