Written by Wendy VanderWal Gritter, Executive Director of New Direction
Theological disagreement in the Body of Christ matters. It presents the perfect opportunity to actually live in the way of the resurrected Jesus. Unfortunately, that isn’t what usually happens.
There is a vein of Christianity in which monitoring fellow siblings in Christ for right belief seems to be given utmost priority. Ironically, it is not uncommon to encounter assumptions, rudeness, sarcasm, harsh language, and outright accusation towards those deemed to be in error. In today’s context of far-reaching social communication, such responses flood the public square, regardless of whether there is personal relationship between the one assumed to be in error or not. And surely, the public square is an appropriate place to consider ideas, to raise questions, offer counter arguments or insights, cite those with years of experience, training, and wisdom, and articulate the significance of pursuing the truest understanding of God’s heart. It is, however, the erasure of boundary between robust examination of ideas and positions and the interpersonal sparring and wounding that I wish to address.
In my arena of ministry, I will not see uniformity of theological perspective in my lifetime. I could be wrong – but I feel fairly confident in making this assertion. For the rest of my natural life, there will be followers of Jesus seeking to honour the Scriptures who either believe sexual intimacy within the covenant of same-sex marriage to be sinful or not sinful. Given this reality, I have focused my energies in my work with the Body of Christ on this question, “How now shall we live together with this difference?” And while I inevitably have come to my own sense of conviction on the matter after many prayerful years of listening, study, and reflection, I think it is more important to encourage the church to learn ways of navigating these differences in a manner that respects the other than it is to try to convince people to see, think, belief and act in the manner that I have come to believe is most consistent with God’s heart. As an aside, it seems to be VERY hard for some people to grasp this idea. The unity of the church, which Jesus ties directly to our public witness, is more important to me than everyone believing just like I do. Why? Well, I don’t have a perfect pipeline to God – and even though I believe I have been diligent and submitted to the Spirit in my process of discernment – I know that, despite my best efforts, I could be wrong. The Body of Christ doesn’t need me telling them what they should believe – the Body of Christ will be best served by being encouraged to mature in the fruits of the Spirit in their interactions with one another across difference.
This is not to say that there ought not be any teachers or instructors in the Body to help us understand the text and grow in the capacity to discern rightly. But there is a reason that the Scriptures remind us to not to presume to be teachers, because teachers will be judged more strictly. (James 3:1)
So rather than telling people what they should believe, I have tried to focus on cultivating environments in which people can grow in their relationship with Christ, grow in their capacity for spiritual discernment, and grow in loving others in mature and self-emptying ways. If the church focused more on these things, and less on having the clear, certain, and perfect answer to every complex reality in the human experience, it is my contention that we would experience deeper partnership with God in seeing shalom burst out in the dark and broken places of our world.
I believe we are free to have this focus because of absolute faith in the victory Christ has won through living, dying, and rising. The power of sin, evil, and death has been broken!
In my increasing Anabaptist, pacifist leanings, I’m somewhat loathe to use a war metaphor, but here goes. The cross of Christ means the war is over. Post-war, one can spend their time meticulously going through the war zone to make sure the enemy is dead, shooting every suspected one until there is absolutely no breath left, and monitoring everyone to ensure that no one ever considers the enemy position again. Or, one can be immersed in the clean-up and the re-building. Planting trees and flowers. Beating weapons into farming tools. Supporting families finding new homes. Removing the barriers that prevent flourishing. As for me, I want to plant tulips. (and no, not the acronym kind)
I have to wonder, if in the intense passionate hunt for anyone who might remotely be an enemy, inadvertently some shalom-cultivating, but perceived to be too progressive, souls get shot down and even killed. And what is so tragic about this to me, is that it feels like some forget that the war is already over! The enemy cannot ultimately win. And in this strange time between the victory and the full consummation, we have this radical teaching from Jesus of Nazareth that we are to love our enemies – and so many of us seem to simply refuse to actually do it! Jesus went out of his way, on several occasions, to honour Samaritans. These were the heterodox folks of his day, the ones in theological error, the ones who if given an inch would infect the pure with heresy. Yet Jesus lifted them up as merciful neigbours, as evangelists, as the ones who showed gratitude and reverence. It’s no wonder that Jesus pissed off the religious teachers of his day!!
Sin matters. It matters because it gets in the way – it prevents us from fully knowing that we are reconciled to God through Christ and the Beloved called to participate with God in cultivating the shalom that has always and completely been God’s heart for the whole creation. Sin CANNOT undo the reconciliation that has already been secured through Christ. To suggest otherwise is to say that our sin is stronger than Christ’s resurrection.
Theological error matters. It matters because it gets in the way – bad theology can prevent people from knowing who they truly are in Christ. Bad theology can distract, cause people to focus on the wrong things. Bad theology can profoundly wound people. But bad theology is not stronger than Christ’s resurrection.
So what I know for sure, is that if I can encourage people to live like they are people of the resurrection, then together we will be closer to the mysterious truth of being the Beloved, made right with God through Christ. People of the resurrection believe and live like dead things can come to life. Errors can be made right. Sin is forgiven. Enemies can be loved. And evil and death will NOT have the last word.
So please, for Jesus’ sake, relinquish your pious certainty – and humbly cling to the resurrection. Give up your sarcastic dismissal of the other – and treat one another like the precious ones for whom Jesus died. Wish for others all the blessings and joys that you long for yourself and your loved ones. See one another through God’s eyes of love first and foremost, it will help us remember to expect the best, not the worst, of each other.
And if you believe you must, as called by God, address someone else’s problematic theology, for the love of God do so with humility, with love for the other, and infused with the vision of shalom. The way you speak of a sibling in Christ just might make the difference between an observer considering if people of the resurrection actually embody good news or not.