By Riane Konc
If I want to get good and angry about something, all I have to do is browse the Internet. Blogs, timelines, video links, comment threads: all are ripe with misunderstandings, name-calling, and out-and-out cruelty. The Internet fosters extremes without context; if you’re looking for a fight, you’ll find one.
This culture of verbal body-slams and ultimatums (“If you think _____, then you’re not a real Christian!” or “I don’t see how anyone who voted for _____ could call themselves a Christian.”) has made its way into the church in an ugly way. We are sad participants in the slander and vitriol, in the exclusion and wall-building. I know it’s true because I see Christian writers, thinkers, and speakers on both sides of hundreds of issues dismissed as heretics, false prophets, or the antichrist when they express a viewpoint or ask a question that other Christians disagree with.
Created and Loved by God
We are tearing each other down and creating wounds in the process. Just as problematically, by viciously focusing on where we are different instead of rejoicing in how we are the same, we are missing out on the fullness and complexity the body of Christ should represent. We are all created and loved by God; we are all full recipients of his grace; we are all working out an oftentimes confusing and messy salvation with fear and trembling.
My husband came home from work once, baffled by a book he had seen a coworker reading. It was entitled something about the basics of Christian theology and was, by his estimate, 600 pages long. I remember him joking that the basics of Christian theology shouldn’t take 600 pages to explain; they should take one page. The Nicene Creed, after all, accepted by most Christians as explaining the basic backbone of Christianity, is the size of a healthy paragraph.
Why do we disagree on so much, and why are we so vicious when we do? I believe that our ugliest arguments come from the ugliest places—from fear (that we are wrong), from pride (that we cannot be wrong), from anxiety (if this is true about God, how do I believe in a God like that?), from laziness (real truths are very rarely easy to understand or digest). But some of our instincts to defend and argue come from a good place—from a place in us that wants to defend truth and attack falsehood, especially truths about the nature and being of God.
The Complex Body of Christ
A popular response to complex theological arguments often is, “Well, if we disagree on something, let’s see what the Bible says!” This is not a bad instinct; however, it is rarely that simple. We should remember that in the not-so-distant past, the same Bible was used as justification for plantation owners and abolitionists alike. Both claimed its authority. Today, it’s easy to point out the obvious evils of slavery, the obvious twisting and contorting of Scripture to justify horror upon horror; it seems an extreme and easy case of right and wrong.
So if that seems like an extreme example, here are some more relevant and less easy current realities:
• I know Christians who love Jesus and are earnestly seeking truth whose faith is the reason they’ve enlisted in the armed force. I know Christians who love Jesus and are earnestly seeking truth whose faith is the reason they are pacifists.
• I know Christians who love Jesus whose faith makes them vote for conservative politicians. I know Christians who love Jesus whose faith makes them vote for liberal politicians. I know Christians who love Jesus whose faith has made them abstain from the political process altogether.
• I know Christians who love Jesus who believe the Earth is 6,000 years old and was created in six literal days. I know Christians who believe that God created the earth but did it in billions of years and that dinosaurs did not live at the same time as humans—and they still believe that Jesus is God and loves us madly.
• I know Christians who are Calvinists and some who are Armenians; I know Christians who drink and Christians who abstain; I know Christians who believe vastly different things about birth control, original sin, feminism, speaking in tongues, and dancing.
If some issue on that list makes you angry, then you’re in good company. Peter and Paul fundamentally and furiously disagreed with aspects of the other’s practice of Christianity; yet despite what they saw as serious differences of belief, I would venture that few modern Christians would dismiss either man as a heretic or the antichrist. We should grant each other the same courtesy.
A New Understanding
Yet it seems we are bound to disagree. Is there any hope?
I think so. Years ago, a friend of mine converted to Catholicism. She loved Jesus just as before, but I was someone raised in an evangelical culture that often scoffs at Catholicism (I was taught the idea that they were “sort of, but not really Christians”). It was strange for me, at first, to watch her transformation—to hear her talk of priests and the Pope, the Eucharist and Mass and oh, all that Latin. Where once I knew that she and I generally held to the same beliefs, her conversion meant that she now held convictions I did not share.
She and I continue to agree on essentials about salvation (Jesus died, Jesus rose, Jesus is coming again) and godly behavior (love God, love your neighbor as yourself), but we now fundamentally disagree on several points of theology. Yet because of her conversion, our conversations have given me a new understanding of God.
I once asked her to explain why the Catholic church taught certain things about issues surrounding couples having children. We had a long conversation, and I don’t remember many of the details, but I do remember her telling me this: she believed that God’s creation was the natural extension of his deep and thunderous love for us. For her, love by its very nature must be open to creation.
I found such an image of love beautiful: that love of all kinds—between spouses, between friends, between families—was by nature a creative force. We didn’t leave the conversation agreeing, but I left with a more beautiful, more complete picture of God, and it’s one that has informed my faith to this day.
Entering into Conversations
I believe that is what the mutual affection between Christians (spoken of in 2 Peter 1:7) is meant to look like: first and foremost, it is a celebration of the beliefs we hold in common, which incidentally are themselves miraculous and astounding enough to sustain a million conversations.
And for when we disagree (which we always have and always will), mutual affection means the practice of gentleness, patience, self-control; it means squelching our pride and remembering that we are ourselves not the sole keepers of minor secret truths about God; and finally it means entering into conversations and community with openness and humility, remembering that if even the rocks and the streams can speak a truth about God, then maybe that (Catholic, Pentecostal, Baptist, Democrat, Republican, and so on) in the corner could too.
Riane Konc is a freelance writer in Covington, Kentucky.