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How to disagree (June 16, 2024)

Amanda Shanks reflects on Paul and church conflict.

Several years ago, I sat on the worship committee of a congregation that had two services, “traditional” and “contemporary.” One service met in the church sanctuary, and the other met in the church’s fellowship hall. One service was characterized by the singing of hymns, usually accompanied by the pipe organ, while the other sang a rather eclectic mix of songs, accompanied by a full band with piano, guitar, bass, violin, flute, and even an accordion on occasion. One service used a traditional printed bulletin. The other used projector screens to communicate the service’s next steps. It was not uncommon to hear an attendee of one service rave about the service they attended while making disparaging remarks about the quality or spirituality of the other service. Friction developed over time.

Should there only be one way to worship? Does a different form or style of worship indicate that the congregants are more or less glorifying God? Who was right? Who was wrong?

During a church picnic one sunny Sunday afternoon, I was approached by someone who attended the traditional service. They were deeply concerned about the families who attended the contemporary service, stating the liturgy and the Scripture were too “watered down.” On that very same day, another discussion with an attendee from the contemporary service revealed that she had trouble focusing on the sermon in the traditional service because “it is just too lofty. It’s over my head. But the sermon speaks to me in the contemporary service. Everything is on my level.”

With each conversation, I chuckled internally and then informed each person that the liturgy and sermon were, in fact, the same for both services (though it would be fine if they were different). The services shared the same foundational elements but were distinguished by the location, the music style, and the use of technology.

In Romans 15:1-13, Paul addresses a mixed audience consisting of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians who have been engaged in various disagreements regarding ritualistic practices concerning food and beverage (Romans 14). When Paul speaks of the “weak,” he likely refers to Jewish Christians who feel duty-bound to observe specific religious rituals and dietary practices, whereas the “strong” refers to Gentile Christians who, through faith, do not feel bound to rites and formalities associated with the law (v. 1). Verse 1 is often read and interpreted in a patronizing or condescending way However, Paul indicates in Romans 14 that both groups are acting in a way they believe to glorify the Lord. He insists that both groups are welcomed by God, sharing the same sure foundation revealed through scripture and in Jesus Christ (Romans 14:3, 6).

Rather than promoting judgment and exclusion, Paul expresses his deep hope for unity. He encourages the two groups, despite their differences, to serve one another by pleasing their neighbors (v. 2), building one another up (v. 2), and accepting and welcoming one another (v. 7). After all, it is the same God who provided the scriptures of the Old Testament and the law (v. 4) who also gives us the “same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had” (v. 5).

In the 15th Century, the Moravian Church adopted the unofficial motto, “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity,” (a quote with uncertain origins). The debate concerning worship styles is only one of many hotly disputed topics facing the church today. Between different denominations, traditions and even individuals within the same congregation, issues such as the ordination of women and LGBTQIA+ individuals, involvement in politics, concerns surrounding social justice, gay marriage, method of baptism, and more are fiercely debated and result in significant rifts and schisms within the church.

Admittedly, it can often be difficult for us to discern the essentials from the non-essentials. However, Paul leaves little room for this debate. Rather than focusing on who is right and who is wrong in the argument, he encourages us to please one another instead of pleasing ourselves, looking to Christ as our model. Paul is filled with hope for unity, that all might live in harmony with one another. He reminds us to be charitable in all things, to approach one another with humility, and to seek unity above all else.

Questions for discussion

  1. What does it look like to accept and welcome someone who is different from you? What would it look like to please them with the sole intention of building them up?
  2. Paul indicates that his hope for unity is rooted in scripture (v. 4) and in the power of the Holy Spirit (v. 13). How does this type of hope differ from secular hope? In what ways have you experienced this type of hope? How might you inspire hope in those around you?
  3. How have you experienced conflict or disagreement within the church? How have you experienced unity in the face of these differences?

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