Friday, October 21, 2011

Agreeing to Disagree in the Church

In every church and/or denomination there are disagreements.  Sometimes the disagreements are about seemingly “small” things – the color of the new carpet for the sanctuary, whether to move the worship time earlier in the summer since the church does not have air conditioning, whether or not to place a memorial plague on the new baptism font, or what time the youth group should meet for pizza.  Obviously these small disagreements can also be seen as HUGE issues depending on the nature of the deciders and the emotions behind the decision needing to be made.  I have seen churches make quick work of these decisions and I have seen them become acrimonious and last for months on end.

Then there are the other more difficult decisions churches have to make.  Sometimes they are about finances – whether or not to build or to close or to add staff.  Sometimes they are about outreach – whether or not to provide a food pantry for the community or to do some other hands on ministry.  Sometimes it is about advocacy – whether or not to speak out against an injustice for those who have no voice.  Sometimes it is about pastoral ministry – whether or not to call or ordain a particular pastor or not.  Sometimes it is about theology – what we believe to be the core theological issue related to baptism or Eucharist or how we think of God.  Sometimes it is about scriptural interpretation – whether or not a particular text means one thing or another or several things at once.

In many churches today disagreements are happening on a regular basis.  Some of them are about seemingly small issues that have become big ones.  Some of them are about BIG issues that are sometimes being thought about in small ways.  Some of them are about big issues and deserve a big table to discuss them around.  No matter what the issues are they all have an impact on those involved – either directly or indirectly.

I am part of a UM Clergy group on Facebook that was created to discuss ministry issues and be a network of support for each other.  Unfortunately, it has devolved into a debating group about the issue of homosexuality and gay marriage on too many threads of conversation.  The issue deserves serious and continued discussion, but that is best done in one-on-one and in small group dialogues where people establish relationships and a level of trust so that they can hear and be heard by others in the group.  This kind of anonymous posting on a Facebook wall and then debating by belittling and demeaning others’ points of view has become tiresome and overwhelming.  There seems to be little room for disagreement without denigrating the person who holds a different perspective.  There are times when even asking a question about a post prompts a tirade.   And on occasion I have posted as well – though I think I have tried never to get personal.

There have been significant changes in how we interpret biblical passages regarding slavery, women in ministry and other passages throughout history.  I believe passages related to homosexuality should be given the same kind of intense scrutiny and interpretative perspective. 

In my tradition we hold Scripture as being primary, however we also are called on to use our own reason, experience and the tradition of the church to determine how we come to theological conclusions and often how we interpret texts.  It is called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral and it is formative to how we as Wesleyans view the reading of biblical texts and the living of our faith lives.  Wesley did not create it – Albert Outler did in his edited work on Wesley in 1964. Outler regrets the term today because it seems to make Wesleyans, and others, think of these four sources as being equal.  And for Wesley they never were.  Scripture was always primary.  But the other sources are vitally important considerations in our theological endeavors. 

The very nature of this quadrilateral means we as Wesleyans have ample opportunity to disagree.  We all read the same Scriptures but the rest of our quadrilateral informs that reading and helps us determine how we come to theological understandings.  Our tradition is varied depending on where we come from, our congregational traditions, and interpretations of our denominational tradition.  We all think differently and reason using differing levels of education, understanding and interest.  Our experiences are as varied as we are - all living unique lives of varying opportunities and possibilities.  All of this means we are bound to come to different theological positions - that allows for the full richness of our denomination.  The fact that we do not all agree is part of who we are.  I never want to lose that.  However, it has become dangerous in some circles.

For many the use of Scripture has become a stick with which to beat others on the head in an attempt to force them to agree with another’s perspective.  For many the use of Scripture has become a way to force others to live out their lives guided by someone else’s archaic understandings of biblical interpretation.  For others it is a grace-filled word of love and grace that opens us up to amazing possibilities.  For still others it is the guide for all things good and noble.  For many it is the Word of God – laid out for us in the Old and New Testaments.
I do not believe we can solve difficult issues by arguing past each other and by pressing our points of view at the expense of relationships.  I do not believe that by belittling others we win points in theological discussions.  I do not believe that the scriptures are weapons.  I do not believe that we make headway by being mean to each other.

I get frustrated with the slow nature of change.  I get tired of trying to get people to listen to other possibilities.  I get annoyed by the reality of exclusion in our churches and in my church in particular.  I disagree with the way many of these texts are used today.  I believe God calls all kinds of people and the church should be open to their gifts for ministry – all of them.  It is God's role to call folks - not mine.  It is my job to affirm those gifts and help nurture and support them.  It is my job to engage those gifts in seminary and prepare those persons for transformative ministry in the world.

You may not agree with me – but I welcome the discussion.  I welcome an open and honest discussion that uses all of our sources as interpretative tools – not just one person’s view of only way to read a text or point of view.  We can talk about carpet color or about the nature of the church or about what we believe the church is calling us to do and be.

So … let’s talk and listen to each other.


  1. Karyn, I share your desire for dialogue without hostility or harm to the body of Christ.

    My experience, though, is that people do not agree on the terms of debate or the means of resolving differences, which escalates the passion.

    If you can come up with a way to overcome that, I will applaud your accomplishments.

  2. That is my wish for this discussion and others. And yes, parameters for dialogue have to be in place. I have seen it done and others have modeled that around a common table. Let us pray to the Lord!