To say the obvious: We live in a time of upheaval and confusion.
In response, many people want the church to insulate them from ambiguity and shelter them from anxiety; they want it to be a place where hard questions don’t intrude and disagreements don’t disturb.
They want confirmation of what they already think and feel about life, God and the world. They’re looking for comfort far more than for challenge.
I understand that desire, and I also think it wreaks havoc in the church. It pushes some people to insist on uniformity of perspective and conformity to a party-line of beliefs.
That pushing can be adamant and even angry, riding roughshod over another’s sacred conscience and God-given freedom.
It also prevents the personal growth and mutual understanding that come when we listen respectfully and with curiosity to other people’s sincerely held ideas and feelings.
For well over a generation, churches have fought one misguided ideological battle after another and have divided themselves into warring camps, usually labeled “conservative” and “liberal.”
What we’ve sometimes failed to see is that both sides share a flawed assumption in common: Each believes that what matters most are our positions on controversial issues and our opinions about disputed ideas, rather than the common bonds of our humanity and our shared needs for grace and mercy.
We think “left” and “right” are the positions that matter most, when what really matters are the postures of kneeling to serve and opening arms to welcome.
We think that Democrats would, if unhindered by Republicans, create a society modeled on the Sermon on the Mount or that Republicans, if unopposed by Democrats, would order culture on the Ten Commandments.
We fail to remember that the arenas of politics and government, like all things human, are fallen and flawed; that any exercise of power – including our own exercise of it – is susceptible to taint by pride, greed and status-seeking; and that public life inevitably involves conflict and compromise.
There are no perfect political parties or platforms and no flawless forms of community life, just as there are no perfect people.
We forget that our knowledge is finite and our understanding is limited.
We think that judging people actually helps and changes them, when the only truly transformational qualities are compassion, acceptance and love.
We isolate ourselves from people whose views differ from ours; and, once isolated from them, they become adversaries and “others,” whom we caricature and demean.
We fail to hear their hopes and fears that, beneath the surface of our conflicts, are not greatly at odds with our own.
We could, instead, meet on the common ground of our vulnerability and of our need for good news.
The good news is that God loves everyone as fully, joyfully and unconditionally as Jesus said and showed. We are God’s beloved children in whom God takes great delight.
God has mercy on our brokenness and frees us from our bondage to shame, guilt and fear. God is working to restore everyone and all things to their original radiance.
In response to that good news, we treat everyone as God’s children, as our brothers and sisters who are worthy of irreducible respect and who long to love and be loved.
We attempt to see and help others to see the beauty and value of their lives. We commit ourselves to everyone’s flourishing and to creation’s healing.
We’ll disagree with each other, sometimes passionately. We’ll come to different conclusions about solutions to important problems.
We’ll be puzzled and vexed by some ideas. We will get angry and frustrated with each other, just as we do with members of our own families.
Because of the good news, however, we will, again and again, seek and share forgiveness. We will, as God does, seek reconciliation.
Two phrases from William Sloane Coffin say better (and more briefly!) what I am trying to say:
“The world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.”
“It’s always a good time to change your mind when to do so will widen your heart.”
Guy Sayles is a consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches, an assistant professor of religion at Mars Hill University, an adjunct professor at Gardner-Webb Divinity School and a board member of the Baptist Center for Ethics. A version of this article first appeared on his website, From the Intersection, and is used with permission.