Earlier this week I attended a debate on “Religious Speech in the Public Realm” in which my Southern Baptist pastor debated with my pacifist professor. The discussion was interesting to say the least. It really is amazing how two men who both love Christ can differ so greatly on things.
In this particular instance, they disagreed on the extent to which a Christian should be involved in the government, one man allowing more leeway than the other. Although I certainly tend toward one position more than another, that is not what I want to talk about here. I think there is a more pressing issue at hand, and that is how Christians on opposing sides have treated one another since the debate.
Following the debate, Christians who sided with one position or another have been at each other’s throats. I have heard all kinds of hateful name calling, even to the point of questioning each other’s salvation! What is going on here?? Can this really be right? Scripture tells us that the world will know us by our love (John 13:35), so why are we finding it so difficult to love one another on an issue that isn’t even central to the Christian faith? Why are the emotions running so high?
Well, I think there are two issues going on here that have resulted in the explosive nature of the conflict. The first is that we have forgotten we are all members of a larger body, the Body of Christ. Somehow we have fallen into thinking that every Christian needs to be an arm, just like me, or an eye, just like me, and if they are not, then they must not be a part of the Body at all. What results is groups of Christians who think they have a monopoly on the right reading of Scripture and that they are the only “true” Christians.
They may not say it outright, but they act like it, and I can tell you this happens in liberal and conservative Christian camps alike. Within these groups there is no room for listening to those who are different than us, especially those who disagree with us.
Thus the teaching of James 1:19 to “be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to be angry” is treated more like a mild suggestion than a command. And what results from this kind of thinking is division. We are more concerned with being right than glorifying God, so Christ’s name and reputation suffer.
No wonder Paul spent so much of 1 Corinthians warning us against this very thing–we fall into this sin so easily. But if we can instead stop and listen to our Christians brothers and sisters, and treat them as the members of Christ Body, made in God’s image, that they truly are, then we at least stand a better chance of loving them in a way that honors God. We may still disagree with them, but at least we have not responded out of anger, or even worse, belittled the extent to which God is at work in them.
After all, that’s the real problem here–when you insult a brother and sister (not what they believe, but them personally), then you are insulting Christ.
But the second reason I think this situation has become so volatile is that I think many of the Christians involved are guilty of a form of hero worship. My professor is known around the world and is heralded as being one of the greatest ethicists of our time. He is passionate about Christ and the cross, and his message for the Church has even been called prophetic. As a result, he essentially has “disciples” who can parrot his every thought.
In the same way, my pastor is a charismatic, engaging, passionate man who is one of the most convincing preachers of the Gospel I’ve ever heard. You can’t help but be drawn to him, and you can’t help but respect his intellect. All the members of my church love him and would follow him almost anywhere.
In both cases, these men have come to symbolize for many of their “followers” the one true embodiment of the Gospel. If these men say it, then it must be true. What results from this mentality is that these men end up supplanting the Gospel, though not by any fault of their own. What they say becomes Gospel, instead of the Gospel itself. And as a result of idolizing these men in such a way, their “followers” are left with only one response if anyone challenges them: They must reject the opposition as being thoroughly unscriptural. If someone attacks “your representative of the Gospel,” then they cannot possibly be right, or even worth listening to. And they certainly can’t be reflecting Christ.
In case you think you don’t fall into this category, check your reaction the next time someone disagrees with a person you look up to. Measure the amount of time and thought you give to defending your idol or justifying them, versus the amount of time you give to listening to the other person.
And I mean *really* listening. If you find yourself struggling to do this, then most likely you have made a false idol of that person. You probably care more about what they think than exploring what Scripture actually says. This is indeed a dangerous place to be given that no human being is ever right all the time.
So while it is certainly good to have men and women that we look up to and who encourage us in our faiths, we must still be open to the possibility that they can be wrong, and the two best ways to be open to that possibility are by constantly holding them up to the standard of Scripture and making sure they are consistent, and by listening to those who disagree with them. If God wanted us to all look the same then He wouldn’t have made us different, so it’s time we actually take advantage of the fact that He made us a diverse Body, rather trying to act as if He didn’t.