By Rev. David Dobi
“Animal House,” the old John Belushi film made famous for its adolescent debauchery and extraordinarily bad taste, is hardly a place I would expect to find pastoral insight. Recently, while channel surfing, I landed for a few moments on a scene that caught my attention one more time. Perhaps you know about it. (It’s not necessary for you to admit you do in order to keep reading.)
The scene is a college fraternity member invites his girlfriend to a “toga party.” She does not want to go. She does not want him to go. She says he is too mature and intelligent for that sort of behavior. When he protests that he is a member of the fraternity and has no choice, she says, “I’ll write you a note. I’ll say that you are too well to go there.”
While I kept channel surfing, I could not get that line out of my mind: “too well to go there.” I wondered: What if someone threw a church argument or disagreement party and everyone was too well to go there? Might at least some arguments or disagreements attract only unwell people? Which of our contemporary church arguments may be of that type, and how would we tell?
We pastors build certain kinds of capital every day, or at least every good day. Not mere financial or even political capital, but something far more precious – spiritual and social capital. Foolish arguments quickly embezzle a church family’s spiritual and relational reserves, often leaving those accounts empty and the church morally bankrupt.
For those among us who insist on majoring in conflict avoidance, there are at least two ways to convince ourselves that we are doing the “Jesus thing.”
First, a church can be quick to take an “official” stand on every issue under heaven, foreclosing upon argument by a pre-set uniformity of opinion requirement. Plainly, the direction is to gather only and always with those who agree with us concerning everything. The unintended consequence of this approach is that as cases are closed, so are minds and so are relational doors – to all but a few who already have it “right.”
Jesus said that even the godless love their friends. The mark of his followers is known in the ability and willingness to love enemies. How does a congregation that forecloses on diversity of opinion show the kind of love Jesus both teaches and demonstrates?
Second, a congregation can avoid arguments by creating an unspoken censorship of “discouraging words.” That is, you can think anything you want, just don’t talk about it. This might be fine for some gatherings, but is it a good environment for making biblical disciples of Jesus – people who seek truth, doubt illusions, grapple with paradox, work to dismantle and discard idols, and love one another too much to let one another go wrong?
There is, perhaps, an even greater question for us. If disagreements are facts of life, perhaps they are even a needed context for developing Christ-like virtue and discipleship. So then, how can we create communities where conflict and tension and diversity of opinion remain in the healthy zone? That is, can we have good and needed arguments and disagreements without bankrupting our spiritual and social capital?
Some of our churches have all the openness and freedom of expression of an old communist dictatorship. Others resemble an animal house of unrestrained adolescent bickering. Where are the pastors with skills to lead a church into healthy diversity of opinion?
For good models, we must look to Jesus and to Holy Scripture. We must go back to the gospels and back to the apostle Paul and visit again even those strange chapters about eating meat sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 8-10, Romans 14-15, Acts 15). We should notice that neither Jesus nor Paul requires people to agree on everything. Paul instead encourages people to be fully persuaded in their own minds, and then not to judge sisters or brothers who are persuaded differently.
Paul urges all to focus less on who is wrong and more on how we can manage our own opinions for the blessing and good of those who differ.
Think of arguments that bitterly divide us in the church today. Then think of arguments that we are not having but probably should. Is our discourse healthy – that is, encounter that builds up rather than beats up? Or are we already convinced that our only objective somehow is to “win?” What is my attitude toward those who do not agree with me?
Meanwhile, there are some popular parties going on out there we are being urged to attend. We should firmly – and politely – decline. Maybe someone can write for us a note: “Please excuse him. He is too well to go. Please excuse her. She is too well to go.”
The Rev. David Dobi is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Greenville.