One of the major criticisms of the church today is the ongoing conflict within and across traditional denominations. We’re divided on issues such as the ordination of women and LGBT persons, birth control and abortion, and other personal issues. We’re divided on issues of social justice, including education, war, immigration, investment policies, the minimum wage, same-sex marriage, and the roles of government and big business. In other words, we as churches reflect all the disagreements and conflicts of our societies. And we can forget the more important things that unite us in God.
We humans have a bad habit of turning disagreements into conflict. Most of us find conflict uncomfortable, so we try to avoid disagreements. Some even go so far as to seek a church where everyone thinks alike. But conflict doesn’t have to be destructive, and isolation from conflicting ideas isn’t a solution.
If your ideas differ from mine on an issue important to us both, we might both seek to avoid conflict by not ever talking about that issue. But is that really the best way to relate to one another, interacting on the surface and ignoring one another’s concerns and passions? Even if we know we would do better to listen to one another more deeply, we may be afraid of losing the esteem or friendship we value.
And yet it is when we disagree – even to the point of conflict – that we encounter an important opportunity for growth. When we use our disagreements not to try to convince another to think our way but to work for better and deeper understanding of each other, we can learn and gain in understanding, even though our different convictions remain to enrich the depth and understanding of our community. And I believe that this deeper understanding of one another, including our disagreements, is how we are meant to live in community.
Think in terms of harmony. Living in unity in God does not mean we all sing the same note. Just as a chord is more interesting, richer, deeper than a single note, so is a community of diverse ideas and convictions more interesting, richer, and deeper than a community with a single set of beliefs.
When we define our differences as discord, we assume that there is a “right” way of thinking and that anything else is “wrong” – a false note in the chord. So we seek to avoid this discord in one way or another. But what happens when we define our differences as harmony? What happens when we base our interactions with one another on the assumption that all of our voices belong in the chord – or the orchestra or choir – and that no one is “wrong”? Then we can begin to value each voice, listen to it, and seek harmony with it – even when the note being sung is not our particular note. Then, by listening, sharing, and learning to value our differences, we enter into the harmony of true unity in God.