What am I tired of hearing about?
When I responded to this blog question with a geyser-like surge of angst, I knew I had a problem.
Maybe for you, it’s politics or the pandemic. In that moment, I was incensed over a few topics that had been splashed online for months — even years — with such relentlessness, intensity, untruth, or unsolvable ambiguity that I never wanted to encounter them again.
Are you like me? Patient, soft, and kind — until, yikes! — I’m outspoken, opinionated, and witheringly matter-of-fact. Delighted to welcome and encourage folks — until (to my shame) I just “can’t even” with a fellow child of God.
We’re all suffering under the same world events, but the pain is not uniting us. Because if I’m not getting salty, then it’s someone I love, or someone I can’t avoid. Whether nations, political parties, workplaces, churches, or families and friends, we seem increasingly alienated, not only from our actual opponents, but even from those we long counted close.
I’m no stranger to division. I’ve been rocked by church split. I’ve watched family and dear friends walk away from Christ — or away from me. I lie awake sometimes in fear of losing another relationship. Yet I’ve seen how that very fear can feed alienation.
In fear, we clutch, coerce, or preemptively distance ourselves from one another. In fear, we place far too much faith in our own persuasive words, far too little in the slow, nearly imperceptible, awesome, earth-shaking, heart-melting work of the Holy Spirit.
Recently, a friend mentioned how American Christians argue about politics, current events and worship styles, yet “the family of God worldwide is so, so big and diverse.” She asked, “How do your experiences internationally affect how you view division in the American church?”
I’ve spent nearly a decade outside the United States, but it was during my years as an expat in Israel that I saw a startling unity in the body of Christ. Living as a minority, melded in a crucible of homesickness, danger and culture shock, and knowing we needed one another, we were quick to recognize our family bond as believers and quick to move into fruitful conversation. Here are a few ways it can happen.
Lead with story
“Class is canceled,” I told my Taiwanese friend. “But you can sit down for tea.” Delighted when she agreed, I asked the question everyone asks while sitting ‘round a table in Jerusalem: “How did God bring you here?” Perched on a kitchen chair, Lei described a long route to a surprising destination: ministry to construction workers from China. Soon two more classmates arrived and accepted my invitation to stay. The first, an African believer, chimed in with a testimony about three men who preached the gospel in Nigeria; the second, an Arab pastor, noted that millions of African Muslims were coming to faith in Jesus.
Too often, American Christians bond over doctrines, personal convictions, online movements, or whatever else distinguishes us from the rest of the body of Christ. Take my classmate, Brian: When introducing himself to a new acquaintance, he’d launch into an interrogation about their particular theology. Yes, it’s eventually important to know what other Christians believe, especially when seeking a congregation, mentor, ministry partner or spouse. But if I never lead with swapping stories, I may stifle the conversation, and I’ll miss hearing what God’s up to in the world. I may also miss out on the gift of a new friend — one with fresh perspectives I need to hear.
Meet at a table
Back when I crossed a border most every week, making a bus-train-bus-bus-taxi trip to teach, I had a driver whose extremist education left him sure “the other side” wanted to eat him for breakfast. I’m not sure how he braved the border and pulled up a chair like he was family, but after sharing one meal, he knew he’d been lied to: These “enemies” were friends.
Meeting at a table has been a means of fellowship for millennia. A meal creates a brief and manageable oasis of space and time for even the most difficult meetings. It greatly enriches communication and emphasizes our shared humanity, making it possible to move from curiosity to empathy — perhaps to love.
Didn’t their mothers teach them anything? I thought, as I watched Israelis cut in line at the grocery store.
While living in a very international city, I learned that culture is like the hidden part of an iceberg: There are assumptions you don’t even know you have until you meet someone whose assumptions are different — and you sort it out. Culture shock taught me that each person has assumptions and motivations that I know nothing about — and that others may actually share my values, but just express or prioritize them differently. I may not know until I ask.
It’s possible to experience culture shock between different ideologies within the church. The more strongly you’re convinced about an issue, the more it seems your “opponents” must be strange or stupid (or evil). Remembering that there’s a hidden part of their iceberg helps us approach “the other side” with more curiosity and less accusation, asking, “Can you tell me the story behind your convictions?” or “What does this issue mean to you?”
Did you know that the New Testament church argued too? In an increasingly polarized world, I’m comforted to know that God foresaw we’d have a wide variety of convictions — and He left us instructions on how to respond.
Let’s clarify: First-level truths, those directly related to the gospel and the Bible’s authority, are essential for every Christian. Second-level practices may divide us into different congregations and doctrinal camps, but not from the worldwide body of Christ. But on third-level issues like holidays, meats and circumcision, early Christians came to their own conclusions.
Based on these New Testament accounts, I believe God calls me to do what He wants me to do, while giving others freedom in areas the Bible has left open. With undecided friends, I shouldn’t quarrel over opinions, meaning self-based, confusing hamster wheels of reasoning that park us in our original prejudice. Rather, I should welcome them like Jesus welcomes me (Romans 14:1; HELPS).
Find out where you are
Got controversy? The Bible’s full of intensely practical advice, some of which I’ve distilled into the questions below (a convicting process!).For scriptural support and guidance, see Psalm 1:1; 55:12-14, 22; Proverbs 18:2, 13, 17; Matthew 5:24; Romans 14:1-15:7; Galatians 6:12-17; 1 Corinthians 1:12-13; 8-10; 2 Corinthians 5:11-21.
If you’re game to prayerfully consider these questions, I suggest choosing a third-level topic you care about, and keep it in mind as you read:
- Does my knowledge on this topic puff me up or build others up?
- If others lack this knowledge, do I look down on them, or look out for them?
- Am I satisfied to take one source’s word for it? To express my opinion without listening? Or do I truly want to understand?
- Am I or my sources characterized by contempt?
- In coming to my position on this topic, was I motivated by making myself look good, avoiding persecution, pleasing myself, changing my standing with God — or honoring Him?
- Am I fully convinced on this topic, having held it before God?
- If others arrive at different convictions, do I make it evident that they don’t answer to my conscience, but to Him?
- If others lack conviction in this area, do I use my spiritual freedom in a way that emboldens them to ignore their consciences, leaving them in spiritual distress? Do I despise, judge, and argue with them — or do I welcome them?
- If others attacked me, have I prayed for them? Do I vent my pain to God?
- Do I relate to Christians as new creations?
- Is it evident that my primary identity is Jesus, not a specific group?
- Could my behavior block unbelievers from getting saved, or am I an ambassador of Christ, characterized by righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, and controlled by God’s love?
This week, my church held a three-day prayer conference with two main goals: God’s guidance for the future, and reconciliation between older and younger generations. With almost nonstop praying and listening to one another, it was physically, spiritually and emotionally intense. It was also heart-tenderizing and hope-giving.
I experienced the power of physical presence. I had feared that some of my colleagues weren’t for me. But as we labored together in one room, it felt like I was digging in a deep ditch, getting sweaty, dusty, and weary; then glancing to my right and left, I saw those colleagues digging alongside me.
I learned that I could listen patiently to the messy pleas of others — even when they triggered my griefs and fears — because I knew a time would come when I could lament, both to Jesus and (as needed) to my friends. And having listened, I began to see that I’ve been too quick to judge others as bossy, bad, immature or unwilling to pay the price; I’ve too often viewed going separate ways as a solution to strife.
I’m still learning to look at Christians who rub me the wrong way and think, God says every joint in the body supplies. In some way, this person is an asset to me (Ephesians 4:16 NASB). When it comes to love, I’m not just out of gas; I’m engineless, unable to move an inch towards those who are fashioned, redeemed, and treasured by God. But since He helped me start praying from where I really am, God has been moving me. From distaste to openness and repentance, on towards His divinely-fueled, much-vaster-than-human love.
Fidelity to truth is essential in the body of Christ — yet at the same time we acknowledge the beautifully diverse ways His glory shows up in our midst. Seeing His fingerprints on other believers builds our hope. It shrinks the slow alienation brought on by fear. It moves us on, and into faith.
When Jesus met the woman at the well, she blurted out the burning controversy of her day: Do we worship in Samaria or Jerusalem? Jesus looked below the surface and saw her heart, saying what she most truly longed to know: Messiah’s here! He welcomes you (John 4:1-26).
And friends, take heart. Before too long (we’re almost home!), we’ll all sit down at the table together with Him.
Copyright 2021 Elisabeth Adams. All rights reserved.