The other day, I wrote about the fun weekend I had after I agreed with something Peter Hitchens said. My basic plea in that article was to listen to people before dismissing them. It was a call to read people, even when we know we often disagree with them, and determine the rightness (or wrongness) of what they are saying by what they have actually said. You can read the full post here.
The reason I was sharing it was to call Evangelicals to look at how we often approach disagreement. Just as Peter Hitchens has become something of a bogeyman to anybody in the political centre and anywhere leftward, Evangelical Christians have our own bogeyman and totemic heretics. But caricatures are rarely helpful and we do have to judge people based on what they actually say. And though we might have lots of differences – seriously so at times – that doesn’t mean we will always disagree. We do better to actually engage what people say and have the integrity to admit when those with whom we deeply disagree do, on occasion, say things that are right and true.
As ever, there is an opposing danger to avoid. Whilst we shouldn’t just dismiss everything somebody says because we have found certain things with which we disagree, that does not mean that agreement on some things makes a person a suitable partner for us. Just as Evangelicals shouldn’t assume they will necessarily disagree with everything a Catholic might say because we know that we disagree with lots of things they believe, our willingness to admit that we might agree periodically (like on the doctrine of trinity, for example) does not therefore make them credible people with whom we might want to share a theological platform.
Whilst disagreeing on some things does not mean we will necessarily disagree on everything, not all truths and opinions are equal. There are some issues on which we might disagree that are so serious it becomes difficult for us to stand alongside people, even if we happen to agree on a particular point at issue. I can acknowledge that Steve Chalke might be right about a particular thing (care for the poor, perhaps?) whilst also recognising his theological errors at other points mean that I could not realistically share a platform with him. I can acknowledge his rightness at points – noting our agreement – without insisting that means his other errors aren’t so serious that I cannot, in good conscience, stand alongside him.
Some would want to push us to ‘agree more’ so that any distinctives we have are effectively quashed. Others would have us ‘disagree more’ so that any agreement we might have are effectively overlooked. Other still, in the name of ‘being nice’, would have us acknowledge our differences but gladly stand alongside people who are deeply problematic to us. I think all of these things are something of a mistake. The reason being, we have to be careful about what we unintentionally communicate and what we end up tacitly affirming.
It is one thing for me to acknowledge that I agree with someone, sometimes, from a wildly different tradition. I don’t affirm everything they think when I do that. I only affirm that specific thing with which I am agreeing when I do that. This is a very narrow affirmation. But we do have to be careful with whom we share platforms and who we stand alongside because we may, inadvertently, end up affirming far more than we think. Worse, by sharing platforms with people with whom we agree on a narrow point and no more, we may soon find that same platform we shared being used to advance some of their other views that we very much do not share or affirm.
The issue du jour for Evangelicals – particularly those in mixed denominations – is that of gay marriage. It is interesting to see how many are willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with folks who share their convictions on that question, whilst overlooking some other fairly serious issues. Standing next to somebody on this question, who shares your view, but who also happened to push hard for women’s ordination, for example, will make you come a cropper when their previous arguments in favour of the former move get employed against you (and them) on this question. When the hermeneutical gymnastics they employed previously and turned round on them (and you) for this question, you have to ask yourself about the wisdom of that shared platform. When you stand next to people on that question who happen to deny Evangelical doctrines – either seeing no issue in defecting to the Catholic Church (with all the theological divergence that entails) or who reject things like penal substitutionary atonement – because they share your conviction on a much narrower question, you do have to think seriously about the platform you are sharing and whether that might not come back to bite you in the end.
These two issues need to be held in tension. It is a matter of integrity to acknowledge when we do agree with people whom we otherwise reject. It is a matter of integrity not to share platforms with people whom we would otherwise reject merely because we happen to agree on a particular narrow point. These two things are not mutually exclusive. We must do both.
The church is very often on a pendulum swing and very rarely manages to find a healthy balance for any length of time. We go through periods of hyper-separation over minor disagreements and times of ultra-unity refusing to acknowledge serious errors. The pendulum is usually swinging one way or the other. But we must try to strike the right balance. Not aiming to denounce people as without any creditable arguments because we disagree with them sometimes nor supressing serious disagreements and sharing platforms with people who would lead us into serious errors. We must acknowledge that we can agree, at times, whilst not insisting any level of agreement on a given issue should come with shared platforms and the rest.