Living amidst Theological Tensions in a Faith Community

We’re going to be addressing a reader’s question in today’s post. A reader asked us:

How do you reconcile the fact that, if you remain in a conservative tradition, you will likely always be surrounded by a church body made up of people who disagree with you?

This reader zoomed in on how LGBT issues have a way of dividing Christian congregations. However, as we thought about our response to this question, we decided to zoom out and answer the question more generally.

The natural first question is, what makes a Christian tradition a “conservative” tradition? From where we sit, there can be an uneasy alliance between blindly accepting certain norms and allowing oneself to be shaped by the wisdom contained in a Christian tradition. Every Christian tradition has a theological core that gives it form and structure. When traditions keep this theological core at the front and center, we generally encourage people to listen to what is being said much more closely.

The theological core of a Christian tradition acts as a spine. The human spine not only gives the body form and structure, but it also permits a person to move. Nerves activate muscles where ligaments pull to move the bones. Without the neuromuscular structure, the skeleton does nothing. When Christians ask questions of, “How does this Christian tradition guide my life given my unique circumstances?” they act as nerve cells in the system. Christians sense when their tradition should be able to offer them guidance. That these questions exist is a good thing. If the tradition guides the response, then the person seeking answers should be able to connect back with the theological core. Our questions should guide us towards Christ. To say it another way, questions should help us grow in our faith. As children of the Church, we’re always growing.

Sometimes, theological tension acts as a muscle pair. Living a Christian life frequently requires finding the narrow way of Christ. “Conservative/progressive” language is one way of to describing this tension in some congregations. Often, conservative approaches seek to preserve what is while progressive approaches want to imagine what can be. Every Christian lives amidst this tension when imagining the possibilities for his or her own life while trying to conform to the likeness of Christ. Therefore, the two of us welcome it when people disagree with us based on their best understandings of our tradition’s theological core, especially when they remember that we are also children of God who are worthy of respect. Theological tension can remind us to sit longer with God to discern the way rather than jump headlong into assuming that God is always saying “Yes” or “No” to everything we want to do.

At other times, theological tension occurs when people are unwilling to consider some questions in the first place. If Christians dismiss questions outright, they also dismiss the possibility that those asking the questions are authentically seeking Christ. Additionally, sometimes people fail to reference the theological core of their Christian traditions. It can be all too easy to let a soundbite like, “Well, the Bible clearly says…” or “The Church has always taught…” prevent deep engagement with how a Christian tradition could guide a person through periods of difficult discernment. This kind of theological tension gets old quickly, especially if Christians haven’t really thought about the implications of what they are saying. We can certainly be compassionate because we know that in theological conversations, we’ve made our own ignorant comments at times and likely will again in the future. However, we hope that people would be open to thinking about how Christ welcomes all sorts of questions and about how core theological concepts can provide helpful guidance in diverse situations.

For our part, we choose congregations that are well connected with the theological core of our Christian tradition. We love being in congregations that teach people how to incorporate this theological core into daily life. Relative to our own vocation, we do not believe that we have all the answers. We have no interest in policing everyone’s orthodoxy or inciting that some Christian traditions need to “get with the times.” We believe that people’s theological beliefs matter; as Christians, we’ve definitely thought about what theological issues are most important for Christians to hold as common beliefs. Nonetheless, we know that different people are going to come to different theological conclusions across a wide range of topics. We respect other Christians who are making a good faith effort to connect with the core of their theological traditions. And we recognize that every person is capable of making mistakes as we seek help living into the fullness of what God has called us to. It’s easier to deal with disagreement when you can appreciate the earnest efforts of everyone present.

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7 thoughts on “Living amidst Theological Tensions in a Faith Community

  1. I am going throught a period now where I am reflecting and researching (as much as my restricted access to theological resources allows) on the Western concept of infallibility. right now, the Western Church is going through a time where that type of tension is heightened because of the reluctance of the Church to allow discusssion in areas that have not been accepted well by the Faithful, as a community. Open and honest communication between all the members of the Body, will, I think, allow the Spirit to flow more freely and provide answers to the dilemmas that an authoritarian view of infallibility.

  2. I like your approach!

    From the 17 August 2014 address in Korea of Pope Francis to the Bishops of Asia:

    “Then too, there is a [another] temptation: that of the apparent security to be found in hiding behind easy answers, ready formulas, rules and regulations. Jesus clashed with people who would hide behind laws, regulations and easy answers… He called them hypocrites. Faith by nature is not self-absorbed; it ‘goes out’. It seeks understanding; it gives rise to testimony; it generates mission. In this sense, faith enables us to be both fearless and unassuming in our witness of hope and love. Saint Peter tells us that we should be ever ready to respond to all who ask the reason for the hope within us (cf. 1 Pet 3:15). Our identity as Christians is ultimately seen in our quiet efforts to worship God alone, to love one another, to serve one another, and to show by our example not only what we believe, but also what we hope for, and the One in whom we put our trust (cf. 2 Tim 1:12)”. […]

    And this from “Evangelii gaudium” is an example of the manner of thinking of Pope Francis that is holistic, concrete, and pastoral:

    “There… exists a constant tension between ideas and realities. Realities simply ‘are’, whereas ideas are ‘worked out’. There has to be a continuous dialogue between the two, lest ideas become detached from realities. It is dangerous to dwell in the realm of words alone… So [another] principle comes into play: realities are greater than ideas. This calls for rejecting the various means of masking reality: angelic forms of purity, dictatorships of relativism, empty rhetoric, objectives more ideal than real, brands of ahistorical fundamentalism, ethical systems bereft of wisdom” (n. 231).

    There is much good fruit in our theological tradition to inform development in understanding of controversial matters of sexual theology.

    God bless

  3. I like how you first “zoomed out.” That was a great answer to how the body should work in the midst of theological disagreement. We all need to be willing to twist and turn, keeping our traditions … I would say “the bible” and “Jesus” here, with our traditions guiding that … as the structure that provides guidance on how far one can “twist” or “stretch” things theologically (I sort of said that on purpose) without damaging to the underlying framework.

    I think we as Christians are too quick to say “stretching” our theology or traditions is always heresy, or always leads to heresy. But it doesn’t … not always. Sometimes it leads to a stronger body.

    And sometimes it does lead to heresy. But so can the brittleness of not stretching at all, and remaining locked in your belief structure unthinkingly.

    “Unthinking faith is a curious offering to be made to the creator of the human mind.” ~ John A. Hutchinson (atheist)

    • Thanks Mike! Glad this approach resonated with you. The body is meant to stretch sometimes, even if it’s simply returning to its original position.

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