Why Do Christians Disagree About So Many Things?
Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
January 31, 2016
John 17: 18-23 (CEB)
As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19I made myself holy on their behalf so that they also would be made holy in the truth.
20“I’m not praying only for them but also for those who believe in me because of their word. 21I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. 22I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one. 23I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me.
I don’t know if there’s a better time than a Presidential election year in the U.S. to see just how deeply and how much we human beings can disagree. There are the obvious disagreements on polity and practice between the Democrats and Republicans, but even within the parties there is plenty of mud-slinging. The disagreements range from the major to the mundane, and folks are willing to argue ad-nauseum about just about all of them. As if that’s not enough, though, we have to deal with disagreement and conflict in other parts of our lives as well. We may disagree with our siblings about the best way to care for aging parents. We may disagree with our spouse about how to load the dishwasher. We might disagree with a neighbor about a property line, or with our child’s teacher about how to do long division.
Then there’s the church. We see conflict in the church all the time, don’t we? We joke about how a congregation will fight about the color of the carpet. Maybe it’s not always that bad, but we can get in some pretty silly arguments for sure. But we can also get into some pretty major disagreements, whether as a congregation, or a denomination, or even among “Christians” as a whole. As Christians, we still disagree about the meaning and significance of Communion and infant baptism. Within the United Methodist Church, we are arguing constantly these days about the full inclusion of LGBTQ’s into the life of the church. And you all probably know better than I do about various disagreements that have surfaced in this congregation through time. So why do Christians disagree about so many things?
If you haven’t noticed, most of the questions we have dealt with this month as we have sought serious answers to tough questions, have encompassed varied viewpoints on a single subject—different religions, science and creation, the inspiration versus the infallibility of the Bible. These are all issues which Christians approach in different ways. So it is appropriate that we finish today by thinking some about why Christians disagree about so much.
Honestly, if it weren’t so sad, it would almost be humorous that Christians do, in fact, disagree about so much. I say that because it seems like it ought to be pretty “cut and dry.” As Christians, we understand ourselves to be a unified community of believers who are in turn serving God’s purposes of unifying the whole world for God. That’s in fact, exactly what Christ tells us in this passage we heard from John a few moments ago, “I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” This is central to our identity as Christ-followers. We are one, we believe in Christ; Christ is God’s son, so what is there to disagree about? Well, plenty as it turns out.
Early on, Christians disagreed about what was required to become a Christian—was it necessary to follow the Jewish purity laws and so on. A little later, Christians were debating the two natures of Christ, divine and human; what that meant and how to express that. After a while, as the Christian church grew in power and influence, there was disagreement about who held ultimate authority in the institution. At the point at which Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church and thus marked the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, Christians were in disagreement about purgatory, works righteousness, indulgences, and whether or not the Bible should be translated into native languages. Even Methodism began as a renewal movement of the Anglican Church, but over time they separated because Wesley, though not a bishop himself, was ordaining bishops to lead the work of Methodism here in America. On top of that, there was the fact that for hundreds and hundreds of years the church and the state were basically one and the same, so there was really no room for disagreement. But after the religious wars of the 1600s, church and state began to separate, and further divisions occurred among churches as they sought to establish footing apart from nations and governments. I could go on and on and on.
So part of the disagreements among Christians emerge out of the shape of history, and the role of society, government, and culture in relation to the Church. But in 2011, the Pew Research Center identified 41,000 different Christian organizations, most of which might be labeled as denominations. Within any given community, there may be multiple churches from a single denomination, while other congregations identify as non-denominational. So obviously, with such varied expression of Christianity around the world, there are other factors at play here as well. I hit on some of them as I sort of ran through the history of Christian division, so let’s go back for a minute a give a bit more thought to a few important factors.
As Christians, there should be some core tenants upon which we all agree; namely, concerning the Savior Jesus Christ. Often, Christians will point to the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed as basic, universal statements of the Christian faith. But even while clinging to certain core beliefs, there needs to be adaptability for a variety of reasons. For example, worship in Africa is going to look very different from worship in America simply because we live in two very different cultures. Similarly, different cultures or societal structures can give rise to varying ideas about how to organize the institution of the church. So denominations, and even congregations within denominations, will set up structures of authority that are not necessarily consistent with one another. Finally, there is the matter of Scriptural interpretation. Some say the Bible is the inspired word of God, containing timeless truths, but written by human hands and thus at times inconsistent. But others say that the Bible is the literal Word of God, without error in any way. It is from Biblical interpretation that most Christian disagreements emerge, so I think it’s important for us to spend a moment giving some thought to this.
I once had a conversation with a congregant about Biblical interpretation. The man told me he was a fundamentalist, and that he believed every word of the Bible was true and without error, and the Bible didn’t need to be interpreted because it is what it is. Being the clergywoman that I am, I asked him, “But what about the instructions about women wearing head coverings and not speaking in church?” He, of course, had an answer for that, “Well, people say that was added later.” At that point, I looked at him and said, “That’s an interpretation.” Quite simply, we cannot read the Bible without also interpreting it at least to some degree. We cannot apply the Bible to our lives without interpreting it. And how we interpret the Bible has led to a great many disagreements among Christians, and honestly, I would expect that! We are unique individuals, created by God. Each of us is special, each of us holds an expression of God within us. We would be boring if we all thought the same, and what would that say about our Creator God. So, in this respect, our differences should be celebrated!
John Wesley once said, “But as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.” This is so important. One of the things I love most about being a Methodist is the diversity of thought you will find among us. We cling to some common beliefs and practices, like those contained in our creeds, but on many matters, we are very different. Yet we worship together, we pray together, we serve together. The media paints a picture of a Christianity as divided as Republicans and Democrats, but it’s really not so extreme as all that. Yes, we do disagree on some matters, but there’s a whole lot more on which we agree. What we have to learn to do is to live into those beliefs that tie us all together.
Just before he was arrested, Jesus prayed for his followers. We heard some of that prayer earlier this morning. Listen again, “I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you…I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one. I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me.” The media wants the world to know Christians by our divisions, but Christ tells us that the world will know God through our unity. Christians have always had disagreements about some things, and we always will. What we need to learn is that we must cling to those core beliefs that tie us all together, celebrate all that we do share as brothers and sisters in Christ, and then stop arguing about the things we don’t agree on.
Think about it like this. Most of the time, I do the laundry in our house. But every so often, things will be a little crazy when it’s time to do the folding, and Ken will pitch in and give me a hand. Now, the way Ken folds clothes…well, it’s not the way I fold clothes. You might say we “disagree” about how to fold clothes. But you can bet, I’m not going to complain about that or tell him he’s doing it wrong, because he’s helping me, and I’d much rather have his help in those moments than not.
I share that to say this: we Christians may disagree about a lot, but we do so much better when we can push past those differences and work together! As people who are committed to Christ and the basic teaching of the faith, we should be able to love each other and work together for the benefit of God’s Kingdom!
So you’re spending time with you non-Christian friend, or maybe it’s your Catholic friend, or your Baptist friend, and the friend says to you, “Okay, tell me quickly, why do you think Christians disagree about so many things?”
You might respond like this, “Christians actually agree on the most important things, and even though the media tells a story of division, we really work together more than most people realize. We really do love each other, but we can do a better job of it, and our witness would be stronger if we were more united. We need to work on that.”