Let’s Turn Our Differences Into New Directions!

An unhappy record

In case you had not realised it, we do not have the greatest of track records when it comes to sorting out differences within our congregations. We come to blows too fast.  We play for sheep stations often over issues which are hardly worth the time of day. Or, we prefer peace at any price. Most of us do not enjoy confrontation at the best of times and are always glad for the proverbial carpet which covers over the fragments of the last bust up.

Yet every year too many of our churches manage to generate a conflagration which turns to bad news for everyone. People retire hurt, misunderstood and discouraged. Some leave never to return.

  • Why this abiding lack of spiritual maturity?
  • Why the inability to listen?
  • Why do we confuse people and issues so quickly?
  • Why the carping criticism of those who think and feel differently?
  • Why the endless self-justification?
  • Why do we use the Bible as a battering ram to push our view of life?
  • Why are we so abysmally anything but Christlike?
  • Why the appalling fractures in fellowship?

Let’s sort a few things out!

Is the desire to get our own way simply the Aussie stand ’em up, knock ’em down culture in full flight within the family of faith? Or is it just a blatant lack of grace, courtesy, honesty and patience with each other?

Whatever the reasons for our enthusiasm to shoot ourselves in the congregational foot, we need to lift our game and discover that this puerile behaviour not only dishonours the name of Christ.  It also robs us of the extraordinary stimulus which bubbles up from appreciating, affirming and understanding our differences.

Let’s get at least one major consideration up front right away:

  • If our disagreements lead to broken fellowship and divided churches, we have failed miserably.
  • !t does not matter what the issue is, or who we think may be right or wrong. If there is emotional or spiritual blood on the carpet, we have lost our way. We are no better than the town drunks battling it out behind the pub.
  • Well, may do it with a little more style and sophistication, but the end result is still the same: we have fallen short of living as the people of God should live. At least the drunks will get sober and probably drink together again.

Now, some will say that there is nothing new under the sun. After all, didn’t the very friends of Jesus slug it out over who should sit where in the Kingdom? And didn’t First Church Corinth manage to create more than a little controversy? True, but since when has that made it right for us to lay into each other for the sake of a debating point on some doctrinal dispute? Or how a particular ministry should be conducted (or even if it should be)

The possibilities of synergy

The fact is that we desperately need to find ways of turning our differences into new directions. There is great value in honest, open discussion and debate which clears the air, preserves good relationships, develops new insights and builds up the Body of Christ instead of putting it into a sling or on a crutch.

“Synergy” is not a fresh concept. Synergy is the end product of creatively accommodating different points of view, different perceptions and, in the process, finding brand new ways of dealing with situations. Rather than arguing for the sake of it and finishing up in opposing corners, the putting together of our differences releases a fresh range of possibilities for understanding and action.

Here’s the crunch:

  • If we share the same devotion to Christ, then we will be committed to working through our differences with good will and genuine care. At the end of the day there will be new insights and strengths.
  • It does not mean that preferred positions have to be set aside or sold down the river. It means that we might still hold our position strongly but we have at least taken the time to find out how another thinks and feels.
  • We may also be inclined to be a little more accepting of that other viewpoint and start to see why it is held that way. And with an eye open for synergy, we may stumble on a brilliant, unexpected landscape which we did not know even existed.
  • We will manage to keep friendships intact and actually deepen our appreciation of those with whom we would have otherwise written off as losers or heretics or both. We will also be much more open to change and looking at old problems in new ways.

So how do we go about calling up the benefits of synergy? Some simple tips:

  • Remember, first of all, that no one has the franchise on all truth and wisdom. If Paul had to cope with seeing through the glass darkly, our vision is going to be limited too. We may be reluctant to admit it but each of us has a little heresy in us somewhere.
  • We may hold certain views strongly and sincerely. But that does not mean that we are, therefore, right. We may be a long way up the creek but have not realised it. It may take a totally new view to help us see just how skewed we may be.
  • Let’s be very careful when we say that we have “a word from the Lord.” This may be so (after all the old prophets functioned on this basis) but it is very dangerous if we are just trying to swing an argument our way. This is really manipulation at best and others see through it with great speed. It can also be a poor excuse to save us from wrestling with a big issue.
  • It is a priority to reaffirm our fellowship with each other. And this needs to be preserve this above all else. Now if the other party is something of a nuisance to us and we have limited regard for them anyway, then we have another, more serious problem. To be out of fellowship requires prayerful, tong term attention (may be even healing) and it is not smart to engage in huge disputes in these circumstances.

Identifying the issues

  • So, what are the issues? Let’s identify these and concentrate on them. This will save us from attacking personalities if we accept the discipline of this approach. The moment we call another’s integrity into question, or project onto them unkind motivation, we have just entered the ring for a real box up and there will be no synergy and, therefore, no progress.
  • What are the possibilities and limitations of the issues in dispute? There is usually a good spread of both. Once we have seen the virtues of all positions, we can expect to make some progress.
  • Is there underlying goodwill between all players? If so a positive outcome is very likely. We will find a surprising creativity emerging instead of positions being defended at the expense of relationships. Patience, humility, grace and good listening skills will bring much needed balance.

The need for extracting the strengths of opposing stances is crucial.

  • If we fail, we will continue to find change difficult. We will constantly spoil fellowship; we will live like paupers when we could be enriched through all the glimpses of truth which we see in very different ways.
  • If we succeed, differences will be welcomed rather than feared. To learn from each other will become a way of life. We will have no need to quit each other’s company in frustration.
  • We may still feel that there is no need to alter our own position. There will be occasions when, having listened to other’s viewpoints and energetically assessed their worth, we still sense that our own stance is the best. So be it.
  • But to insist on a hard line is not the way to go. The need to stand on our dig and put down others and continue our criticism of them should be a thing of the past. As the old saying goes, we should at least be able to agree to disagree agreeably. This is a little closer to genuine Kingdom living.

And this should lead to a searching leadership checklist:

  • Should this issue be taking the time we are spending on it?
  • Is it worth running the risk of splitting the church?
  • Am I acting with (and modelling) grace, humility and patience?
  • Am I valuing the Christian calling and commitment of those with whom I disagree?
  • Have l listened to and understood their perspective?
  • What are the strengths of their position?
  • What new insights are emerging for me?
  • What fresh strategies may emerge to lead us on?
  • How can we move forward rather than simply dividing on this matter?

Our fellowship is indeed superficial if it is so fragile that we split apart at the first opportunity. We are more likely playing power games than being concerned about loving and serving others. Quite apart from being a very poor witness, it is not the way of Christ. The sad truth is that there are churches which should be enjoying great health and strength in ministry but which are too often bruised and bloodied by seemingly endless spats. In the middle of our church disputes, Jesus places a little child before us as a reminder that the Kingdom belongs to children in their simplicity and not to us in our righteous indignation. It’s time for our differences to produce new directions!

Rev John Simpson