Churches -- and their denominations -- can be hotbeds of controversy. In these times of troubling differences on fundamental issues involving faith, theology, and life, there's no telling how people who disagree will treat each other.
Some years ago I attended a denominational convention whose leaders were struggling with the issue of how, or whether, to welcome gays and lesbians into their churches and include them in their leadership. The lines were clearly drawn; the debate was strong but mannered.
I've been a part of a congregation that wrestled with the same issues many years ago, leading ultimately to a painful split. This was particularly grievous to me, not only because folks on both sides of the issue were dear friends, but because one of the aspects of that church that drew me into its fellowship was the fact that people with a variety of views could still come together in love around the communion table.
Your faith group may be grappling with some other issue. Maybe it's about political issues, worship styles, or other doctrines that are causing division and discord.
During such times, God invites us to accept other believers with whom we disagree. The Apostle Paul wrote:
Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don't see things the way you do. And don't jump all over them every time they do or say something you don't agree with -- even when it seems that they are strong on opinions but weak in the faith department. Remember, they have their own history to deal with. Treat them gently. (Romans 14:1 The Message)
Let that sink in. It's pretty basic stuff:
- Welcome authentically and fully those with whom you disagree.
- Don't jump down their throats when they say something you don't agree with.
- Realize that they've come to their views as a result of their own history -- just as you have.
- Treat them gently.
Perhaps your disagreement is not theological -- it might be a decision someone has made that you think is unwise. By all means, share your views with that person, but do it gently and lovingly.
This is not an easy assignment. When we feel that what we believe is right, it's very difficult to accept the right of others to disagree.
Of course, there is a limit. To allow grievous injustice to oppressed and powerless persons to continue is not an option for any follower of God.
Even so, God beckons us to converse with believers with whom we disagree, to be in community with them, to interact with mutual respect and tolerance, to embrace them in genuine fellowship marked by gentleness and sensitivity.
Out of that kind of relationship in community, things happen. God can work. The Spirit can change hearts and minds. And we can honor and serve God together.
Is it possible? Yes. The God who invites us into this sort of dialogue is able to give the strength and guidance to make it so.
But it begins with our decision to be in community.