Can Churches Disagree Without Breaking Up?

Image courtesy of Zondervan
Image courtesy of Zondervan

Growing up in the American Bible Belt means I have witnessed more than my share of “church splits.” Sometimes these schisms occur over doctrinal differences, but often they arise from interpersonal issues such as disagreements over carpet color, placement of piano benches, and the spelling of “hallelujah.” Some studies indicate there are as many as 19,000 “major, scarring church conflicts” in the U.S. annually.

But theologian Scot McKnight says that the Bible envisions churches of diversity, difference, and disagreement. In “A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together,” he argues that church shouldn’t be a two-hour Sunday experience where you see friends and hear a sermon with people like you. Rather it should be a mix of people living together who are dissimilar ethnically, socioeconomically and, to some degree, doctrinally. Here we discuss these ideas and where he would draw lines, if at all.

RNS: You say that the Apostle Paul envisioned a church with people who differ. In which ways should churches seek diversity?

SM: Paul mapped his universe with a series of binaries in Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11. They were Jew-Gentile, slave-free, male-female, barbarian-Scythian. Race and religion and status and economics and gender and, while it is not clear, it appears the last one has to do with social status.

Paul provides a template here for our thinking: in Christ all things have been transcended to form a unity that establishes a new kind of community. Not by way of eradicating diversity but by embracing diversity in a deeper unity. One need not fear Jews losing Jewishness or females their gender; but those identities are transcended with a deeper unity in Christian fellowship that magnifies difference as it simultaneously embraces unity.

RNS: Some say that people are naturally drawn to those within their own ethnicity. Is a truly multi-ethnic church even possible?

I like your wording: “even possible.” You nailed it. You know the hill is steep and the path more than challenging. There’s not pretending here; we have seen that idyllic or even idle speculations won’t make it happen. So yes, it’s possible but nearly impossible. Hence, my book begins with Grace and then moves to Love, for only by God’s gracious power of transformation and God’s love awakening in us a love for others can we begin to form the kind of community that we are destined for in the kingdom of God. Someday the church will all be one; it’s time for us to begin living out that unity.

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SOURCE: Religion News Service
Jonathan Merritt

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