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Constructive Disagreement: Is it Possible?

by Brian Knowles

For many of us, the working definition of truth is, "what I believe." The working definition of error is, "what others believe." When others try to assert their opinions as truth we balk at it, opposing them vigorously with arguments that support our own position. They do the same. In the end, nobody has given any ground, nothing has been settled except perhaps a little dust, and we leave believing what we believed before the dialogue took place.

Such conversations take place all the time, and as a result of them the cause of truth is seldom advanced. Sometimes they take place literarily in the pages of The Journal (a monthly tabloid serving the Churches of God). The results are almost always the same.

Why Write for The Journal?
Every so often, someone says to me, "Brian, I don’t know why you bother to write for The Journal. You’re just lumping yourself with that bunch of crazies. You’re never going to convince anyone of anything." They cite the ads that run in The Journal as evidence that some people are off their theological rocker. They point to the squabbling, the splits, the disfellowshipping, and the vitriol that they see in many of the articles and letters that appear in The Journal.

One man, a leader of one of the spin-off churches of God, is alleged to have said, "There’s not a word of truth in The Journal." Where then would he find words of truth? In his own publication of course!

I’ll admit to you that this kind of writing is often a thankless task, especially in such a venue as The Journal. If you publicly disagree with the generally accepted status quo, your status changes from "one of us" to "one of them." Instantly. If you disagree radically, you move from "one of them" to "a tool of the devil." You now become a target of the hate mongers and self-appointed "defenders of the truth." "I wouldn’t read his stuff if I were you, it’s subversive" becomes the word on the street. The "us vs. them" mentality becomes the basis for an endless pitched battle between the forces of good (those who support the status quo) and the forces of evil (those who do not). In the course of this discourse, nothing is solved, enmities are deepened and people become more entrenched in their positions. So why bother?

My usual answer is, "Because I care." My friends typically respond, "Well why should you care? You’re never going to change anyone’s opinion, and they don’t care about you or what you think." They’re probably right.

I’ll admit that I’m weakening. I’m losing heart for the thankless task of trying to persuade anyone that I actually know what I’m talking about. After all, I don’t have a church organization behind me. I have no hierarchical position in any ecclesiastical pecking order. I have no following, nor do I seek any. I have not received a paycheck from a church for some 21 years. I’m just "out there" tilting at windmills like some forlorn theological Don Quixote. I don’t participate in "executive sessions" or high-level, vitally important, utterly critical, bleeding edge meetings of any kind. But, perhaps stupidly, I still care.

The people I write to in The Journal are my brethren, though many of them would undoubtedly reject that idea. Yet we were, for the most part, formed in the same womb: the old Worldwide Church of God. We have long wrestled with many of the same issues. We have arrived at different places.

When I read the names of certain people with whom I used to work in the ministry, and I realize that our relationship has changed, I experience pain in my heart. I know they no longer view me as they once did. Now I’m a "maverick," "out there" doing my own enigmatic thing. I’m no longer part of their "team." In their view, I may have lost my marbles, been subverted by the devil, or am just plain wrong in my views. Some wonder what will become of me, but most, as my friends remind me, probably couldn’t care less.

Ministerial Walking Wounded
I don’t say this to whine, or to engage in a pity party. I say it because I know that I am not alone. I know of dozens of other ex-ministers, in some cases very talented individuals who have much to offer the Church, who are also out there, drifting, without portfolio. They are the walking wounded of the ministry. They have either rejected one of the churches of God, or one has rejected them. Some have struggled to form independent ministries; others have simply been absorbed back into the secular world. They are now struggling with the meaning of their own lives and past ministries. Was it all worth it? Did it mean anything? Did I waste my life? Where am I now? Who am I? Am I still a minister, or just a piece of the flotsam and jetsam from a wrecked church organization?

I have no advice for such people. Each will have to find his individual way through the wreckage. Each will have to determine between himself and God just who and what he now is. Each will have to learn that rejection by church organizations and their hierarchies is not the equivalent of rejection by God. One of my favorite scriptures -- one which helped bring me back to God after I had left him -- is Philippians 1:6: "…being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." I believe that with all my heart. God has not rejected me, and since he hasn’t, no other rejection matters. God will help me find my way through the wreckage of church politics, theologies and doctrines. He will light my path and point me in the right direction, and what people think of that, or of me, therefore means nothing.

Anger & Vitriol Not Fruits of the Spirit
The kinds of people I want in my life are the kind that share the same conviction that God is working with them to bring them to perfection. I don’t mind being disagreed with, so long as it’s sincere and principled. But I have no tolerance for nasty disagreeable people who are filled with anger and vitriol. The primary fruit of the Spirit is love, not hatred.

It’s the direction of our lives that counts, not "where we’re at" at the moment. Are we moving Godward? If we are, that’s what matters. Is our character being refined in the fires of life? Then we’re moving in the right direction. Are we seeking to remain on that "strait and narrow" path that leads to life? If so, we’re on the right track. Do we really care about what Scripture says and means? Are we sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit? These are the things that matter to me these days. I have many treasured friends with whom it is possible for me to constructively disagree, or to be disagreed with. I cherish my ongoing dialogue with them. It brings us all closer to truth. It helps us refine our thoughts, polish our beliefs, and purge the dross. Constructive disagreement is possible, even desirable – if it happens in the context of love and friendship. My friends are for me, even when they disagree with me, and vice versa. No matter where they go or what they currently believe, I am for them. I seek to constructively help them through the passages of life, to be there for them when they need me.

Jesus taught, "By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another." Love is not the same as agreement. Jesus didn’t always agree with his disciples, and they didn’t always agree with him. Yet, with the exception of the traitor Judas, they were all for him, and he for them. Peter didn’t always agree with John, or Paul, or James, yet they were brethren, and they shared a ministry. The apostle’s theology was large enough to allow for occasional disagreements. They were, as the three musketeers used to say, "All for one and one for all."

Disagreement In Unity
At the same time, there was only one true Gospel. There was a way of life upon which they generally agreed. The biggest problem the early Jewish church faced was what to do with the incoming gentiles whom God was calling. This was a point of tension among the apostles and other leaders of the Church. Eventually they settled it, but not without some heated disagreement and discord.

Disagreement – even on minor points of doctrine – doesn’t have to divide the Church. We are all bought with the same price. There is only one Body, and it simply cannot be identified organizationally or doctrinally. It is identified by the Spirit of God and by the fruit it produces (I Corinthians 12:13, Galatians 5:22 ff.). Doctrinally the Church is all over the map. There is no common ground on the issue of whom God has chosen as our leaders these days. There is a lot of party spirit in the Church, and that’s not a good thing (I Corinthians 3).

True Christians can live with occasional disagreements with their brethren. The important thing is to recognize that they are brethren, and that they are called to support, not "dis," each other. It’s okay to occasionally disagree with each other, as did the apostles, but hatred, disagreeableness and nastiness are not a fruits of the Spirit. Discord, dissension, and factionalism are all listed as works of the flesh in Galatians 5:20). The churches of God are in the mess they are in because we have not exercised our free moral agency in ways that glorify God.

I am a true Christian, not because of what I believe or disbelieve, but because the Spirit of God has joined with my spirit that I might call God "Father" (cf. Romans 8:15-16). I am a child of God because the Father has adopted me as such, not because of my denominational affiliation or the lack thereof. I am on the path to spiritual wholeness because the Lord, not any man, is the "captain of my salvation." My faith, trust and confidence are in Jesus Christ, not in the political vicissitudes of any human leader. Human leaders rise and fall, come and go, but the Lord changes not. Yesterday’s human hero is today’s villain, but God remains righteous forever.

When it comes to settling theological arguments, "Ah cain’t get no satisfaction" out of most preachers. I have to find my answers elsewhere – in the Lord who is the very personification of truth, and in his written Word. I do seek wise counsel of course, but for me it isn’t usually found among those who believe Armstrongian doctrine. I do have a group of people whom I consider to be elder to me when it comes to understanding Scripture. When I need to, I refer to them, either directly or to their writings. I accept correction either from Scripture itself, or from their understanding of it.

Constructive disagreement has a rightful place within the body. In fact, it’s healthy. As Scripture says, "Iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens his friend." But the goal must always be objective resolution, not merely the imposition of one person’s will over another. After all, we are all accountable to the Lord. He will judge our words, thoughts, arguments and deeds in due course. When we take positions, we must do so in fear of him, not any man.

Goal of Disagreement Is Unity
The goal of any expressed disagreement among brethren is to eventually resolve it and come to agreement. As Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth, "I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought" (I Corinthians 1:10). That’s an ideal, not a reality. Such unity cannot be produced by authoritarian methods. Agreement must be from the heart. Unity in error for the mere sake of unity is worse than openly expressed disagreement.

Each of us, as Christians, is entitled to bring forth our strong reasons for holding a given point of view. We are all entitled to challenge each other’s views. If it’s done in the right spirit, unity can result. Those who are smitten with a root of bitterness cannot hope to advance the causes of truth and unity within the Body. They can only make things worse. First they must take care of the bitterness, and then reenter the ongoing dialogue among brethren.

Constructive disagreement is healthy and possible, but not common. Let’s have more of it.

©Association for Christian Development
Used with permission.

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