Scripture, unity, and uncomfortable conversations

two women facing away from eachother

In an interview on the Raising the Conversation podcast, Oliver O’Donovan describes the nature of thinking deeply and of conveying one’s thoughts noting,

“You have intuitions and intuition is a very good starting point … but then you have to put it to the test of constant scripture reading … and correct and enrich and enlarge that initial intuition.”

Part of that correction, enrichment, and enlargement surely comes as we interact with scripture. It also comes in our interactions with one another rather than in our reactions to one another. I firmly believe that for the church to be and make disciples, its members must learn to listen, to think theologically about what they hear, to avoid dismissiveness, and to develop an orientation to one another that “gestures toward joining, toward the desire to hear, to know, and to embrace” (Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination).

For the church to be and make disciples, its members must learn to listen.

Over the last few weeks we have been offering Pastor Erwin Lutzer’s book We Will Not Be Silenced for a donation of any size. Some of our audience have expressed frustration that we would promote this book, with concerns that it misrepresents the situations facing our nation, or that in promoting the book we are contributing to the tension and divisiveness associated with issues like race and politics.

As these comments came in, I was reviewing a set of articles on race that we will be making available in the coming months. They represent quite different experiences and understandings about the challenge of race within American life. I would anticipate some of our audience reading them and feeling (as I did) uncomfortable at some points and at others appreciative of the varying viewpoints God has brought together within the body of Christ. I would further anticipate that all those who read these articles would be thoughtful and willing to sort through their emotions as they weigh the perspectives offered with the scriptures.

So, where does this leave us? Should we only represent a single perspective as if it is (a) complete and immune to critique or (b) somehow so biblically aligned that to question it is to fall into heresy? I hope not. I hope that you all will recognize that we will not recommend works that promote blatant falsehoods that are antithetical to the gospel. That said, it is likely that we will recommend and publish works with which some of you do not agree.

The best litmus test for Christians lies in our willingness to submit ourselves to God’s leading even when God leads us in ways that are inconvenient and uncomfortable.

At the same time, I recognize that trust is fragile. I’ve been in my fair share of organizational settings in which well-meaning actions and leadership decisions have fractured trust not because they were “bad” or “wrong” but because they were not the preferred decision. Trust is as much given as it is earned. It is a reciprocal event in which we decide to look beyond one single action and to allow an individual or organization to prove out their character through time.

In the end, perhaps the best litmus test for Christians lies in our willingness to submit ourselves to God’s leading even when God leads us in ways that are inconvenient and uncomfortable. Surely, we should be uncomfortable with falsehood and ready to reject or correct wrong ideas so they are more in line with the scriptures. However, my concern is that if we are too deeply committed to our own opinions and agendas (even those that seem to arise from scripture), that puts us at a greater risk of assuming that the scriptures will authorize our perspectives, as opposed to expecting the scriptures to transform us through the renewing of our minds. As Bonhoeffer noted at the ecumenical conference at Gland:

“Has it not become terrifyingly clear again and again, in everything that we have said here to one another, that we are no longer obedient to the Bible? We are more fond of our own thoughts than of the thoughts of the Bible. We no longer read the Bible seriously, we no longer read it against ourselves, but for ourselves.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords

The error that Bonhoeffer is pointing out has no simple solution. By that, I mean we cannot read “against ourselves” simply by eliminating certain ideas from our conversations. We cannot assume that by only reading scripture we will so embrace God’s instruction that our continued tendency to live according to our own wisdom will not hold sway in certain instances. To read the Bible “against ourselves” requires that we cultivate an utter delight in God’s instruction (Psalm 1:2), a surrendering of ourselves and our ambitions when faced with Christ (John 3:30), a willingness to walk by faith not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:6-7), and a common commitment to deliberate together under the authority of God’s word as we face the challenges of a broken world together (Acts 15:1-29).

My hope is that we are willing to help one another even if it means engaging in conversations that are less than comfortable.

My hope is that those of you who read the work that comes from the D. L. Moody Center recognize the necessity of submitting any and all ideas to the full counsel of God found in the Old and New Testaments, which stand as the final authority for our life and faith. My hope is that we will care for one another enough that we are willing to help one another even if it means engaging in conversations that are less than comfortable. To do so is, in my opinion, an act of humility whereby we recognize our need for the fellow members of Christ’s body and their need for us (Romans 1:11-12).

In times of division and disagreement, we need the wisdom to speak with bold charity, to listen with a discerning heart open to correction yet standing firm in God’s word, and to resist the temptation to retreat into factions (1 Corinthians 1:12) that diminish the testimony of God’s unified people. So, let us not silence one another but spur one another on to good works as we allow God’s word to do its work of teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness (Hebrews 10:24; 2 Timothy 3:16).

A prayer for unity

May we be a patient people willing to bear one another’s incompleteness, ignorance, and sin as we seek to display your manifold wisdom to the powers and rulers of this world. May we make room to discuss and discern setting aside fear, anxiety, and agenda that we may sit beneath the authority of your word together. Allow us to respond and interact with one another without defensiveness or malice, but with a tenacity that lives into the unity we have with one another in Christ. Lord, please show us what it means to love in truth and deed. Amen.

JAMES SPENCER, PHD is JAMES SPENCER, PHD is President the D.L. Moody Center, an independent non-profit organization based in Northfield, MA, and author of Useful to God: Eight Lessons from the Life of D. L. Moody and Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind

Photo credit: Liza Summer