In his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln noted the hostility and conflict between Christians across the Mason Dixon line. As the American clash over slavery split families, churches, and the entire nation, Lincoln pondered why the lines of hostility were drawn down the middle of the Church. Lincoln said, “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other…The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”
While Lincoln’s address raises many theological questions, I am intrigued by his observations that the struggle for justice—for good and evil—is most profoundly waged within the body of Christ. Theologians have likewise noted that the battles fought within the Church have significant spiritual and cultural consequences. It makes sense when you consider that Christians are to reflect the living God, and that the actions of the Church speak volumes to an unbelieving world. Christians, therefore, carry the greater moral burden.
Because of this, believers have earnestly considered the great moral issues of their day with so much biblical debate that, at times, the conflict seemed to tear the Church apart. In retrospect, however, we can see how the controversy over Scripture and interpretation served to clarify positions in order to understand God’s purposes.
I am thankful that the abolitionists boldly opposed slavery, and they did so from a biblical perspective while embracing both conflict and hardship. Deeply rooted sin does not yield without a struggle. Thankfully, abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison (1805–79) pressed forward, despite years of opposition. Garrison wrote, “I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation…I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD.” As Christian reformers participated in the great debates of their day, their efforts clarified the importance of issues, raising a righteous, though often dissenting voice. That their words created tension or alarm is precisely the point. They were sent by God to wake us up!
It seems to me that God inspires prophets and reformers to make us uncomfortable. Their moral and theological challenges lead to debate where diverging biblical ideas and opinions are rigorously scrutinized within the Christian community. Ultimately, the rightness of a cause emerges and reform is made possible. While the exchange of theological perspectives may become heated, it is by listening to one another that we make good decisions. The Christian community, like a large family, must sort matters out, even though this is sometimes accomplished with intense passion and even hard feelings. In advancing biblical justice, some offense may prove inevitable.
As Christians, we are part of a tradition in which we, as the body of Christ, discern the will of God by listening to one another, even to those with whom we disagree. We need not fear differences, nor pursue peace at any price, since Church history teaches that the dissenting voices are often sent by God. Consider the important creeds and councils that arose from intense conflict and debate. The rigorous biblical dialectic that shaped the creeds and councils sharpened logic and clarified God’s Word such that the documents that arose from such meetings continue to serve the Church today.
Just as in the past, prophets are working in nearly every corner of the world today, prompting us to consider important issues. Tirelessly, and at great personal expense, they challenge theological imprecision, biblical inconsistency, and injustice. Their words of biblical challenge may be viewed as a form of moral dissent, which is God-inspired and therefore necessary to lead the Church to greater health and unity. One would have hoped for more dissent by Christians in Nazi Germany, or in white South Africa, for example. While we are committed to reconciliation—to remaining in fellowship with one another—we cannot attain clarity or even authentic unity by shutting down the discussion.
We all know pastors who oppose requests to study what the Scriptures say concerning gender. They are afraid of splitting the Church, of losing members, of offending people. Many want peace at any price, but I believe this weakens rather than strengthens the Church. C.S. Lewis observed that apart from courage, no other virtue exists. It requires courage to listen to a voice you may not wish to hear. It requires courage to carefully and respectfully listen to an opponent, and ask, as David did, whether God is speaking through them. We must listen, and we must also ask that others listen to us.
My neighbor oversees a branch of the Lutheran Church in Ethiopia. He was the first to ordain women in his country. His actions were courageous, and were met with acrimony and hostility. He anticipated this response, and when I asked him why he pressed forward, he said that the women he ordained were dedicated Christians and skillful preachers. They were gifted and called by God to spread the gospel and serve the Church. Failing to advance their ministries was to oppose the very work of God.
Let us encourage our brothers and sisters in Christ to remain in biblical dialogue with those with whom we disagree, even when there is tension, acknowledging that we, as limited human beings, discern God’s leading in this way. Allowing people to exchange ideas and learn from one another is very healthy and God-given. The challenge is to travel together, through the conflict, arriving at the other end renewed and sharper in mind and spirit. Iron sharpens iron, and we want to be sharp instruments in the hand of God.