Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Unity in What?

This past Sunday at church we wrapped up a class I'd been teaching on a fairly controverted topic. (It was on gender roles acc. to Scripture). I was very thankful for the opportunity to broach and discuss this subject in our church. More than that, even, I was glad to be with church people who were willing to discuss rather than avoid controversy. That takes a special kind of unity. Sometimes it is in the throes of debate that unity is seen most powerfully.

One of the main things you hear when church's consider the possibility of talking about this issue is that there is a fear of division over it. This is a legitimate concern; you do have to find the right time (although "never" is not a time). But it struck me as we were preparing for and doing this class that one of the surest ways to become divided is to be united by something false. False things eventually cease to ring true. Mirages disappear. Houses of sand collapse.

If we are united in a common fear, we are united by something very weak.

If we are united by conflict avoidance, we have false peace.

If we are united by mere tolerance, we are not united but gathered (which is a start, however!).

If we are united by the target group's favourite way of doing things, we are not united but pandering.

If we are united by convenience, we are just people who happen to be in the same place at the same time.

If we are united by default views that can't be questioned or discussed, we are simply falling in line, and could even be lying to each other.

Unity is a slippery thing, when you look at it. And if unity is thin it does not hold up to stress.

For this class I prayed that we would have a unity that would be strong enough to handle discussion and diversity. The discussion was driven toward a hoped-for agreement, but there had to be unity experience this side of that agreement or it really was only a hoped-for unity. What would be the thing that would hold us together and one day get us there?

It occurred to me that we could be united in Christ, even if we were united in nothing else.

We could be united by a force and not by a doctrinal statement; by a common reason to talk and not by a common decision.

I began praying every week that our discussion, even our debate and disagreement, would be an expression of our unity in Christ rather than a threat to it.

If we were to express Christ than we would make it our goal from the outset to speak truth in love. It is too easy to just speak truth, or to just speak love, or to think you have truth and never risk speaking of it, or to say you love but never speak of anything consequential.

If we believe in truth, we should believe it is true enough to withstand scrutiny. If we believe in our common humanity we should believe it valuable to listen to one another.

Furthermore, if we believe in Christ, then we believe not just in common humanity but in a common Human who reconciles humanity. And if we believe that, then what do we have to fear from confrontation? The Reconciler works well with confrontation!

In fact, avoidance of confrontation can very easily become avoidance of the Reconciler.

I'm not calling for confrontation at all costs. Love looks for the right time. Love thinks before speaking. Love does not assume. Love trusts and listens and speaks well.

But if I can argue with a person and then take communion with him or her, I think it says something very powerful about unity, about Christ, about faith, and about our church.

Should we seek resolution of said argument? Of course. But our unity is in Christ and not solely in our mutual assent to this or that.

It is time we stopped looking at our conflicts and disagreements simply as threats to our unity. What we need is to see the process of discussion, and dialogue, and debate as an inevitable part of being people who might not otherwise be in the same room except that Christ has brought them together and is doing something in their midst.

It is time to see our confrontations and our discussions as an expression of our unity in Christ, rather than as evidence against it (which is a pretty surface-view of things).

It is time to let the gracious reconciliation that we have in Christ be what unites us, rather than some sort of human powers of persuasion or gospel of mere tolerance.

Beware of false unity: Unity in demographic; unity in conflict avoidance; unity in worship style; or even unity in dogma (although certain things will always be central magnetic fields that bring you together). Let our unity be in Christ, and when disagreements and diversity come let us make them a reminder of the power of that unity.

Let us express our unity by speaking truth in love rather than short-circuit the latter to get a false version of the former.


Tony Tanti said...

It's a fine line to walk and you've articulated well why neither extreme (fake unity vs. division) should be acceptable.

Colin Toffelmire said...

Actually I'm not sure I agree with you tanti. You're assuming that fake unity and division are polar extremes and that real unity is a kind of middle ground. If that were the case then perhaps the line would be difficult to walk.

Instead I'd say that fake unity as Jon's outlined it and division as Jon's outlined it are two slightly different products of the same fundamental problem. Both are a kind of totalizing discourse, a way of reducing all differing voices to nothing. Fake unity accomplishes this through passive-aggressive avoidance and rhetoric, and division accomplishes this through manipulation and emotional violence.

Jon's suggestion that we must speak the truth in love amounts, as I understand him, to entering into honest and open conversation. In this model we approach each other in the same way that Christ approached humanity, by coming alongside, listening, loving, and above all allowing others to choose to agree or to disagree. In other words, unity is inherently incarnational.

It isn't a matter of walking the constantly dwindling centre line between false unity and division. Instead you're walking on another road entirely.

Tony Tanti said...

If it's another road entirely then I would suggest almost nobody is walking on it.

It's all well and good to say fake unity and division are not opposites to be balanced and to get people thinking outside of those two concepts but my experience is that in reality fake unity and division are the most common methods used to either make or avoid conflict.

Most people either don't bother bringing up opposition to something they disagree with, to avoid conflict, or they force their opinions on others in such a way that it either causes division or the aggressive person leaves. This is true everywhere, not just the church.

There are likely exceptions but I dream of a day that churches find a balance where people feel the freedom to expressive divergent views without fear of division or scorn and where leadership is given on controversial issues in a strong but humble way.

Colin Toffelmire said...

I completely agree that not many are walking on the other road. I also agree that churches in general spend far too much time pushing people into the same mold (whatever mold that might be). I also dream of a local church like the one you describe. I'm really starting to think that more people in our generation are thinking in the terms that you describe. I'm hopeful at least. That's one of my favorite things about interactive experiences like blogs. In many ways a discussion like this embodies what Jon is talking about. A search not to be the victor but to find common ground and a common language.