“Is there any way to reconcile and live together with our differences, or are we destined to divorce and divide into like-minded fellowships?” asked the Rev. James C. Davis at the Covenant Network of Presbyterians’ annual gathering Nov. 3.
Founded in 1997, the Covenant Network is a national group “working for a church that is simultaneously faithful, just, and whole,” according to its Web site. The Covenant Network aims to “articulate and act on the church’s historic, progressive vision and to work for a fully inclusive church.”
Christians on both sides of an issue can argue their positions using Scripture. For example, opponents of the recent changes in ordination standards can argue that the church is accepting sin by normalizing a part of the culture that is counter to Scripture. Proponents can argue that the persistence of opponents is threatening the church’s witness and that the church is called to mimic Jesus’ refusal to judge and his extension of love to those on the margins.
“We cannot pretend that Presbyterians do not remain deeply divided on this or other issues,” Davis said. “But there is a mandate in our tradition for staying together.”
Davis teaches ethics and American religious history at Middlebury College in Vermont.
Among the Reformed virtues that compel us to stay together, humility is chief, Davis said. Humility is an understanding of what it means to be human — created as a reflection of God’s goodness but marred by self-interest. Sin makes us myopic, distorting our vision of God’s will for us.
“There are real limits on what we can know is right or true,” Davis said. “Humility urges us to admit that we could be very wrong in matters small and significant.”
Another Reformed virtue is patience, which is rooted in humility and the affirmation of the sovereignty of God. Reformed theology assures us that God will make what is right and good known at the end of human history — and this demands patience.
“We live in the interim between the accomplishment of God’s reign and its realization,” Davis said.
A third virtue essential to our living together in disagreement is mutual respect.
“Respect for other human beings is a direct corollary to the doctrines of creation and grace,” Davis said.
Although sin distorts us, we remain reflections of something valuable, so we’re worthy of respect. And we must also show respect to others, especially those within the church. We should actually go beyond respect to kinship, which implies love, Davis said.
“We are commanded to love one another as Christ lives each one of us. Period,” he said.
A fourth virtue is Christian forbearance. We need to tolerate those who share our allegiance but understand it in very different ways. We must acknowledge that we’ll share fellowship with all those with whom we disagree, Davis said.
“There is one body and one Spirit … one faith, one baptism, one God who is above all and in all,” he said.
But this challenge doesn’t mean we should stop searching for the truth.
“Civility does not mean passivity,” Davis said.
We shouldn’t ignore our disagreements, but it’s possible to disagree with people without doubting their place at the table.
“We must find ways to live together in respectful disagreement,” Davis said. “The task of reconciliation is ours that we might offer the gospel of reconciliation to the world.”