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Why Your Church Can Disagree and Still Be United

Are Baptists a peaceable people? Do we live together in the reconciled love of Christ? Is our gospel of grace demonstrated in our common life?
Well … sometimes. There are many congregations that are laboratories of love, schools of grace. But it has to be admitted that Baptists find agreeing and disagreeing in love particularly difficult.

And I think there is a not entirely dishonorable reason for this. At the heart of our tradition lie two deeply felt principles, which seem at times to be irreconcilable.

In the first place, we are congregational. We believe that the call of Christ is to community—a specific community, a particular congregation.

We are called to take our place not only in the amorphous, anonymous, entirely loveable universal church, but also among the collection of personalities that gathers to worship each week in congregations around the world.

We are called to share the task of discovering and doing God’s will for specific, local and entirely problematic communities—to walk with these people, to watch over and be watched over by these people, to speak the truth to them, to hear the truth from them, in the love of Christ.

We hear God’s heart together, in Bible studies and prayer meetings, in worship and in church meetings, listening to each other, paying attention to the prophets and visionaries among us but also to the least articulate and most timid.

This is how we make our decisions, and it governs the kind of leadership that is exercised among us.

But what if, having thought and prayed, having honored the church meeting, having suspended judgment and listened with respect and love to my brothers and sisters, I am profoundly uncomfortable with what has been discerned?

What if, in all conscience, I cannot agree with that decision? I cannot persuade myself that it truly expresses the mind of Christ?

Then, another deeply held conviction surfaces: the conviction that the individual conscience is inviolable.

As a Baptist, I believe that I am responsible before God for my own actions and decisions, and that this is not a responsibility I can delegate.

How can I hold together my need to dissent with a form of governance, which is about consensus? Where does the priority lie—with personal integrity or communal harmony?

Should I submerge my conscience and “go with the flow”? Should I campaign for the decision to be overturned? Should I abandon ship?

I resonate with Paul when he writes, “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing of the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Philippians 2:1-4).

The quality of common life envisioned is a fellowship of mutual affection, tenderness, humor, kindness and peace; something we all yearn for, sometimes experience, and never forget.

But what Paul yearns for is not a unity in which the individual is drowned or submerged in a one-voiced unanimity.

Such bland uniformity would be a falling away from the rich freedom and reciprocity, which is ours in Christ.

Paul’s own experience, mirrored in his letters, is of congregations full of dissident voices, struggling, failing and succeeding in finding God’s way together.

His metaphor of the body emphasizes the disparate nature of congregational life: the need for a variety of gifts and temperaments if the fullness of God’s mission is to be realized (see 1 Corinthians 12).

So being of “one mind” cannot mean always seeing eye-to-eye or complete agreement. The harmony he prays for is not an ironing out of difference but the harmony of difference held in creative tension.

Such harmony requires skills that can and must be learned because this kind of common life does not come naturally. It requires gifts of the heart: “love, compassion, sympathy, accord.”

The “mind” Paul is considering is the mind that was in Christ, which did not insist, bully or ride roughshod, but emptied himself for love and redemption. And this must be the wellspring of our life together.

In the end, it is about becoming mature in the flame of love—about the work of God’s spirit forming the mind of Christ in the hearts of his people.

It is about being willing, for the sake of love, to abandon ourselves—our pet projects, well-articulated opinions, need to win, and conviction that we are right.

Sometimes this will require me to accept a decision that I question, having expressed my doubts and offered the outcome to God.

Sometimes the rest of the community will decide not to press forward with something that clearly causes me distress.

If we are blessed with wise leadership, we might pause and then revisit the issue, looking for a new approach. Perhaps, on very rare occasions, we must part. But love is the touchstone.

We aim to agree in love, and when we disagree we need even more the mind of Christ to find ways ahead that express a loving integrity.

Might this be the Baptist way? Not static or comfortable, but creative and energized by love for each other, for Christ and for his world?

How good when that is so.

Pat Took is a Baptist minister from London and Yorkshire, and a former president of the Baptist Union of Great Britain (BUGB). A longer version of this article first appeared in the Autumn 2014 edition of Baptists Together magazine, a publication of BUGB. It is used with permission.