That posed no small task, given that the other members had chosen some of the most contested texts to study together. Further, the wide range of theological and ideological convictions represented in this group of 20 meant that no point would go unchallenged. But the task force found common ground not by sentimental means but substantial: the Word of God rightly divided and studied together. Those studies, now available in book form, elevated hope in a conflicted church. As commissioners and delegates brace for debates in Minneapolis, the Outlook offers reflections of not one but two book reviewers from different places on the theological spectrum.
—Editor Jack Haberer
Faithful Disagreement: Wrestling With Scripture in the Midst of Church Conflict
by Frances Taylor Gench
Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
ISBN 978-0-664-23338-9, 176pp.
reviewed by William Arnold
Unless things have changed from the time of this writing, there will continue to be a cacophony of unhappy and hostile rhetoric in the political air of our nation and our world: charges and counter-charges, an atmosphere of discontent and accusation as well as outright warfare. Unfortunately, many churches are no exception to such displeasure.
One wag has suggested that churches should consider having four different worship services each Sunday: one for those who are seeking faith, one for those who want to keep things the way they’ve always been, one for those who have lost their faith and are trying to find it again, and one for those who have had a bad experience in the church and are still complaining about it. The names for the four services would be: “Finders,” Keepers,” “Losers,” and “Weepers.”
The more serious point is that pastors and preachers who have not experienced discord in their churches are either fortunate or not very observant. Along with the skills of worship-planning, preaching, education, and administration, pastor/preachers would be well-served to have some conflict resolution (or, reconciliation-building) skills in their bag of resources. But, where are they to look?
Frances Taylor Gench has provided an excellent book to help us along the way: Faithful Disagreement: Wrestling with Scripture in the Midst of Church Conflict, published last year (2009). Gench is a skilled Biblical scholar and has the distinction of having served on the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) theological task force aimed at “finding ways through conflict toward the furtherance of peace, unity, and purity in the life of the church.” (That’s a mouth full!) The task force met regularly from 2001 until the 2006 PC(USA) General Assembly, at which time their proposals were adopted.
The beauty of this author’s work lies in her specific exploration of New Testament passages that highlight conflicts of the early church (little backbiting went unhidden there!) and the guiding principles that were advanced to cope with them. Furthermore, she urges us not only to read what she has to say about the Bible, but to read the Bible itself! And, she invites us to do so with catchy titles for the chapters, like “Arguing about Scripture: Johannine Epistles and Dirty Laundry” (Chapter 1).
Gench’s scriptural choices lead us into less-used texts, such as 2 Peter, Jude, and 1,2,3 John. As she puts it, “… if you venture down that much less traveled road (of those books), you will hear them yelling long before you get there. Fussing and fighting, a lot of name-calling going on.” She notes Fred Craddock’s comment: “They really knew how to curse in those days!” (p. 2).
With humor, grace, and serious exegetical study, Gench invites us to learn from those old scrappers of the early church. We learn that we are by no means the first congregations, or denominations, to experience the tension of liberals and conservatives and those caught squarely in the middle. Argumentation can revolve around everything from personality conflicts, to determining the color of the carpet in the sanctuary, to “roast preacher” conversations after church on Sunday, to percentage distributions of the budget among mission, maintenance, education, and fellowship dinners. And, there is no particular order of importance in that listing. It will vary from church to church and from day to day.
As Gench points out, both clearly and subtly, the task for all of us, clergy and lay alike, is to keep ourselves centered clearly on the reason for our being: “to live more faithfully … and more fully into the peace, unity, and purity that is God’s gift to us in Jesus Christ”(p. xiv). To that end, we are invited into the reading of Scripture, reflection on her own exegesis of those passages (which include a rich array of commentary from other writers), and helpful questions for discussion and reflection at the end of each chapter.
This book is not only helpful to pastors and preachers, but it is written in a way that can be useful in adult education classes or as suggested private reading for disconsolate church members. Our disagreements are nothing new. Let’s follow this author’s advice and learn from those who have been “in the fray” long before we ever got here.
WILLIAM ARNOLD is honorably retired and living in Myer Creek, Va.
reviewed by Julie E. Hodges
Conflict is nothing new in the church, as author and Union Presbyterian Seminary Professor Frances Taylor Gench points out in her introduction to Faithful Disagreement. She is familiar with the present disagreements that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) continues to face, having served on the Peace, Unity, and Purity Task Force that reported to General Assembly in 2006. This book grew out of her work on the PUP Task Force, as this group wrestled with how to read Scripture while living with and acknowledging differing interpretations.
Here, Gench takes seven Scripture passages, some of which the PUP Task Force used in their studies and deliberations. The passages highlight the fact that conflict in interpretation has always been present in the faith community; and that faithful consideration and study has always been a necessary part of understanding and interpreting of each passage.
She explains that as we (the Church today) deliberate the text together, both risk and forbearance are necessary in living with each other even when we maintain differing interpretations. For example, In Chapter 2, she cites the study of Matthew 14:22-33 when Peter is bid to walk on the water to Jesus in the midst of the storm. This discussion and study led the Task Force to the conclusion that as Peter risked stepping out of the boat in faith towards Jesus, so too the Task Force members were to risk “finding ways to live more faithfully with our disagreements — new ways of learning and discerning together — for we wanted to be like Jesus too, to draw closer to Him” (p. 27). She states that if these twenty differing Presbyterians could come to an agreement, others in the church can, too, with hard work and faith.
Other chapters tackle various passages from 1 John 2, 4, and 2 John; Romans 14; Jeremiah 28; 1 Corinthians 12-14; 1 Timothy 3 and 5; and John 13-17. Each chapter is designed to be used for groups studying together. Questions for discussion are listed at the end of each section, providing excellent help for group engagement. In some chapters, Gench suggests readers connect with the text by participating in dramatic reading out loud with others. This method allows for those using this as a study guide to more fully appreciate “the voice” of the passage in context.
The overall theme of Faithful Disagreement is that Christian unity in love is the highest value and that disagreement can be useful for the spiritual health and strengthening of the body of Christ. She argues that the world is watching how faithful Christians treat and deal with each other. This witness is of primary importance as we move forward into the 21st century.
I can see that the studies presented in this book could be a helpful tool in looking at Scriptures and assist particular groups working to overcome interpretive differences. Undoubtedly, there will be congregations and study groups for which this book is helpful in learning how to live together with differing understandings of the text.
However, the present PC(USA) conflicts, which often begin with differing Scriptural interpretations, lead to formidable foes — issues of power and control. My prayer would be that Faithful Disagreement would be used by the Holy Spirit to instruct us as a denomination in our ongoing debates. This book may be one way of teaching us how to allow those with differing understandings of Scripture’s mandates to uphold one’s own spiritual integrity while maintaining unity and peace within the Body of Christ.
JULIE E. HODGES is associate pastor of Palm Desert Community Presbyterian Church, Palm Desert, Calif.