At a not so recent Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren I was sure the delegates had made the wrong decision. And I made as much clear in the last days through several meetings a small action during the closing worship. To be honest, I was a bit proud in taking a stand. I knew what we should have done, and I believed we had gone the wrong way.
In the months after that conference my pride waned a bit. I had to submit my annual paperwork for my license to the ministry and I began thinking about what it meant to disagree with a position of the wider church.
Over a decade later, I found myself writing these words in the middle of our polity regarding congregational ethics. “The prayerful conclusion not to support a denominational position or program should be a matter of anguish, not competitiveness or superiority.”
Unfortunately, I often experience disagreements within the church as a matter of competition for power and an assertion of superiority. And often the lines are drawn between what some might call progressive and conservative cultures.
But I have this weird notion that when the church gathers to ask questions about the faithful response to our times, the wisdom of the whole church informs our approach. So when I disagree with what the wider communion has said, my first task is not so much to chastise but to ask myself what I am missing. What part of Christian discipleship have I overlooked in my prideful positioning?
In the years since that conference I have found myself wondering a lot more. I wonder, when I enter a community of progressives, what part of the gospel they are lifting to my attention. And the same is true when I am with conservatives. In this posture towards others, I find myself assuming above all else that the people I am with are sisters and brothers seeking to follow Jesus above all else. Sometimes that assumption is harder to maintain, but I find myself listening differently when I remind myself of our shared commitment to Jesus.
So, then, what I have learned from our conservative and progressive communities?
From progressives I am often reminded that love and grace are the root of the Good News. In order to witness to the wider world, I must act from a posture of grace.
From conservatives I am reminded that grace is the catalyst for transformation. As I have heard said in many places, we are welcomed into the community with the understanding that we will be changed by the Gospel of love and grace. Come as you are are and leave as you never were.
Progressives have taught me that the church witnesses to the ways of God in the world, and we are to act in ways that build up the Kingdom of God in the here and now.
Conservatives have reminded me that this building of the Kingdom of God is not my own doing but something God is doing in and around me.
Progressives have taught me the world is a fallen place, where war and systems of oppression diminish the Image of God in everyone.
Conservatives have taught me that systems do not change on their own, and that as Christians we are to work on our own inner heart as much as we work for justice in the world. In other words, righteousness and justice are two sides of the same coin, and often the most prophetic thing to do is to tend to our own holiness.
Progressives have often reminded me that there are many roads to faithfulness. Each of us seeks after God in our own ways, and just because one’s path is not my own does not mean that they are wrong and I am right.
Conservatives have taught me that truth is real and not relative. While we may all be on different paths there is still a need to discern if we are indeed heading in the same direction.
Progressives have taught me to value the experiences of others. In listening to the testimony of others I learn to see more fully the ways God is at work around and in us.
Conservatives have reminded me that deception is a real part of our fallen nature, and that in listening to others I must also test the spirit in which a testimony is given. Part of that testing includes speaking from my own vantage point, articulating truth biblically as well as experientially.
Though the Brethren are not a creedal form of Christianity, I think the greatest reminder of balance has come through the Nicene Creed. In the last section the words are both plain and convicting. “We believe… in one holy catholic and apostolic church…” It is that tension between being one and being holy that gets me every time. How is that we can be both one— work from a place of unity— while at the same time hold up the holiness explicit in following Jesus. We are inherently mixed in our holiness, or as the followers of Wesley remind us, we are growing in our holiness. Put another way, holiness makes clear there are boundaries that often make unity a difficult endeavor. In the practice of “seeking the mind of Christ” I think the Brethren have worked out a way to attend to both boundaries and unity, one-ness and holiness. I am just not convinced that our current models of doing so have actually produced the fruit we seek.
We have simply become too proud of our positions and too often confuse discernment with coercion. We assume that our processes are about setting one another straight, and that one must win the argument in order for truth to be proclaimed.
Since that conference long ago I have come back to the words of Thomas Merton. Just because I think I am following the will of God does not actually mean that I am doing so. But I believe that the desire to please God does in fact please God, and I pray that I (we) have that desire in all that I (we) do.
I need my brothers and sisters to help me see when I am following Jesus and when I have strayed. And when I disagree with my community of faith, my first task is not to chastise others and set the record straight but is to ask if I am working from my desire to please God or if I simply desire to be right. More often than not, I am afraid I want to be right.