Recognizing the Church: Love and Disagreement

The church has done a good job of agreeing with itself lately. By that, I mean that the when churches agree with each other, they do a decent job of affirming, supporting, and partnering with each other. The church is recognizable as the church when Christians love each other well--Jesus said something along those lines. And when we've been in agreement, we've actually been recognizable as the church. I affirm this because it's not always been the case. And it isn't the case in every context. In many times and places, churches have been more or less silo'd out. One church does its thing and the other does theirs. Separated significantly only by name, even when they're in agreement about a whole lot of things they could come together on, there's no support and no partnering--they don't even know each other. But it seems that lately, or at least in some contexts, churches are doing well when they're in agreement. Especially in the Youth Ministry world, it's extremely common for churches in a given network to gather together, partner together, and generally support one another. Perhaps especially among evangelicals, support networks are becoming part of the game... when we're in agreement.

But what happens when we disagree?

Jesus said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:34-35). If it sounds like Jesus is being repetitive, that's on purpose. Jesus repeats " one another..." three times in two verses which is sorta his way of putting up three exclamation marks. You can't miss it. The church is recognizable as the church when we love one another. And love does not depend on agreement. Jesus said,
"love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven... If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
Jesus' peculiar phrase, "be your heavenly Father is perfect," signals that love is perfected when its object is most foreign to it. God's love is most deeply expressed, not when people love God and things are going well, but when God is crucified by the very people God continues to love. Nobody is more foreign to you than the one who crucifies you, and love is perfected when it persists in crucifixion. Thomas Merton once wrote, "Love is free; it does not depend on the desirability of its object, but loves for love's sake." If love is the marker of the church and love is perfected when its object is foreign to it, then the church is most recognizable as the church when it disagrees well.

I am NOT saying that the church needs to disagree more. It would actually be good if we could find a few more things to agree on. But it is by the way we disagree, when we disagree, that we will be recognizable as the church of Jesus Christ. Usually when we disagree among ourselves (or especially with others) self-preservation becomes our priority. Support, encouragement, and partnership go out the window and we either isolate or attack. Those who are foreign to us, rather than becoming the object of love, become the object of our aggression. Throughout history, the church has done this.

So we need to continue to get better at agreeing with each other, but more importantly, we need to get better at disagreeing with each other. We need to learn to support, to encourage, to partner with (when possible) and to love those who are foreign to us... within the church and without. If we want to be the church of Jesus Christ, we need to disagree well.