Separating for the Sake of Church Unity

Separating for the Sake of Church Unity April 20, 2021

In chapter 4 of Winsome Conviction: Disagreeing without Dividing the Church, Meuhlhoff and Langer open with this provocative statement:

“there are times when the best way to preserve Christian unity is by parting ways.” (52)

This certainly requires an explanation.

But first, recall why this conversation matters. As noted in my first post of this series, we mustn’t equate personal convictions with absolute commands. If we confuse the two, we will increasingly undermine the church’s gospel witness and our ability to work together for the sake of Christ’s kingdom.

Not All Separations are Equal

The authors make two points abundantly clear. First, “all separations are not created equal” (59). Second, not all separations are necessary. I state these remarks upfront to ensure that no one gets the impression that Meuhlhoff and Langer are flippantly apathetic about church unity.

They spotlight the dispute between Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15:36-41 concerning whether Mark should accompany them on their journey. Since Mark had abandoned them on a previous mission trip, Paul thought it best to leave him behind. Meuhlhoff and Langer aptly say, “One might call this a missional dispute rather than a doctrinal dispute, but it was clearly a dispute” (57). The text does not elaborate further concerning his precise reasoning or why Barnabas disagreed, wanting Mark to remain on their team for the upcoming trip. So, we can deduce little about whether one or the other made the right decision at the moment.

This was no insignificant disagreement. Meuhlhoff and Langer add,

“But notice that this missional dispute did not lead to a division in the body of Christ. It did not lead to people speaking ill of one another. It did not lead to the participants falling out of communication with one another—or at least if so, that communication was quickly restored. Unlike the case of false teachers, the separation was not intended to delineate the faithful who were bringing glory to Christ from the unfaithful who were dishonoring him.

Instead, Paul and Barnabas separated in order to pursue complementary ministries that would each enhance the gospel and glorify Christ. Once the disagreement was put behind them, they spoke well of one another, continued to communicate with one another, and were able to work with one another at a later time when circumstances were different. In light of this, it is clear that all separations are not created equal and that in some cases, it may very well be possible that separating coworkers for the sake of carrying out complementary missions is actually the best way forward.” (58-59)

By contrast, many Christians today grow suspicious of others for countless reasons that have nothing to do with foundational beliefs like the Trinity or how one is saved. Rather, we might disparage people who care for the poor as mere “social justice warriors” who are not sufficiently concerned with “eternal life.” Or we might look down upon those whom we think underemphasize rapid church multiplication as though they were less faithful to God’s call and people’s salvation.

How to Separate Wisely

The authors suggest ideas for wise “fence building.” For example, “make the reasons for the separation explicit” and find smaller ways to cooperate even if some areas are not workable (62-63). Furthermore, stop the habit of looking for ways to criticize or minimize those with whom you disagree. Seek out ways to affirm their work even while disagreeing with them on some issue.

What are unwise practices that undermine unity amid separation? The authors astutely note how we tend to “weaponize” beliefs (65-67). That is, we tie a conviction with a more foundational doctrine or absolute.

I frequently see this among some conservative evangelicals who link “women in the pastorate” with “biblical inerrancy.” Consequently, they will accuse a person who affirms women pastors as someone who doesn’t really affirm biblical inerrancy, infallibility, and authority. Such persons are oblivious to the fact that other people honestly interpret the Bible differently.

We see a similar dynamic when crossing generations and cultures. Scores of churches have divided or shunned congregants for drinking alcohol, getting a tattoo, and various other practices. Even with more serious offenses, confusion can occur that undermines unity for the sake of the gospel. As the authors remark, “Adultery is a moral failure, but it is not in and of itself a transfer of allegiance from Christ to Satan.”

Credit: Public Domain

Engaging the “Enemy”?

Argument culture” pits people on opposing sides where each seeks to “be right” rather than to know the truth or what’s best. This binary thinking sets our minds up to see other people as opponents or even enemies. What then does it mean to “engage the enemy”? Well, in the military, that phrase is a euphemism for shooting or killing an enemy combatant. This instinct to “fight” is not a healthy one.

What can bring about a change in attitude? On the one hand, we can stop presuming that we are entirely right and others almost completely wrong. Seek to find how they are right, not whether the other person is right. That would be a start.

On the other hand, come to accept that people within your church or theological tribe won’t always like you. This can relieve the sting of feeling isolated or looked down upon by people with different convictions. A friend of mine recently posted the following, a motto that resonates with me:

“I’m too conservative to please half of you and too liberal to please the other half.”

That’s a motto many of us would do well to live by.

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