This blog has long existed as a space to bring attention to topics of depth, to seek to ask questions and to explore those things that many avoid talking about, largely because of the challenge of navigating disagreement with love. Many of my posts have been born from conversations with fellow Christians, particularly those who can disagree charitably, seeking to help one another in our pursuit of knowing and serving God better, I have learned so much from those who are willing to dig deeper. Keith and his wife have often been sources of those conversations (usually over the sound of our children running wild together). Their friendship has been a source of what scripture calls “iron sharpening iron”, where ideas are shared and wrestled with in an environment that rests peaceably on the knowledge that we share the same humble state as hopeless sinners rescued by a holy God. Keith asked if he could be a guest on my blog for this topic, and I am so glad. He often illustrates the very things he writes about here, he gives what philosophers call, The Principle of Charity, wherein we assume the best possible argument the other is making, and as a Christian, he assumes the best of the person making it, again and again giving grace and a humble desire to learn from those who think differently than him. I can’t think of a better person to encourage and exhort us toward that same end.
Yesterday I had “thought experiment”. I imagined what it would it look like if this pandemic wiped out entire races of people due to DNA makeup or genetic dispositions, and all we were left with was a single race; or what if entire cultures or sub-cultures were eliminated and we were left with one single culture. How sad would that be? Then I thought of all the animal species that once roamed the earth that have been wiped out. All the plants and tree species that no longer exist. We don’t even know what we don’t know when it comes to things like this. Who knows what types of plants and animals used to exist that perhaps were never recorded or which records have been lost to lack of historical preservation?
My thoughts turned to how beautiful diversity is and how ugly singular militant, uniformity is. We see this when we watch movies or read books about dystopian societies or when we hear about the inner life of cults that require sameness in order to belong.
Finally I considered the Church in relation to beauty in diversity. The Bible says in Revelation 7:9 “after this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, and from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.” What a beautiful picture of diversity. Almighty God in His infinite creativity displays His glory not in sameness but in varied beauty. I thought about all the cultures and subcultures that exist right now in this moment, then I began to consider each generation that has ever been and each culture and subculture within that. This type of thinking is a short walk from being entirely doxological.
Diversity must be cultivated by the Church if we are being true to God’s design, but we very easily stifle and destroy it in two obvious ways: One is an arrogant, self-righteous spirit that says “my way, my preference, my opinion on this tertiary topic is right and all others are entirely wrong” and looking down on anyone who thinks otherwise. The second is being insecure and offended or feeling slighted anytime something comes up that disagrees with your own opinion of a tertiary issue. Please notice my intentional use of the word “tertiary”. I am not speaking of primary issues. I am speaking at most secondary issues and at worst, tertiary issues. Things that are not in the realm of moral or immoral. When these are elevated to the degree of being primary issues either by the person speaking or by the listener this creates a problem. I was once involved in an institution that had a rule against listening to music that violated their rhythmic standards. What a strange thing to think. Out of the many tribes and cultures and subcultures, all the generations of people that have existed, and those that currently exist, there are a plethora of musical styles, and to think that only 1950’s hymns are morally right is so myopic. Furthermore, if every person in history in every geographical and cultural context matched their preference in this area and never created or explored outside of this style of music we would be losing such beauty, as though only one species of bird were to exist, what a tragedy that would be. Demanding unity on a tertiary issue is legalistic. Unity is not “unity as long as you agree with me on every minute detail”, unity is allowing diversity to exist and flourish while being united in the primary issues of our blood-bought bond through Christ.
But what do we do when we are faced with something that is not merely a taste in music? How do we maintain the true unity while not stifling diversity on issues we consider important?
It will be helpful to define primary issues, secondary issues and tertiary issues. Let us first examine primary issues. These would include those orthodox doctrines that are truth to which if not held, exclude you from the category of being considered the Church or Christian in the proper sense. These are hills to die on, and many men and women throughout the ages have done just that, they have literally laid down their lives for these truths. These are not to be taken lightly and when considering primary issues there is no middle ground. Primary issues are those issue which are explicitly taught in the Scriptures. Most helpful for a consideration of primary issues would be to read through historical confessions of the faith and catechisms. There are also things that exist outside of that, however, which would be considered secondary or tertiary issues. Let us examine carefully the distinction here. Secondary issues being very important issues that may have principals in scripture that speak to those topics but there is at least some level of ambiguity (in other words, it is not commonly held by all people how Scripture applies or how it should be interpreted) these issues are not considered orthodoxy but I would not say that they are amoral. The issues in this category are very important and could have moral implications. I would not say however that one should break fellowship with another believer or lay down their lives for this category of distinctions. Here there would be room for differences of opinion although strong differing opinions are likely to exist. Lastly, tertiary issues are those that are amoral, meaning it is not immoral to choose one over the other. Think Pepsi or Coke; Chickfila or Popeyes; Redsox or Yankees; Ford or Chevy etc. We can all agree—well maybe all of us—that these are not issues with which to give your life or to break fellowship over. All of these differences make up a grand diversity that is glorious and beautiful and attractive and that provoke worship.
If you consider all those whom Christ has died for, you must consider a very diverse corpus of people. It is not the purpose of this publication to define which topics belong in which categories and there will no doubt be disagreement on how I have chosen to categorize these issues. I would encourage serious thought and consideration when thinking through these things personally and corporately. What are the hot button topics? What are the issue we disagree on. Space would also not allow for an exhaustive list here but here are a few examples of what I would deem secondary issues: Thoughts and ideas around government and politics, thoughts and ideas around guns, whether to have children and how many, how to educate your children, whether to drink or not to drink, from a past christian context whether or not to eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols and more recently whether to wear a mask or not. A few examples of what I would deem tertiary include preferring certain types of hobbies over others, sports teams, fast food restaurants. Not all would agree that all of the above issues are secondary or tertiary as I have defined them and again that is not the purpose of this post. Within these last two levels of convictions/preferences there could be opportunity to be legalistic or lawless, to have impure motives, or to be misinformed or ignorant to certain considerations. To be sure, we the redeemed are all sinners we are all imperfect when we see these faults in ourselves and in others we ought to confront them privately and in love. it is also true that for some of these issues listed above there exists no one-size-fits-all answer and that there is freedom to choose a over b or b over a without sinning even more so to chose a over b or b over a to the glory of God.
How we present issues of this nature and how we respond to those opinions, whether on social media or over a heated dialogue around a campfire, certainly matters. Should we just remain silent on difficult issues? Sometimes the answer is yes. If you have a proclivity to post or bring things up for shock value, if your motive is to prove how smart you are or how much better you are, or to build yourself up and tear others down, then yes you should remain silent. I do not want to create a false dichotomy here. It is not as though the choices are “be agreeable or shut up”, or to say “if you speak up, you must be an arrogant blowhard”. I think we ought to certainly be aware of a mixed audience taking into consideration who you are trying to reach and if anyone in that scope of listeners may be openly hurt or offended. Is what you are posting a senseless attempt at hearing your own voice or do you have a point that is helpful? A wise mentor of mine once said “you should never type from a keyboard anything you are not willing to say face to face” and I think there is some wisdom in that. On the other hand, while showing deference is one thing, censorship is quite another. You can not spare everyone’s feelings all the time, and to be fearful of posting something important and helpful because you might offend someone may not always be the correct response either. Sometimes, it is the listeners fault more so than the author/speaker. Sometimes it is the listener that needs to grow and mature. I think that to take a cavalier, “I don’t care who I hurt” attitude is not wise, not mature, and not Christ-like. Neither is being offended by everything you read. In a culture that is so very polarized on many opinions believers should walk this path circumspectly.
What helps us to this end? Humility, graciousness, selflessness. Assuming the best in the other person, refusing to gossip, being quick to hear and slow to speak, esteeming others above ourselves, forgiving and being forgiven, building relational credibility, being invested in each others lives more than shaking hands on Sunday or bantering back and forth on an issue. I would encourage us to have the hard conversations and not avoid them, but have them in the right way. This is how we build intimacy and closeness if done correctly. Something else that will help us to this end is not isolating ourselves or limiting our deeper interactions only to a smaller group, clique, or tribe that thinks exactly like we do, or only watching and reading things that further reinforce and validate in our own mind our very specific views on things. Rather we should engage with others who differ in opinions: we ought to read other view points, we ought to travel to different cultures (if possible this is not a mandate, but I have found travel extremely helpful in this regard, not only international travel but being among people from different parts of your own town, state or country). All the while we ought to focus our attention squarely on the primary issues; this way of thinking gives us a strong unity and an unbreakable bond and that allows us the freedom to discuss (both speaking and listening are involved here) secondary and tertiary issues in the right spirit and of one accord. Then, and only then, are we able to discuss difficult topics in a gracious and loving way and in that way we leave the conversation perhaps still disagreeing but we leave as those who have love one for another.
Sometimes you have to remind yourself you do not need to convince everyone in the world that your opinion on everything is right all the time. We all must guard against being driven by fear or insecurities. We can so easily hide behind these stances in such a way that the stance itself can become nothing more than a shabby fig leaf, all the while we are covered by the blood of Christ.The point is that God has not designed it that each believer in every generation and in every culture and subculture must express themselves in the exact iteration of one another, nor is it required that we have the same opinion on every single minute topic. Furthermore, I do not think that this will be the case in the New Heavens and New Earth when all things are made right. Yes we will be sinless and that will solve a lot of the hurt, pain, and insecurities when we will live in peace in a world with no jealousy, anger, wrath, envy, malice, etc. When we live in a world where there is true love, patience, tenderheartedness, selflessness, honesty, faithfulness, self control and joy, but even in that world and even into eternity I believe there will be diversity.
We should not then in this world seek affirmation in the wrong places. We ought not to look down on our brother or sister for being different from us or from thinking differently then we do in so much as it is not sin, and if it is sin we ought to deal graciously as we have been dealt with graciously we ought to confront in love. These conversations are wonderful ways in which to display the love of Christ to one another. “How will they know that you are my disciples? If you have love one for another” (John 13:35) The church, and God’s entire creation and the history of mankind is much much bigger than our own little worlds. This should humble us. We can become so myopic in our thinking. I trust that this stings a little but not as salt in an open wound more as healing salve. I pray that this is helpful. God forgive us and show us the way. Help us to love one another, to prefer one another and even to learn from one another. Help us to think well about important issues and not lose sight of those which are most important in the process.
About the Author
Keith Pickard holds an MA in Theological Studies from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, a BA in Bible and Theology from Appalachian Bible College, and a CFP educational certificate from Boston Institute of Finance with Bryant University, he works as a wealth and trust banker and lives in Charleston, WV with his wife and two children where they enjoy many outdoor activities.