There’s an old joke about a man walking across a bridge who comes across another man about to jump. The guy walking yells, “Don’t jump! God loves you! Do you believe in God?”
“I do,” the man about to jump says.
“Are you a Christian or a Jew?” the first man asks.
“Me too! What franchise?”
“Me too! Northern Baptist or Southern?”
The two go back and forth, checking more and more boxes of similarities, until the man preparing to jump answers a questions saying he was Northern Conservative Baptist Great lakes Region Council of 1912 and NOT 1879. Then, the man passing by pushes the other man off the bridge after yelling, “Die, heretic!”
It’s a long joke with a simple point. We care A LOT about our theological positions, and disagreeing with someone comes with an inherent set of risks.
Conversations with People of Different Theological Beliefs
It’s bound to happen. As leaders in church world, it’s inevitable that we will come across people who challenge our own deeply held theological beliefs. The question is, when that happens, how do we proceed honoring the other person and our own?
Before going into any conversation where there is potential conflict, it’s important to remember what we do have control over and what we don’t.
We CAN control our…
We CAN’T control…
- how passionately they hold to their positions.
- whether the other person ends up changing their mind or not.
- how they decide to respond to what we say.
But maybe most importantly, when engaging in difficult conversations we need to remember that how we respond and behave—while not controlling the outcome in another person—can influence how that person not only see us and our positions, but the Church, as a representative. So not only what we say, but how we say it matters.
That being said, here are some tips for engaging in theologically divisive conversations.
1) Beliefs are incredibly personal.
They are part of our identity, which means, when they feel challenged or shaken in some way, an emotional response is likely. Keep that in mind for yourself and the person you are talking to. Taking differing theological views isn’t the same as discussing which ice cream flavor you prefer. There is a weightiness that should be acknowledged.
2) Christianity has 2,000 years of diverse theological teaching.
Most of us have only ever been schooled in the theology of the tradition we were raised in or are now are a part of. But just because we aren’t familiar with particular theological positions, or we don’t hold to certain positions, does not mean they aren’t credible or that they are heretical. Christianity has a long history of thoughtful and faithful Christ followers taking different positions on different issues. (Peter and Paul in the book of Acts, for one.)
3) Unilateral agreement in all things theology should not be the goal.
As trite as it sounds, we can agree to disagree and doing so does not mean anyone is caving on their convictions. The early church fathers understood there would be disparities in how they understood different ideas, but they determined grace would abound in the areas where they did not see eye to eye. They majored in the majors. We can do the same. Our felt passion—or someone else’s felt passion—over a particular theological position does not mean it is view of foundational importance. It might mean there is energy around it, but not that unwavering agreement is necessary. (If we want to see what the early church fathers thought mattered most, the early creeds give us a glimpse. We would be wise to follow their example.)
4) There is a difference between differing messages and differing methodologies.
What feels like difference in belief or theology, might be a difference in how theological views are presented, held or conveyed, or the priority we give each view. One might think the topic of love should get more air time than the topic sin. That doesn’t mean this person doesn’t take sin seriously, but that love is given priority. This difference in opinion over what should take precedence does not mean one view is right and one is wrong. The method of conveying that truth simply differs.
Uncomfortable conversations are never easy. And when its conversations revolving around some of our most deeply held beliefs, they are even more difficult. But our theological differences don’t have to divide us. They might even be a catalyst for wonder, mystery and humility moving forward. The hope is, on the other side of a theological disagreement we can say of one another: “There are so many faithful ways to follow Jesus. Let’s keep doing it together.”
Most importantly, when discussing theological differences our posture matters most. Are we humble? Inquisitive? Teachable? Or do we see opposing views as a threat? Our willingness to engage with people who think differently and hear their concerns, their thoughts and their own convictions rather move into defensive or offensive mode, matters.