In Christ there is no East or West — as the old hymn goes — but among his followers today there is definitely Left and Right. Liberal and Conservative. Traditional and Progressive.
Red and Blue.
Tensions within churches and across denominational lines continue to unravel the tie that binds. Current tendencies to draw lines in the sand, so painfully headlined in the political arena, bring American Christians once again to a Babel-like crisis: hot button issues are so emotionally charged that some fear the church as the body of Christ is dismembering itself in the heat of those battles.
Is it too late for Christians to turn ideological swords into ploughshares? Are “church people” so far gone in vilifying each other over social or theological disagreements that they can no longer unearth the holy ground that is the Church’s one foundation? Have they lost the blueprint and buried the tools for building bridges instead of fighting over “the loin issues” or what kind of music belongs in true worship or how the Bible should be read? Have conversations within the church and about the church become a hell-bent race to “win” and grown so cantankerous and distracting that we have spawned a new fast-growing denomination to check when asked for church affiliation: “none of the above”?
In October, over 100 church professionals from 23 states and the District of Columbia gathered at Montreat Conference Center in the mountains of Western North Carolina for a four-day conference as part of its Institute for Church Leadership. The theme was “The Church in Purple,” a metaphor intended to underscore the need for mutual understanding and respect among Christians who disagree on a variety of theological and social issues, worship styles and how to be the church in today’s world. A judgmental, win/lose approach in dealing with these differences leads to estrangement and brokenness. A “purple church” would be less interested in red/blue labels and more committed to modeling a royal priesthood of believers who aren’t all cut from the same cloth, but meld together in a community that intentionally chooses to live out Christ’s call in mutual respect, humility and compassion.
This conference took the form of dialogical conversations in which various pairs from different camps, theologically and practically, showed not only how such civility and respect is possible among people from different “sides,” but also how these traits model God’s kingdom rather than a culture of “us” against “them.” Without compromising his or her own viewpoints, each presenter told how their personal life as well as their ministry has been enriched by listening to, learning from and caring about their counterparts.
Pointing out that there are — at last count — 38,000 different Christian denominations across the globe, Thomas Daniel, pastor of Kairos Church in Atlanta — a self-defined “conservative” on many issues — put this question before the group during his dialogue with Pen Peery, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Charlotte N.C., considered progressive on the religious spectrum:
“What does that say about us? What is it that drives our need to further isolate ourselves from each other? … The biggest problem with church is not our differences, but how we view each other with suspicion because of those differences.”
More and more congregations, Daniel said, are becoming a mixed bag of ethnicities and faith backgrounds. He asked, then answered, another important question: What really makes people join with a group? It has to do with hospitality, openness, joy.
Both Daniel and Peery underlined the fact that unity is not the same thing as uniformity. Both agree that putting the emphasis on what liberal and conservative Christians have in common makes what they have in conflict less important.
Barbara G. Wheeler of Auburn Seminary in New York and Richard J. Mouw of Fuller Theological Seminary in California — two recently retired seminary presidents from very different theological places — explained that though they have serious differences about serious matters, they count themselves blessed by the collegiality and mutual respect through which the Holy Spirit moves, enabling them to become better people and better Christians because of what each has learned from the other.
Mouw, an iconic voice among reform-oriented evangelicals, began his comments by emphasizing that Christians are firstly called to be part of a community. A chosen race. A royal nation. It is not a matter of going off on one’s own. Furthermore, Christians are to be known as people who honor everyone.
He said that in an atmosphere where the arguments are over racial justice, gender equality and care of the earth, evangelicals sometimes feel a deep loneliness. They also feel very misunderstood. And just like their liberal brothers and sisters in this family of faith, evangelicals, too, have a tendency to divide Christians between “them” and “us,” and even to boast that the evangelical arguments are made under the authority of Scripture and therefore on a higher plane.
But liberals, he is quick to say, do the same thing. Which means both sides end up distrusting each other:
“Here, I think is the solution to that kind of disconnect. Only through dialogue can you put yourself within the perspective of the person on the other side of an issue. You must be careful to put your understanding of who that person is and what they are thinking in their words — not your own words. What you think or presume they believe is not the way to go.”
Wheeler holds Mouw in high esteem and compliments him for his courage in taking unpopular stands. She finds it a privilege to learn from him and other conservative Christians:
“Our friendship and our work together has dispelled and confounded any inclination for stereotyping or preconceived notions,” said Wheeler before giving two examples.
Evangelicals are often accused of proof-texting or holding up certain parts of the Bible, ignoring others. But progressives and liberals do the same thing. Both sides sometimes dispense with or re-write Scripture in order to back their conclusions. Both sides “rough up the Scriptures.”
“Evangelicals have a canon within a canon. There’s relatively little attention to Luke or the Prophets and wisdom literature, but we do the same thing on our side of the theological debate. We both choose books of the Bible that fit our ethos. Liberals, for instance, have preached the ‘justice rolls down’ passages and Acts 10 into the ground.”
Wheeler is also indebted to her evangelical friends for being such good preachers: “I heard the Gospel Truth from them, whereas our liberal sermons are often either pep talks or political diatribes in theological clothing.
“Liberals like to think we are the educated ones, the critical thinkers. We can deconstruct things like biblical patriarchy, for example. But I learned that evangelicals are excellent scholars.”
She gave this example: “Lord is a word I have learned to understand better in its depth and implications from the conservatives. Liberals often overlook central tenets of the reformed faith … We brush it aside in our fights and arguments and passion for issues of abortion and homosexuality, but we should know and be accountable to basic reformed Christian doctrine.
“Endless polemics and grandstanding on these issues is detrimental to true understanding.”
Wheeler summed up her remarks with a hopeful picture of what will happen when we stop bickering, stop discounting each other and start listening to and learning from each other: “This, friends, is freedom in Christ: to be our best selves with each other, to tease each other gently across all kinds of divides, including theological ones, and to make fun of ourselves in one another’s presence. This is what it will be like, someday, in the church he came to build and the world he came to save: We will not hurt or destroy in all God’s holy mountain. Instead we will heal and repair, in our pluralistic societies, in the worldwide Christian communion … and in our churches.”
Ina Jones Hughs is a member of Black Mountain Presbyterian Church in Black Mountain, NC; a retired byline columnist with both Scripps Howard and Knight Ridder newspapers and a former writer for The Persbyterian Survey.