Disagreement Can Be a Major Blessing. But, It Takes Serious Practice.
Of the many new dynamics that we have become accustomed to over the last year, the hardest one for me to adjust to has been encountering disagreement on a day to day basis. Everyone has at least one person close to them – a friend, colleague, family member, roommate – who falls on a different point in the spectrum of sensibilities about the pandemic, resulting in disagreement about how to spend time together, what is acceptable to wear, and a host of other daily decisions.
Tragically, these disagreements about norms of life together have – whether on their own or by way of becoming proxy debates about deeper differences – led to fissures in once apparently unified communities. What grieves me most is that this is also happening within the church.
It feels as if we are battling more than one type of sickness. Even as a physical disease continues to alter the way we go about our daily lives, we simultaneously fight the sickness of disunity. And in this fight, I find myself asking, “Isn’t the church supposed to be set apart in this? Aren’t we meant to find unity even amid disagreement?”
In John’s gospel, Jesus again and again commands his followers to love one another (John 13:34, 15:17). Even as he is walking towards his betrayer, Jesus prays repeatedly that his followers would be one so that the world might believe in Him (John 17:20-23, emphasis added). Resisting the temptation for disagreement to become disunity is supposed to be our signature move, but many of us are woefully out of practice.
There is some good news; the well of Christian tradition does not come up dry when looking for a model for Christian unity. One such model is the Quakers. “In the Quaker tradition … the frequently stated objective is about unity, rather than unanimity of consensus,” says Ruth Haley Barton in her book Pursuing God’s Will Together. “Friends may find unity … on what is best for the community on a particular issue, even though they may disagree on the particulars.”
Other historic peace traditions share this commitment. On its 300th anniversary, the Church of the Brethren adopted the Resolution Urging Forbearance. The resolution states that the biblical concept of forbearance does not require one to accept others’ beliefs, but it does require one to try to understand the other without demeaning or attacking them. All Christian traditions would do well to learn this practice.
Ah, there’s the rub. Responding with openness to someone who disagrees with our convictions does not come naturally - it must be learned, and it takes practice. It is in our nature to try to force others to agree with the exact way we see the world. But building a loving community requires work, especially when that community includes those whose beliefs - even beliefs coming from another Christian tradition - seem threatening to our own.
We won’t be good at it right away, but if we practice seeking to understand and finding unity despite disagreement, I believe that we will discover that our disagreements can be a blessing. If we stay in the uncomfortable space of stretching our minds and hearts to make space for the other, this work can bear fruit for our faith and for our community.
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While studying philosophy in undergrad, it was a common practice to compare two opposing texts in order to better understand what each had to offer. This practice invited us to dig deeper into each text to understand its core. When applying this practice to biblical texts, I always experience the Holy Spirit’s invitation to see a deeper and more awe-inspiring core truth that I may not have learned had I not been open to seeking. Just like the two texts in my philosophy classes, talking through disagreements between believers can lead us to a deeper understanding of the core of our faith - that which unites us across traditions.
This unity that comes from conversations about disagreements takes practice, but it also takes trust in God. Barton says, “This is not a unity that comes from giving in on important matters of conscience; it is, rather, a spirit of unity that God gives to his people as they seek him together.” It is hard work, but we will not do it alone.
I have come to see disagreement as an inflection point. Like Robert Frost’s diverging roads, we can choose two paths in disagreement: the path towards disunity that breaks ties or the path to unity despite disagreement that leads us to a greater understanding of each other and our faith. I pray that we will have courage to choose the harder path that embraces the spirit of unity from God. May we be “brought to complete unity,” that the world may know Christ (John 17:23).
Claire Stewart is a writer, strategist, climber, and avid Star Wars fan. She currently serves as the senior manager of strategic initiatives at HOPE International, where she leads strategy design and management. Claire holds a BA in philosophy from Wheaton College (IL). She lives in Columbus, OH.