Holding Division, Unity and Boundaries in the Christian Community

I am pondering how we live in honest disagreement with one another when our tendency is to create echo chambers i.e. “just unfriend/unfollow me if you disagree!” I am partially inspired by my (tiny) Twitter presence and the outrage I see there. I am also partially inspired by a theological disagreement that has reaped both wounds and fruit in my own life and the boundaries around that division that have healed and protected me.

I use a few examples along the way to think through the question – how might we go about both disagreeing well and living out Christian unity when separated by that fundamental disagreement

How significant is the point of disagreement?

Let’s consider the creation account – you might believe in a literal 7-day creation whereas I might believe that God created over a figurative 7 days that, from the human perspective, took place over billions of years with evolution as a part of God’s creation.

The primary point of agreement is that God created. Our unity and salvation do not, should not, hinge upon how God created.

In other words, we should be able to relativize our disagreements, taking into consideration that breaking relationships is a significant choice that ought not be made lightly

But what if what is significant to me is not significant to you?

I recall reviewing one of Paul’s texts, now charged with the church history of feuding gender roles, in Greek class while in divinity school. The professor pointed out that however you interpreted and applied the text to gender and church roles was a secondary issue. In other words, a point of division that should not be profound enough to break community. However, just as I started rising up to speak, he corrected himself, “For a woman called to ministry and to pastor, it is a primary issue.”

A male complementation (a person who believes men and woman are “equal but different” therefore have different roles, which means the roles with the most power and visibility goes to the men) or a woman not called to any vocational ministry or otherwise invested in challenging an unequal power structure are losing nothing with their stance. It is, in some sense, theoretical. But a woman in a complementation environment is being asked to deny Christ within her in order to be at peace with the status quo of a complementarian community. This is her life and her personhood – this may be asking her to deny herself, even unto denying the power and calling of Christ upon her life as well as the Spirit’s presence within her.

In another example, a disabled person challenging their inaccessible congregation or a person of color pointing out religion’s systemic racism cannot leave the reality the rest of us have the option to ignore.

In short, whether theological or not, exploring the disagreements between one another must start with, “love you neighbor as yourself.” When we are worried about being right instead of being worried about the person then we are creating an insurmountable wall.

Unity begins with hearing one another. Hearing one another begins with mutual trust.

When engaging one another, let’s start with the assumption that we each are loved by Christ and love Christ. Let’s begin with the decision to hear the other person.

This stance is an invitation – “You can trust that your voice matters, your feelings matter, and I will hear you.”

These starting points include knowing the boundaries that you will hold and trusting yourself to hold them. If I do not know and tend my triggers or if I am insecure in how far I will go with someone else, then I am likely to quickly get volatile. In other words, trusting you often means truly trusting myself first.

I can invite, but if a similar invitation is not offered to me then I do not have to stay.

For example, I do not typically engage in discussions about gender roles. For me, it’s not up for discussion. Another person’s theoretical take on what I should or should not be doing or how my marriage should work does not in any way affect my life nor is it my responsibility to change their mind. I know how far I will go in that conversation, and I will go nowhere.

I recently had conversation with a complementarian sibling about the effect of ministry on our mental and physical health. It was a generous life-giving interaction. Had the conversation turned to my place in ministry I would announced I could not take our conversation in that direction and would have left the discussion had the direction not changed. Years ago, a close friend told that I wasn’t a pastor in his eyes, and he would never call me that or hear about my ministry. If the staying in the conversation or in the relationship requires me to deny myself or parts of myself, then I trust myself to simply leave. And I did leave.

The difference was the invitation to some level of mutual trust was present in one interaction and not the other.

Knowing our boundaries, knowing their boundaries, and committing to keep both is the difference between edifying a relationship and shattering it.

Does unity mean homogeny?

I think Christians too often err on the side of doctrinal and theological rightness over of relational peace. We choose talking over listening, antagonization over acceptance, defense instead of openness. I think the core of division is not that we don’t think the same way, as much as it is that we are refusing to love one another.

I believe that unity within division comes when we engage one another in relationships choosing first to mutually trust and respect one another.

Christ intended the Church to exist at One Body. All divisions profoundly grieve his heart. The picture of the Church at the throne of Christ, is a diverse gathering singularly unified by Christ.

The diversity present at the throne is visible – racial, ethnic, gendered diversity, but it is also the relationships, stories, and experiences of those diverse bodies. We all care about different things, and Christ gave us those heartfelt fires that burn inside so fiercely we could not ignore them.

Christ gave us hearts and minds that are oriented in different ways. I believe that the Church would experience radical healing if the bodies within the Body were not threatened by an idea, a way of life, different from their own.

Unity is not keeping or enforcing silence.

We can keep peace and unity with those who engage with mercy and good faith. We cannot with oppressive or abusive religious systems.

A person who does not believe I should be pastoring or preaching will be unable to sit in worship receiving my voice as preacher or my office as shepherd. That’s their choice. It’s not my job to change their mind.

Then again, because I will not deny Christ, myself, or the Spirit’s fire within me, I will not worship in spaces or among Christian siblings who cannot receive me as preacher and pastor. I don’t keep their books on my shelf, I don’t listen to their sermons. That’s my choice, it’s not your job to change it.

I trust that the Spirit within you knows what love is and therefore what abuse is. Where will you stop? Will you enter church that do no have access for wheelchair users? Will you engage in relationship with those who believe racism is over? Will you worship in a religious system that abuses children and hides predators? Will you consume the books and writing of predators and liars? Will you trust yourself enough to know that you will not lose yourself if you are open to a worldview other than your own?

Unity is also not an echo chamber.

Unity is not the same as looking and thinking the same. Disagreement does not necessarily equate to division in the community nor the need to automatically end the relationship. Someone disagreeing with me is not the same as them not hearing me.

Perhaps we could start addressing our disagreement with, “I am entering this conversation already having decided to respect and hear you. You can trust me to care about your story and your feelings, you can trust me to speak honestly. If you cannot offer the same, then we can agree to leave the conversation until we can meet each other in this way.”

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