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Of silos and certainties

‘Before you disagree with someone’, I was once advised, ‘you should first walk a mile in their shoes.’ Wise counsel about viewing an issue from the perspective of ‘the other’, taking into account their context and insights. The suggestion was nevertheless changed for me by comedian Tim Vine, who advocated that if there was still disagreement, at least we were now a mile away, and we had their shoes!

Over the past few months, I have become growingly aware of ‘conversations’ around specific issues of gender, marriage, and theological interpretation. These are needed conversations, and here is not the place to share my thoughts on this issue other than to say the tone of language used by those on both sides of this debate has been disappointing. We sound more like participants at PMQs, point scoring and politicising each utterance seemingly to prove that we are right and the others ignorant and entirely wrong. The chucking of theological grenades at each other from the safety of our silos is not a good example to set, nor is the language of campaign, which has militaristic overtones. Disagreement is a normal part of life, but how we handle it as Christians is important; we really need to model a better way.

Deciding who is good and who is bad, who is right and who is wrong, and who is up and who is down is something we were never designed to do, yet it is something that we’ve been doing continuously since the fall. Even today, amongst the church, we like to say what groups have the right beliefs and who doesn’t, who is in and who is not. I am sure God knew this would happen, which is why He said in Genesis 2, ‘Don’t do it – don’t eat from the tree.’ Perhaps we’re beginning to understand why this was such a big deal.

So, how might we navigate conversations on such ‘tricky’ topics? I would begin by looking at Jesus (a great litmus test for any decisions on knotty theological issues). In particular, I am reminded of the question he faced, as recorded in Matthew 22:34-40.

“Teacher, which command in God’s Law is the most important?” Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your passion, prayer, and intelligence.” This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.” [The Message]

Some commentators suggest that this question was being argued amongst the Pharisees at the time, with many different commandments being offered as the right one. They divided the commandments into ‘heavy’ and ‘light’ and separated the ‘ritual laws’ and the ‘moral laws.’ It got to the place that the smallest detail of the ritual law was as binding as the great moral laws of God, perhaps in a way similar to various attempts to arrive at definitive conclusions on specific topics today.

Jesus seems to be saying by way of answer that the laws of religion should never overtake the language of love. Instead of debating, we should be obeying and making sure we love God and others. At another time, when Jesus was asked, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ he told the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 11). Jesus expands the meaning of neighbour to include everyone in need. His understanding of ‘neighbour’ is as broad as God - thus, he unites the two commandments.

A language and demonstration of love for God and the other is the best way of approaching topics of disagreement, in particular, as it helps us to avoid the labelling or identifying of the other as an ‘enemy.’

The second step in such difficult conversations would be to accept ‘I might be wrong’ – I might not have all the information on this one. When we begin with a certainty of being right, it becomes the equivalent of shaking hands with a closed fist; impossible! If we can accept that the position that others have is valid; and that ours is different, not better, just different, we have more chance of hearing each other. Better still, if we can identify common ground (both Progressives and Evangelicals love Jesus!), then such things will help us see the other as a child of God. It is no longer about who wins and who loses but how we might reach a consensus. It is looking for and working for ‘win-win’ results.

To be saved by God is transformational rather than transactional. It is not all about a ticket to heaven but an opportunity and invitation to live as an image bearer of God, someone who is deeply loved by God and is in union through a relationship with God. Maybe disagreeing agreeably and finding a win-win response is a way to show the world that we are transformed and transforming.

Let’s not throw stones (or grenades) from the centre of our silos; instead, let’s model a better way. A way of deep and careful listening, a way in which we assume the best of each other. After all, any victory achieved without love is, as the Apostle Paul would say, simply a rusty, creaking gate [See 1 Corinthians 13] and we all know how annoying they can be!

Simon Mattholie

CEO, Rural Ministries


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