Living Faithfully

handshake

I’m reading a book right now that’s making me angry. The subject matter is one of those “hot button” issues in Christianity right now, and the way I feel reminds me of a quote from a book I read back in college.

In Richard J. Mouw’s Uncommon Decency, he writes: “There they all stand, bumper-to-bumper, horns blaring: pro-lifers and pro-choicers; gay liberationists and defenders of the traditional family; husbands and wives facing each other in courts of law; artists and legislators, ‘politically correct’ intellectuals and crusading fundamentalists; warring ethnic groups in Eastern Europe; Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants; Arabs and Jews in the Middle East.” (see footnote)

It’s worth noting that Mouw wrote this book in 1992, and it’s still relevant today. I’m not sure if that makes me want to pat Mouw on the back, or weep, mourn and wail.

I’m trying to not get angry, but it’s hard. I’m on the opposite side of the issue from this book that I’m reading, and I really want to understand, even if I don’t agree. And I don’t even want to understand so that I can argue with this other side later. I want to understand just to understand.

Why would I want to understand at all, you might ask? Why not just be content with staying on the side you agree with, never venturing any further? There are a couple of reasons for this: 1) The position held by this book is the same position that the organization I work for supports. I greatly respect and love the organization that I work for, and as a leader in it, I must represent their position. This means that I must remain faithful to their position when the issue comes up, even though I may not agree with everything in their stance (And there are some points I agree with). I see where they’re coming from. How do I live faithfully when my view and the view held by my job are in a certain amount of conflict?

2) I don’t think it’s a very Christian posture to isolate oneself and one’s view in such an extreme manner. As followers of Jesus Christ, I believe we have a responsibility to engage the culture and views around us, even when it’s hard. Is it possible to hold a strong personal opinion while at the same time fairly engaging the opinions around us? Fair engagement does not mean that our only option is to get angry at the other side. Yes, there are time when anger and frustration is appropriate. But I think we far too often immediately default to those emotions instead of trying to find a third way–something distinct from siding with one side or the other. There must be a way to live faithfully in the midst of cultural tension.

There has to be a third way because evil cannot win. I firmly believe that when we argue and fight about these hot-button issues, Satan says, “Aha! I got them! I’ve got them so distracted by this issue that the reputation of the Gospel is tarnished, and they’re not really focusing on the Gospel at all. I win!”

This breaks my heart. More than the other side gets me angry, it breaks my heart that we, bearers of the Gospel, are sullying the Gospel and the Christ we represent. Satan has got us so distracted by these issues that we’ve completely forgotten the point of the Gospel: tell others that God yearns to live in relationship with the people God created. Invite them into that relationship which is made possible by the fact that Jesus has forgiven our sins–the barrier to that relationship with God. God is working to restore the world that has been broken by sin, and as forgiven ones, we are agents of that restoration. We get to work with God in bringing the Kingdom of God from heaven to earth. This is the Gospel. Not the hot-button issues we love to argue about.

Each side might tell me that the reason I feel so much tension is because I don’t believe fully in the authority of God’s Word, and I’m not following the whole of it faithfully. Let me be clear: I believe fully in the authority of Scripture, and I strive with every fiber of my being to not have a smorgasbord theology–picking and choosing what I like, what I agree with, and what’s convenient for me. All of Scripture has authority over my life–even the parts I don’t agree with.

I am convinced that each side would say that this is what they’re trying to do too–and yet we’re still on “opposite” sides. Somehow we have this idea that if we both believe in and live the authority of Scripture, we should all be on the same side of an issue. But maybe that’s not true. Maybe we can both believe fully in the Bible and live faithful lives, and still end up on “opposite” sides. This is why we need a third way–a way to love each other and proclaim the Gospel. The Gospel. Not our issues. In the midst of our varying opinions.

I don’t know what this third way is. I don’t know what it looks like. But I do know that it exists. Because I do know that God has called me to this ministry–whose purpose is spreading the Gospel. And that’s what I’m here for too.

What do you think? Is there a third way for Christians to live out the Gospel, live with their opinions, and live with each other? Is there a way to live faithfully even when we’re “agreeing to disagree”? Or is that wishy-washy? What should we do when we disagree?


footnote: Mouw, Richard J. Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1992, 10-11.

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13 thoughts on “Living Faithfully

  1. Jill, I argued for the “third way” in my GS presidential report in 2012, a way of love, respect and honoring the unity Christ called for in John 17 despite our differences. What I was told afterward (despite the standing ovation) was that that “middle way” was exactly what those on the poles did NOT want, as it diffused their ability to be “right” on the issue. Until we in humility give up the need to be right and obey the gospel call to love and “in humility consider others better than yourselves”, we will continue down this path of polarity, disdain and hate-filled speech. And yes, this dishonors Christ and the gospel.

    • Lisa, it looks like I’ll need to hunt down your presidential report then! Thanks for the comment. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who feels this way.

  2. Jill, you aren’t the only one! I have been bashing my head against a wall (figuratively speaking) about this same thing, lately. If I say I am for “A” that does NOT mean I’m automatically against “B”. There is a third way, and we CAN hold the tension of ideas. However, for most people, it is easier and a lot less emotionally strenuous to just pick one side and vilify the other.

    • I’m also trying to figure out how to live (and work at my job) with integrity when I’m called to submit to authority when they’ve taken a stance I don’t completely agree with. I willingly submit to authority, but I also want to represent myself honestly.

  3. Jill, Having spent eleven years in a situation in some ways similar to yours, I believe I have a bit of an idea what you’re going through. It was a time of tremendous strengthening for me as I dealt with so many of my beliefs, examining them and re-determining what I believe and why I believe it.

    I’d like to make 4 points… Jesus dealt with this kind of problem when the Pharisees brought him the woman caught in adultery. (John 8) They wanted a fight. They wanted him to be inflexible and legalistic. Jesus didn’t want to fight that battle. He took a different route, but he didn’t sacrifice anything, and he made it possible for the woman to repent and change her ways.

    Point one. Don’t be distracted by the wrong focus. The Pharisees wanted to make an issue of the punishment for adultery. Jesus dealt with the real issue… this woman sinned. How can we fix her and bring her into the fold?

    Point two. Just because Jesus didn’t call for her punishment in the heat of the argument doesn’t mean that adultery is now acceptable, nor does it mean that the scriptural punishment was wrong or inappropriate. It only means that Jesus modeled for us, a different acceptable response… one of love, compassion, and personal acceptance.

    Point three. We humans usually start at the wrong end of the logic trail; I’m here and this is what I want, therefore, how do I find support for my stance in scripture? With a text as big and varied as the Bible, with a little liberty and perhaps a wink here or there, one can probably support almost anything.
    If we start at the other end… God wants this, therefore, how do I follow His will to the best of my ability. It changes how we look at things.

    Point 4. For most of us, our God is too small. With a small God, we can challenge His will and satisfy ourselves that we have a right to do so if only we can find a place to put the fulcrum so we can lever our position. When we begin to understand, even a tiny bit, how awesome He is and how insignificant we would be without His making us into something significant, we quickly move to the other end of the logic trail.

    I hope this is helpful…

    • “Just because Jesus didn’t call for her punishment in the heat of the argument doesn’t mean… that the scriptural punishment was wrong or inappropriate” Translation: There is nothing wrong or inappropriate in stoning for adultery. ~ ltenclay

      I guess those boys in Syria had it right yesterday. The logical conclusion of someone who holds to tight version of inherency. Was there also nothing wrong or inappropriate with Hebrew parents selling their children into slavery, right after God freed them from captivity? Nothing wrong or inappropriate with taking “as your booty the women and children of the town along with the livestock” during war?

      • Wayne, I’m sorry that, once again, you wish to put words in my mouth that were not there, and I’m sorry that you cannot find room for that “third perspective” that we are talking about.
        As I said, Jesus chose to take a different path. His choice of a different path had no significance in defining the truth or validity of God’s previous statements. He chose to not argue with them, but to deal with the immediate problem… how do we love, support, and care for those in need without placing them in a lose-lose situation.

      • Lowell, I do want to apologize about the stoning in Syria comment. That was harsh rhetoric. However, did I really say anything else above that you don’t agree with?? Please do be honest. They may not be things you said directly but things you have heavily implied with both of your comments. If you really take a view that words in the Old Testament law are “God’s previous statements” then that is implicitly saying that at least for a time stoning as punishment for adultery was not only okay but required by God, selling children and abysmal, inhumane treatment of enemies was allowed by God and on down the line we go. To me that is a very scary way to read the Bible: as God’s statements or the words of God rather than the Word of God.

        As for the third way, I did not see you involved in that conversation above. But my understanding of it is that it does not require us to mince words when we disagree. Rather a third way, different way, better way as I have always understood it at least means we still have very hard conversations that may involve (sometimes intense) disagreement but we still acknowledge our common bond in Christ.

  4. Jill, I deeply appreciate the time, energy and thought you put into this. One can tell you are striving to walk a very delicate line with this post, never naming any specific issue. And I appreciate your sensitivity. Having seen Lisa a couple of years ago (via the internet) I do applaud her words still and I do believe in unity. I do believe in a better way than you go your way and I’ll go mine. I believe that as a family we ought to be able to disagree – even viscerally – and still come together to the Lord’s table where we are all deepened in our union with Christ.

    But on the other hand, we don’t deal just with issues or hot topics. We always and only have to deal with relationships: relationship to God, to each other to our world and even to ourselves. So we don’t just have an intellectual issue to debate about human sexuality but we have gay and lesbian brothers and sisters who some folks (like me) would insist are being oppressed when denied their right to marry who they love. And other folks on the “right” side of things would say I would lead them into moral corruption with the permission I might consider giving as a pastor for a monogamous partnership. And so it is with every hot topic or issue of state or church, it is people and their relationships with each other, God and themselves that are affected: Immigration, Women in the pulpit, foreign policy, abortion, reproductive health and self care, environmental care and on and on.

    So I wrestle. I do agree that our common bond to Christ calls us to unity. But… it is about people. And this person is sick of being told he is not really, truly bonded to Christ because of what he might believe on any one of the above mentioned issues. And I am sick of people saying peace, peace when there is no peace! Help!?

    • Wayne. Precisely. It is precisely because we are dealing with people that I wrestle so much. If there were a way to intellectualize this, it’d be a lot easier. But this is deeply, deeply personal for me. It’s very real and not at all conceptual. And right now, I can’t get my head and my heart to agree with each other. I’d just like to land SOMEWHERE. I’m not usually this indecisive. But what I’d like to see from fellow Christians is us making room for those landings, even if we don’t agree.

    • Thanks for the reply Jill! If you can’t get your head and your heart to align I would suggest paying very close attention to your heart. The day of fulfilled covenant that Jeremiah prophesied has come: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

      Of course we have to be careful with that. We’ve all heard the classic, “my heart was telling me to leave my partner for another; I was falling out of love” or “my heart tells me to follow my dream of pursuing career goals and my family should understand.” I think the key is to ask is my heart telling something that points me to Jesus’ ministry of liberation, not only from sin but also from bondage, decay, slavery and death?

      In John 6 when Jesus healed on the Sabbath he went on to defend his authority and his oneness with the Father. Then he said what would have been considered blasphemy by any law abiding Jew: “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” The Father! Working on the Sabbath? Quite similarly in Mark 2 when Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees for his disciples picking grain when hungry on the Sabbath, Jesus declared, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” David and his men were breaking the law according to the instructions for priests and consecrated bread and Exodus. Jesus and his disciples were breaking the letter of the law with regard to the Sabbath. Those who do *any* work on that day must be cut off from their people according to Exodus 31.

      I think this is why Jesus could so readily conclude in his interaction with the Pharisees in John 6, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” Jesus working with the Father on the Sabbath and ostensibly placing his ability to dispense life above the Hebrew scriptures.

      I firmly believe that Christians can disagree on almost any serious matter of interpretation and still love each other just as viscerally as we might disagree. What is harder, perhaps impossible is for those who worship Jesus – the living Word of God – and those who worship the Bible to find agreement, and harder still to find fellowship with each other.

  5. Jill,
    You ask, is there a third way to deal with different understandings? The simple answer is, yes! The problem with considering a third option is that some people (like the Pharisees) assume, if you mince words or don’t deal directly with what they consider to be the main issue at that time, then you have watered down or not faced what’s important. This is not the case, as Jesus demonstrated in the story I mentioned.

    We are not required to carry the weight of the world in every interpersonal situation, and Jesus didn’t face some of those major issues at that point because the woman’s welfare was His concern… not the battle of adultery or punishment.

    Perhaps a more easily understood example might be a funeral. When you go to comfort a sorrowing family, you don’t walk in and tell them that their loved one has gone to hell… even if his/her life indicated it quite clearly. That’s not the time or place for fighting that battle, and what you believe about heaven and hell is not important to that situation. But the fact that you didn’t deal with that reality at that time does not mean that heaven and hell are not real or that salvation isn’t by grace alone or that Jesus isn’t the only way.

    If I don’t deal with God’s commandments up front, in every situation, that doesn’t mean He didn’t give them, or that I don’t believe them, or that I don’t believe that Almighty God has a right to decide or enforce as He sees fit, even if I don’t understand or agree with Him. That’s what “Sovereign God” is. My opinion means nothing and His means everything.

    In my community, if I felt I had to defend every detail of The Law every time anything happened, I wouldn’t have time to minister to the people, and I wouldn’t have any credibility at all. I would only be regarded as a trouble-maker, totally disconnected from the realities of daily life.

    Be encouraged that God is bigger than all of us. He doesn’t call every one of us to understand and/or defend His position to every Pharisee who challenges us. Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, we are called only to comfort and encourage and support the needy.
    Lowell

    • Lowell, thank you so much for your replies. They were very helpful, and you’ve given me much to think about. I wrote the post precisely to receive feedback. I need wisdom that exceeds my own. I just returned from divisional meetings in Ventura, hence the radio silence.

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