One of the places where I have found it most difficult to disagree with another person is in the church. Likewise, the subjects which I find most difficult to disagree with other people tend to be religious ones. Almost a paradox exists within the church in which people place a high value on unity, while at the same time holding on to their opinions with great zeal. Our problem often is that we misunderstand what it means to have unity. When we view unity as having no disagreements, disunity is sure to abound.
While this may at first seem like a bigger problem in denominational churches, where a church or group of believers find themselves at odds with the central denominational authority, my church experience comes mainly from non-denominational churches. I can say that the problem exists there as well. In non-denominational churches disagreement with the pastor or staff can easy be looked upon as an attempt to stir up dissension and disunity. The same is true when members disagree with each other.
Solving a disagreement often occurs in two ways. One is by the use of power. Someone pulls rank to stop the disagreement. I’m the pastor, parent, leader, more experienced one, i.e. the one with greater authority so what I say is right. Unity is achieved through force. Disagreement is feared because it is thought to indicates disunity and disunity is bad. Of course, the unity that comes from this response is often an illusion. Rather than resolving the disagreement, differences are forced to smolder beneath the surface.
The other response is to be overly diplomatic. Differences are made to be small and compromises are sought at all costs. The size of the gulf between to parties is shrunk until it no longer exists. Again disagreement is avoided because it indicates disunity and disunity is bad. Many churches follow the diplomatic round in their teaching and practice. They pursue the lowest common denominator of agreement to avoid disagreement. Controversial subjects or anything that might be divisive is avoided. The problem with this response, like the previous one, is that the disagreement isn’t actually dealt with. Instead it lurks in the shadows. It can also make churches theologically anemic because important topics are considered too hot to handle.
Yet disagreement is essential to the health of the church. One of the most important reasons for disagreement is that sometimes apostles are wrong. Even Peter had to be corrected by Paul according to Galatians 2:11. If disagreement doesn’t exist, it is very possible that some heresy is going unnoticed. Also, the lack of disagreement is no indication of healthy. If a couple said that they had a healthy marriage because they never have any disagreements, we would be wise to doubt them. Disagreement shows that people are alive. A corpse may be disagreeable, but it doesn’t disagree because it is dead. A Christian who is actively exploring God’s truth is going to form ideas and opinions that are different from other Christians. When disagreement happens in a healthy way it acts like a grindstone. Grindstone are rough and abrasive, but this allows them to polish metal and make it sharp. Disagreement rubs the rough edges off our beliefs and makes the truth shine brilliantly. When we either put a stop to disagreements with power or shrink them out of sight, we miss this opportunity. Sometimes a gadfly is needed to get an ass moving. We as individuals and the church in general have all been asses at times.
Back to unity. True unity comes not because we agree about everything, but because we agree about what matters. Unity is not the same as uniformity. We firmly agree on the deity of Christ, his incarnation, death, and bodily resurrection. We find unity in the triunity of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We share a belief in the virgin birth, the second coming of Christ, and the resurrection of the dead. These and others are where are unity lies. When Christian disagreement turns bad it is usually because people take their own opinions and make them the test of unity, rather than these things.
Unity also exists because God’s grace allows us to extend grace to others. The church is the place where it should be safest to disagree. We know that we agree on what matters most and that we have the grace to forgive faults. Christians can disagree without being disagreeable. Therefore we can have loud and passionate debates about the non-essentials and then eat a meal together, knowing that we have unity because we agree on what matters most. That is something that most secular institutions and relationships can’t have.