Some thoughts on dealing with differences while striving for unity:
What an odd thing it is to be a Christian. We come to Christ in our uniqueness and our differences with others, yet somehow God does a job in us as he seeks to make us all one in Christ. Such unity does not come at the expense of our individuality. Cookie-cutter Christians are not being called for.
I have written often before on these matters. One thing I have stressed is that Christian unity never is to come at the expense of biblical truth. While our oneness in Christ is vitally important (see John 17 for example), so too is divine truth. See here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2009/03/16/on-truth-and-unity-part-one/
But let me speak a bit more to these matters. Consider the disciples of Jesus for example. What a motley crew. You had, among others, Matthew, a much-hated tax collector, and then you had Simon, a zealot, who normally would be in the business of killing tax-collectors. Yet Jesus brought them all together and made them his 12 followers – even including Judas.
Christians today are also incredibly different from one another, yet somehow we are to aim for oneness in Christ. Let me offer just one example of this. And as is often the case, the origin of these remarks comes from rather odd circumstances.
Last night I was listening to the blues for a while. Yes, I like the blues. And that got me thinking about another Christian who was very different from me, but he also liked the blues. I refer to the late great John Smith of the Australian Christian motorcycle gang, the God Squad. Although John died two years ago, far more people both here and overseas would likely know about him than me – and rightly so.
He did a lot of good for Christ and the Kingdom in so many ways. I knew him and had various interactions with him, and yet the two of us had some major differences. As he has admitted, he used to be a real hardcore conservative when he was young, who loved America and even loved President Nixon (if I recall correctly).
But that did not last long, and he moved to the political left. My journey had been the opposite. In my youth I was a wild hippy and leftist, hating capitalism and loving socialism. But when I became a Christian it became clear to me that conservativism was basically more compatible with biblical truth than was leftism. See more on that here: http://billmuehlenberg.com/2010/08/24/what-is-conservatism/
So John went in the direction of where I had been. So on political and economic issues we tended to differ big time. Of course, it needs to be pointed out that when we talk about care for the poor and needy, it is NOT a case of the left being into this and the right not.
Both sides care for the poor and needy, but differ greatly as to the best means by which we can actually help the poor – not just in theory but in practice. Anyway, let me offer a few snippets of my relationship with John. Because I married an Australian, I had known about him for a while.
When we lived in Amsterdam, we had him and another couple to our home for dinner one night. It might have been during the Billy Graham Itinerant Evangelists conference in 1982. My wife and I were stewards for that event, and John may have spoken at it.
Even though Smithy and I had our political differences then, I still was happy to have him over. And we had a few things in common anyway – we both quite liked the blues for example, and they were playing as we had our dinner. See here for more on this: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2018/09/09/will-there-be-blues-in-heaven/
When I moved to Australia I was involved in pro-family activism – still am, actually. As another indication of some common ground that we had, in 1994 I put together a family conference at Melbourne Uni for the International Year of the Family when I was the National Secretary of the Australian Family Association. I invited Allan Carlson of the US to be our main speaker – someone most Australians were not aware of at the time. He ended up returning often to Australia as a result.
I also asked John to be one of our speakers. Although he showed up at the last minute – he had me worried there for a while! – he gave a great talk. I knew that he worked with down and outers, street people, druggies, etc., and I knew that he knew that most of these folks came from broken families. So he had a heart to promote intact married families – as did I. I reprinted his talk in the AFA Journal, and I just dug it out (Nov. 1994). Here is a small quote from it:
In our city the kids we’ve worked with on the street are almost 100% from single parent families or blended families. The blended families, in our experience, are the worst. Tragically, in many of those broken families, the new sex partner has no interest in the kids or has in fact the wrong type of interest in the kids. Now I haven’t figures in front of me to prove the point but I could get them if anyone needed them, because there are many studies, particularly in the United states that indicate that there is a very clear correlation between gangs and violence and kids from blended families and single parent families.
I believe we need to have a family that has both mum and dad because I tell you ladies, I don’t care how good you are – my mate’s right, no woman can “role model” a young man. It’s as simple as that. No mother can “role model” a young man. And what makes me angry is those who often would speak on behalf of the single parent. Those who set themselves up as the champion of the mother, inadvertently, set up a task for single parent mothers that breaks their health and their minds. Because if you are going to try and tell women they can do it without men, then they have to perform at a level they simply can’t.
Wow, powerful stuff! Needless to say, his talk created quite a stir at our conference. The rest of us were fuddy-duddies in suits, but here was John, fresh off the streets in his motorcycle gear. He was not interested in being polite, but in telling it like it is. See here for more of him and others making the case for the nuclear family – https://billmuehlenberg.com/2010/02/16/the-dangers-of-fatherlessness/
On this matter at least he was about as conservative and non-PC as you can get. But on other issues we of course differed greatly. When he was at our place for the meal, he mentioned right-wing dictatorships in Latin America. But, I replied, when they are overthrown by leftist outfits, often they are just as bad – usually even worse! He did not reply to that one. Perhaps he did not have an answer, but more likely, he was just being gracious and decided it was not worth arguing about further.
Bless you John. Christians can differ on many things, but in heaven John and I will give each other a big hug. But that raises further questions. While Christians should be one on basic biblical beliefs, they can and do differ on many other matters.
How far should we seek for unity in such cases, or is there a place to allow for some distance, and allow some Christians to simply go their own way? This of course is a big matter in an internet and social media age. There would have been plenty of Christians over the years who have unfriended me because of differences we had.
Then again, I would have unfriended some as well. We need discernment here as to who we should seek to build bridges with, and when we should perhaps burn the bridges. But I speak to that more fully here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2020/09/11/youve-been-chopped/
But I was thinking the other day about some of those Christians that I so very strongly disagree with on so many issues. Assuming both them and I will make it into heaven, how will we react then? We may allow ourselves space and distance now – even with good reason at times – but heaven will be different I suspect, with all our differences likely put behind us.
If so, that will be because of Jesus: when we behold him in all his splendour and majesty, and reflect on his rich grace, mercy and forgiveness for us, how can we not show such qualities to others? But still, it is not easy here on earth. Some fellow believers may have treated us horrifically and we may well want nothing to do with them.
Seeking to forgive others who have wronged us so badly is not easy. But it can be done. The famous case of Corrie ten Boom, a prisoner of the Nazis, of course comes to mind here. As she says in her 1972 book, The Hiding Place:
It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives. It was the truth they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombed-out land, and I gave them my favorite mental picture. Maybe because the sea is never far from a Hollander’s mind, I liked to think that that’s where forgiven sins were thrown. “When we confess our sins,” I said, “God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever.”
The solemn faces stared back at me, not quite daring to believe. There were never questions after a talk in Germany in 1947. People stood up in silence, in silence collected their wraps, in silence left the room. And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones.
It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights, the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor, the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were!
Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbrück concentration camp where we were sent. Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: “A fine message, fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!”
And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course–how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women? But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. It was the first time since my release that I had been face to face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.
“You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard in there.” No, he did not remember me “But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein”–again the hand came out–“will you forgive me?”
And I stood there–I whose sins had every day to be forgiven–and could not. Betsie had died in that place–could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking? It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.
For I had to do it–I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. “If you do not forgive men their trespasses,” Jesus says, “neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.”
I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality. Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.
And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion–I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. “Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”
And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. “I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!” https://www.guideposts.org/better-living/positive-living/guideposts-classics-corrie-ten-boom-on-forgiveness
So it can be done, and in many ways it needs to be done. Yes, we are all different, and some differences may even remain in the next life. But let us try now, as much as possible, to seek to build bridges or mend bridges when and where we can with other believers.