If you belong to a local church, I wonder if you’ve felt the way that I have recently. Maybe you feel like those in church leadership agree with you on fundamental issues, but your neighbor in the pew clearly does not. Or maybe you and your neighbor have found deep agreement but find yourselves diametrically opposed to the leadership (or leader) in your church. One need only mention masks, critical race theory, social engagement, or even worship styles to spark and then quite literally feel the division that lurks beneath the surface. In this environment, it is all too easy to pack up your Bible and head to a church better suited for your personality or political profile. I’ve certainly felt this temptation in the past few years.
And yet, I’ve chosen to stay—not because some sort of calculus determined that the blessings and spiritual nourishment of my local church body outweigh the negative impacts and frustrations (for such calculations are futile), but because of a conviction borne of study and reflection that what the church most needs now is something it has always needed: a radical unity that is possible only in Christ. It is my contention that a Western spirit of schism in the form of a Protestant consumerism has obscured this truth across American Christianity.
Please let me illustrate with a fictional, though all too real, story.
Imagine a Bible-believing individual named John who moves to town for work and graduate school. He visits a bunch of churches in the area and falls in love with one local church with a particular set of theological convictions and aesthetic experiences that resonate with him. He can relate to the pastor and the preaching, and the church’s vision makes a lot of sense to him, dovetailing with his own spiritual journey. He fits in and believes this is a clear sign that God wants him to be here.
But after years go by and both he and the church change, he finds himself increasingly frustrated by the church’s errors and practices. After considerable efforts to bring about positive change failed, John realized he could no longer in good conscience be a part of this church and that he needed to leave. At first, he was angry at the church for being wrong and saddened; but he reasoned that there was no point in staying since it would only have made things harder for everyone. “Lord willing, they’ll figure out their errors eventually,” John concludes as he drives to his new church.
Years go by, and his new church changes….
I wish I could say that John’s perspective is uncommon, but I don’t believe it is, though the details might differ. Perhaps, for some, the process takes a different amount of time. Perhaps for others, it is having a personal crisis go unnoticed; perhaps for still others it is a doctrinal question that is really important. Or a deficient worship aesthetic. Or a systemic injustice tainting the church. Or a lack of transparency. Or any other of the infinite things that can and will be wrong with a group of deeply broken sinners.
The question is what we do with this reality. We could go the way of John, who over time, will find himself in churches that are made more and more in his image, ever “purer,” ever more like-minded (perhaps despite superficial appearances of diversity), ever more divided from the rest of the holy catholic church, ever more belying Jesus’s high priestly prayer for the visible unity of his people (John 17).
But what if we chose a different way than John? What if, instead, each of us asked this question: if leaving because of differences were not an option, how would I approach the rest of my life in this church? How could I help the church to change? How would I have to change? What do I do with my disappointment and pain? How would I have to love differently? To what in myself would I have to die? Is it possible that I am wrong? What would I have to do with my cynicism, my despair, and my weariness (Matthew 17:17)? What could I hope for?
Radical commitment to a place and to a people changes everything. It completely reorients one’s perspective on and approach to the local church and forces us to deal with our own pride, brokenness, and weakness and to actually trust in God’s power to change our fellow congregants and ourselves through love. It forces us to encounter the prospect of failure, injustice, and death, and to trust in the future resurrection and vindication of ourselves in Christ.
It makes us seek out peace because we know we will see these people again and again. It requires us to be patient and kind in all things because if we aren’t, we (not others) will have to pick up the pieces; to eschew envy and boastfulness because we know our belongings will be shared organically over decades of life together; to avoid arrogance and rudeness because these folks changed our diapers and our children’s diapers. To refuse to be irritable or resentful because we belong to each other and are each other’s glory. To rejoice in the truth rather than in power because Jesus the Truth is the ground of unity. And to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things.
Commitment is necessary to a faithfulness that is not merely a reflection of, but a participation in eternal love. It is a sign of the new humanity of Christ-imitators participating in the divine life of the eternal Trinity. Christ’s radical faithfulness to his bride is central to the mystery of Christ and his church, which is why limited comparisons of our vows as members of a congregation and commitments in marriage are appropriate. Jesus will never, ever abandon his people. He will never turn his back on us.
When Jesus was on earth, he continued to be faithful to his people despite his exasperation, pain, and weariness at his people’s willful stubbornness, incompetence, and wandering hearts. He did not and will never give up on us. And so, we too should never turn our backs on each other or give up on each other. For as we take up this humanly impossible cross, we open ourselves up to the Spirit of God and come to know our Lord—who himself walked this same path—in his suffering, joy, and glory in ways we could never imagine.
Sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers: the local body to whom we have vowed ourselves is who we are called to here and now. This real, complicated, mess of a community is the instantiation of God’s people to whom we are called to love with a radical faithfulness. It is this radical faithfulness—the commitment to continue to love each other in life together—that is the call of Christ to his people today.
This faithfulness, however, does not come easily. Indeed, it does not even come to us naturally! There are many obstacles to true faithfulness, but I want to focus on one–one obstacle with two effects. One major obstacle to this faithfulness is the untrained conscience and the fruit thereof. To see this clearly, I’ll consider first the untrained conscience broadly and then two clear fruits: rebelliousness and impatience.
By an untrained conscience, I mean the conscience of an individual that does not know to respond to theological and doctrinal errors except by fight or flight. It’s a common experience within a marriage: the spouses have a serious argument, and each believes he or she is right and the other is wrong, and they aren’t backing down. At some point during this situation, one or both spouses must come to the realization that if both cling to the righteousness of their position, the situation will escalate and damage the relationship, perhaps fatally. One or hopefully both must ask the question: whether being right and making the other person concede he or she is wrong is worth the destruction of the relationship. In my opinion, there are almost no situations where it’s better to be immediately recognized as right at the cost of the relationship, even if the truth at stake is important.
In the marital argument scenario, choosing to defer the litigation of the truth to a later time is most often a prudent, loving decision that testifies to both spouses that they value their relationship more than the need for the truth to be recognized at that specific moment and in that specific way. I would emphasize that this course of action does not mean that one or the other spouse does not value the truth (or, as the untrained conscience might think, that one is sinfully allowing a falsehood to stand). Rather, this course of action could (and should) be an expression of a greater love of the truth, one that correctly perceives that said truth will be accepted in a different context and over a longer period of time.
Brothers and sisters, I think this approach applies to doctrinal disagreements as well. No denomination, church, or individual is perfect, and that includes its, his, or her theology. But we all believe we are right about all the doctrines and beliefs we hold, since if we thought one of them was wrong, we would change our beliefs. We can’t all be right; so what do we do with our theological differences when our goal is love and the radical faithfulness it requires?
Almost everyone realizes some theological differences (as opposed to heresies) are too trivial to leave a congregation over. What most of us don’t realize is that all theological differences are too trivial to leave a congregation over; in my view the only valid theological line is actual heresy. And the line is not “heresy” because the error has crossed some abstract threshold of importance for a false doctrine; it’s because of what heresy actually is. Heresy is false doctrine that, by virtue of an individual or a denomination holding it, provides sufficient evidence of not being Christian at all. That is to say that heretics are not brothers and sisters in Christ. So, the earlier discussion—that because Jesus does not abandon his people however sinful and wrong we are, we must not either—does not apply to heretics, since they are not his people. That’s why actual heresy—and only heresy—constitutes the doctrinal threshold that absolutely requires leaving a church. In response to non-heretical theological errors and other differences, Jesus calls us as members of a local body to take up our cross and follow him in feeding and tending his sheep, not abandoning them to error.
This is easier said than done, especially for those of us who believe we are right and the church is wrong about something important—even if we forget that it’s possible we are wrong. For it is true that every error and mistake has harmful consequences.
What is the way of love in the midst of theological differences? I wrote earlier that the untrained conscience responds to errors by fight or flight. By “fight” I mean attacking, rebelliousness, and insurrection. By “flight” I mean leaving the congregation. These responses are not loving in that they do not testify to the eternal faithfulness of Jesus as proclaimed in his Gospel, which is both peace-making (Romans 14:19) and simultaneously purifying (Philippians 1:10). Attacking, rebelliousness, and insurrection is not peace-making, and leaving the local church does not purify it (if indeed one believes it is wrong) but instead abandons that local body to the impurities of sin or error. We are our brother’s keeper.
A trained conscience is neither desensitized to nor scandalized by the presence of sin and error in the church, but rather is trained to respond with faithfulness in love 1) in ways that promote the peace and purity of the church, and 2) by bearing with sin and error for the sake of Christ in hope of future change. In terms of character, the trained conscience is peaceable, gentle, and charitable to our fellow believers in their sin and error, doing nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility counting others we believe are wrong more significant than ourselves. With Paul (and Jesus!), the trained conscience is, incredibly, even willing to suffer wrong if it means loving rather than harming the local body (1 Corinthians 6).
In terms of process, the trained conscience recognizes the call of God to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21), which means those in authority submitting to the ordered needs and flourishing of those under their authority when exercising that authority, and those subject to authorities submitting to the direction and judgment of the authorities—even when one disagrees with them. This brings us in direct contact with the first major fruit of an untrained conscience: rebelliousness. A rebellious heart sees the word “submit” and immediately is pricked. Submission and authority are not words we enjoy, unless we are the ones in the position of authority telling others to submit. How can we possibly submit to those with whom we do not agree?
In fact, submission to authority is most significant when we disagree, for it is only in disagreement that we truly know whether we are obeying Christ’s command to submit to our governing authorities (1 Peter 2:13-17) rather than merely following our own judgment and being fortunate enough that the authorities happen to share the same view.
Submitting to authorities’ direction and judgment means obedience with as much joy and support as possible with the measure of maturity in love as one has. It does not mean one should stop having an opinion. This is because authorities can be wrong, and love often requires their correction, which in turn requires people to have their own opinions which may differ.
Submitting in love does mean, however, acting on disagreement in ways that promote the peace and purity of the church. While I have suggestions for both informal ways and formal structures for acting on disagreement, the main point here is that it is the responsibility of church authorities to teach, cultivate, and embody/model the appropriate ways/structures, and it is the responsibility of those under authority to learn, cultivate, and embody/use the appropriate ways/structures they are taught in order to deal with our disagreements well.
It is here that we meet our second fruit of an untrained conscience: impatience. An untrained conscience is not equipped to cultivate loving disagreement because an untrained conscience is impatient.
Love is indeed patient as we’ve heard in many a wedding homily on 1 Corinthians 13, but the patience required for a person, a local church, or a denomination to change through love rather than through violence is on a different scale than we are used to as modern Americans. We have a hard time when web pages take longer than three seconds to load, while some of the changes that we want to see may not happen within our children’s lifetimes, much less our own. Perceiving this in our flesh, we become strongly tempted to either fight to make change happen on our schedule (e.g. through an ultimatum) or give up on a community and fly away. Both of these are a kind of violence to the body of Christ. But we are called to reject violence and to wait and work and even suffer patiently together, as love requires. Patience in this manner is a cross to carry, and one that many modern Protestants in particular will want to avoid. Nevertheless, I believe this is the call of Christ to his people today.
The catholic church today is a mutilated body. It has been cut by division upon division upon division, rationalized by self-righteous pride and enabled by apathy. Yet we have seen this grotesque image before. In the mutilated body of Jesus on the cross, the power of God was displayed by the resurrection of the body to wholeness, with the only scars remaining a triumphant declaration of victorious love. And it is this resurrection power that is the hope of the catholic church.
In this article (really a letter to the church today), I argue that a modern Protestant consumerism has undermined our understanding of and witness to the Gospel faithfulness of Jesus to his people, and so has deeply harmed our life together. The division and brokenness of the catholic church mirrors the division and brokenness of the world. I would contend that reversing this division in the church in and through Christ is the only way the world will be sustainably healed of its divisions. That is the big Gospel picture.
For our small part of the picture, in order to be one as Jesus prayed we would, I argue we must overcome obstacles to faithfulness including consciences that are not well-trained to lovingly deal with differences, impatience, and rebellious hearts. These must be nailed to the crosses we carry. We are to submit to each other in love by respectfully submitting to governing authorities in our churches, humbly exercising authority in service to the needs of the governed, and bearing with each other in patient love as we seek to become one as God is one.
It is my local church’s liturgical practice to say a phrase that ultimately illustrates the entire goal of this article. It refocuses me and my neighbor in the pew to see the story of Christ’s objective death, resurrection, and new life in ourselves. And it refocuses us to see that as Christ’s body, we embody this story together.
We have died together, we will rise together, we will live together.
May it so be.