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Agreeable disagreement: unity grows from within; uniformity is forced from without.


A couple of years back, a red squirrel moved into our doghouse. He is a charming, cheeky little fella and I like him very much. Shortly after moving in, he filled our large, insulated doghouse with cones and twigs and built a tunnel system under the entire fenced dog run. I think the tunnel system is filled with cones as well. I am not sure why he did this, because he appears to dine out almost exclusively at our perpetually stocked bird feeders.

Things were going well for Squirrelly until this spring. In early May, a rather large and equally cheeky bluejay decided to share dining facilities with Squirrelly on a permanent basis. At first, all hell broke out. It made for great entertainment. We spent many wonderful hours watching Squirrelly and Jay hurl themselves at each other trying to maintain sole control of two birdfeeders at one time. When they were totally exhausted they would stand almost nose-to-nose, cussing like mad, each in his own language. Once rested, the combatants would go back at it again until they were ready to drop with fatigue. The whole spectacle was delightful to watch, even for the tiny chickadees who filled the bleachers in the massive spruce tree that shelters our two bird feeders. They flitted in for refreshments at intermissions while Squirrelly and Jay were glaring at one another with mutual hate.

And then things changed. Jay and Squirrelly still disagreed about who controlled the bird feeders, but they agreed to disagree. One would feed at one bird feeder while the other would feed at the neighbouring one a mere six feet away. When the mood would hit one of them, they would swap bird feeders and barely miss a feeding beat. Occasionally glares would be exchanged, but for the main part the two had reached a state of agreeable disagreement. And it wasn't much fun to watch anymore.

It has, however, provided me with much food for theological reflection. One of the things that I have found hard to cope with is how disagreement is handled in the strange environment of the church. It seems to me that the norm within the church is that when there is disagreement the parties feel compelled to tear one another apart, either directly or indirectly. The point seems to be to get the other party to conform to "my way of seeing things." It makes for great entertainment for those watching from outside the church but it is hugely tiring, destructive and distracting for those within, most particularly the principal pugilists. And it doesn't seem like church people have the ability to easily or quickly get to the stage of agreeable disagreement and get on with the life and work of Christ's church, which is the whole point of being church together.

It seems to me that much of the problem stems from a lack of appreciation for the difference between unity and uniformity. In Jesus' great prayer for his disciples, he prays three times for unity, "... that they may be one ..." (Jn.17.11,21,23) He did not pray for uniformity. Warren Wiersbe writes: "The unity that our Lord prayed for is not institutional or organizational. It is spiritual: 'that they may be one, just as We are.'" (Jn.17.22) Unity grows from within; uniformity is forced from without. Unity is living, it grows and expands; but uniformity is dead and brittle, and the least jarring thing breaks it.

Unity allows for variety and diversity, but uniformity demands conformity. Unity is based on love and thrives on love, but uniformity is defensive and is based too often on fear.

You see, here is the thing. Christian unity is based upon me loving Christ enough, to love you enough, to let you be different ... to let you have different points of view ... to let you have different ways of seeing things.

I have found it hard to cope with how disagreement is handled in the strange environment of the church

The one and only thing we have to agree upon is Christ, loving Him and loving each other. Everything after that can be agreeable disagreement as we get on with serving the Master. And it strikes me that if a squirrel and a bluejay can do it, surely to God you and I can do it too.

Seemingly this is a hard thing for Presbyterian Christians to accept, particularly the teaching and ruling elders. The court system of our church is based on an adversarial model. The whole point seems to be to focus on what we disagree on and then use the tongue to whip the other person into conformity. But a closer look at our polity reveals it really is a system to get to agreeable disagreement. The point of debate is not to force conformity but to explore all sides of an issue. Once all sides of an issue have been exposed, there is supposed to be a vote that allows the Holy Spirit to have the sway and liberates the members of the meeting to love one another enough to agree to disagree. The failure of our system is when we forget where we are all supposed to end up.

'Tis the most Presbyterian of seasons, the season of the church year known as General Assembly week. "God, help us all to remember where we are all supposed to end up."

Rev. David Webber is a contributing editor to the Record. He is a minister of the Cariboo, B.C., house church ministry.
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Title Annotation:FOR THE JOURNEY
Author:Webber, David
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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