Maintaining unity while having (significant) differences

We are living in a time of deep and profound political polarization and it has seeped into the church.  Here in our country we are experiencing some of the deepest rifts our nation has ever faced.  These rifts are evident in and, perhaps, exacerbated by social media and this new era of tweets, posts, and memes, none of which allow for legitimate engagement of issues

Many posts and memes cause delight for those who agree and infuriate those who oppose the particular view offered.  The limited space of tweets, posts, and memes also limit nuance and lead to an oversimplification of the issues.  This then leads to bumper sticker replies, further polarization, and a curbing of almost any kind of discussion and serious discourse.

Certainly, polarization is not new nor is the oversimplification of issues a modern phenomenon.  Anyone who has ever studied the history of a controversy will see the same kind of aggressive, often extremely simplistic, argumentation.  Most of the time people go for the rhetorical win, the “gotcha” moment.  Yet, there have also always been some who have wanted to rise above the fray and try to have fair and civil interaction.  Often these were dubbed moderates and frequently moderates were pilloried as compromisers.  But is the moderate position always a compromise?

In the late-seventeenth century and into the early-eighteenth century, there was a circle of moderate Nonconformists in England who believed not only that their moderation was not compromise, they believed it was a biblical requirement.  What was their moderation?  They stood between the Church of England and Dissent, a group that desired to show a Protestant ecumenism, unity within the Reformed faith even while holding fast to some form of separation.  In other words, these moderates believed that we can have unity even while remaining separated on some level and disagreeing on important issues (at the time, the language would have been separation without schism).

What were the principles of this kind of moderation and can we learn from them today?

Here’s the first principle:

Charity in our approach

Charity, or love, in one’s approach to those opposed is critical for us believers.  This charitable interaction might be defined as “a balanced approach and the sober-minded weighing of the various sides of an issue.”  It includes discernment to know which issues are of greater and which of lesser importance.  And, perhaps most importantly, this charitable moderation includes what Matthew Henry describes as “a good disposition towards other men.”[i] 

In other words, it begins with the way we see and value the people with whom we are interacting.  Whether we are dealing with someone inside or outside the Christian faith, how we perceive the person in front of us will determine how we interact with them.  For other believers, we must see them as the Lord sees them—they are our brothers and sisters bought with the precious blood of Jesus.  Even for those who are not Christians, we must see them as the Lord sees them—men and women made in the image of God

Dehumanizing others, especially by identifying them with their position rather than by their Creator and/or Redeemer, changes the way we interact.  Note here that this principle does not reject truth nor the significance of truth.  Instead it gives a broader context of truth within which we must learn to live.

Matthew Henry describing another moderate Nonconformist, James Owen, wrote this:

“Tho’ no man was clearer in his own judgement, better understood the grounds on which he went, nor was better able to give an account of the hope that was in him with meekness and fear, yet he maintain’d an extensive charity for those, from whom he differ’d, and a temper of mind towards them that was truly Christian, and became a follower of the Prince of Peace, and a Servant of the God of love [sic].”[ii]

In other words, it is possible to have strong convictions even on secondary issues and yet remain charitable in how we approach those we disagree with.  For Christians, there must always remain a desire to, “so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all (Romans 12:18).”  This fits well with the way the book of Proverbs urges us to use our words.  Consider Proverbs 15:2, “The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly.”

Henry further pointed out that Owen was always cognizant that the Lord was at hand (again referring to Philippians 4:5).  If we live with an awareness that our Master is near and He is observing, we will give to each conversation the added weight of His presence.  In our younger days we were often asked, would you do such and such if you knew the Lord was watching?  He is watching.  Always.

So we should approach people with charity: (1) seeing them properly as people with value before the Lord, (2) desiring peace, and (3) aware of the presence of the Lord in each conversation (whether in person or online).

In the coming days I hope to highlight more principles of moderation that can help us believers navigate what is fast becoming very treacherous terrain.

i Matthew Henry, Whole Bible Commentary, comments on Philippians 4:5.

ii Matthew Henry, A Sermon Preach’d at the Funeral of the Reverend Mr. James Owen, p. 57.

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