Why do Christians disagree?

‘I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to agree in the Lord.’  St Paul seems to have a lot to say about Christians agreeing.  In the letter to the Philippian church where Euodia and Syntyche belong, he writes of ‘standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the Gospel.’    And in the Letter to the Ephesians there is a calling to make every effort ‘to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’, as there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.’   The varieties of gifts given to the churches are provided in the context of that call to unity, and the expectation that the body of Christ will ‘work properly’, promoting growth and building itself up in love.

So why do Christians disagree?  On the legitimacy of divorce and right of remarriage, on abortion, on just war or pacifism, on usury, on contraception, on genetic engineering, on sexuality, on economic priorities, on response to climate change  -  to name just a few moral and political questions,  not to mention doctrines of church, ministry,  mission and  eschatology.

At one level, of course, disagreements can arise simply because people have different experiences of life and come into contact with different facts about the world which can confront assumptions, challenge previously held views, or harden attitudes.    For example, we could think of a woman who senses a call from God into the ordained ministry of the Church.   She belongs to a church congregation that has always taken the view that the ordination of women is contrary to Scripture or tradition or to good ecumenical relationships.  ‘However’, says someone in that congregation, ‘though I have always been against the ordination of women, because it is you I’m willing to change my mind.’   Or to give another example, we could think of a Christian man who has, for social and theological reasons, always been opposed to homosexual relationships but who gets to know a loving gay couple whose lives display the fruits of God’s Spirit, and who then finds himself forced by that fact to revisit his understanding Scripture or his inherited attitudes to gay people.    Sometimes hard facts of experience compel a change of attitude or change of mind.

There is no such thing as uninterpreted experience, and there are other factors that can influence our understanding of ourselves and our interpretation of the facts of our experiences.  Some of these other factors give us different ways into the question:  why do Christians disagree?     Here are five.

1.   Because they look to different sources of authority.

Anglicans, in particular, frequently refer back to the C16th churchman Richard Hooker.  He it was who first spoke of what has been called a triad of ‘scripture’, ‘reason’ and ‘tradition’.  The classic reference comes in Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity:  The Fifth Book,  VIII.2.

Be it in matter of the one kind or the other, what Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after these the voice of the Church succeedeth.  That which the Church by her ecclesiastical authority shall probably think and define to be true or good, must in congruity with reason overrule all other inferior judgements whatsoever.  [my emphasis].

In another place, speaking of God’s Wisdom, Hooker writes:

Some things she openeth by the sacred books of Scripture; some things by the glorious works of Nature:  with some things she inspireth them from above by spiritual influence; in somethings she leadeth and traineth them only by worldly experience and practice.   We may not so in any one special kind admire her, that we disgrace her in any other; but let all her ways be according unto their place and degree adored.  (Laws. II. i. 4).

There can be coherence in all three sources of authority, Scripture, Tradition and Reason, if the triad is held together by a doctrine of the living Word or Wisdom of God, by the Holy Spirit.   But without that living centre, Scripture, if pushed too far without reference to the living Word, become literalistic and fundamentalist. Tradition, if pushed too far without reference to the living Word, becomes a dry and ritualistic formalism.  Reason, if pushed too far without reference to the living Word, leads to a loss of any clear Christian identity.

The interplay of these three sources of authority was given modern expression in the Report Growing Into Union  (1971), written by two Evangelical Anglican and two Anglo-Catholic scholars.  They related Scripture and Tradition in this way:

Jesus Christ is the full and final revelation of God; in him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily and he alone is the Saviour of mankind.  Nevertheless there can be and is development in the Church’s understanding of the Gospel, and it is a legitimate criticism of a great deal of post-Reformation theology, both Catholic and Protestant, that it has tended to interpret both the Scriptures and other documents of the Church in a very wooden way without reference to their history and context.  Not only did this tendency prevent the recovery of a dynamic view of Tradition as essentially the process of the handing on by the Church of the faith of the Scriptures; it also enthroned the static view, which first reduced tradition to a series of traditions, and then represented these as units of divine truth having their status independent of the Bible…..

The ground of both Scripture and Tradition, the reality to which both point, is the fact of divine Revelation given fully and finally in and through Jesus Christ, who is both the Word and the Wisdom of the Father, and who, by his crucifixion and resurrection has redeemed the human race….

The fact that God’s full and final revelation is given in a person is of the utmost significance… because we who are to be redeemed are persons, God has revealed himself to us in a person and as a person, and both his acts and his words ultimately derive from this….

Tradition, however venerable, is not infallible as a mode of transmission, and needs constantly to be tested by the Scriptures whose witness to Christ it seeks to convey.  Scripture, however inspired, was not meant to be self-sufficient as a means of instruction and life, but to operate within the common life of the Christian community by way of preaching, sacrament, fellowship and prayers.

Sometimes Christians disagree because they have different starting points in their thinking, rooted in different sources of authority, or because of a ‘wooden’ use of them, detached from the personal self-revelation of God.

To take one contemporary cause of Christian disagreement, same-sex relationships:  to rely only on Biblical texts which seem to mention same-sex relationships,  (and on the assumption that what the texts refer to is what we today refer to), one would conclude that Christians must be against all forms of same-sex relating.    The Christian tradition would agree with this if we are referring to certain physical same-sex behaviour, but many would point to significant examples of non-genital homoerotic relationships  -  read Anselm on ‘friendship’  for example.   However, to use Christian reason detached from either Scripture or tradition might lead to the view that contemporary understanding of human sexuality is very different from that which guided the authors of the Bible or Christians of past centuries, and that we are free to decide for ourselves what makes for example, for neighbour love, justice and equality.

2.  Because they draw on different guiding metaphors for God.

Another source of disagreement between Christians can be the ways they ‘do’ theology.  Sallie McFague’s Metaphorical Theology illustrates the variety of ways in which different metaphors for God can lead to different ways of doing theology.  The guiding metaphors that we choose to use for God, dictate the shape of the moral questions we ask and the pastoral responses we may make.

To return to the question of same-sex relationships, for example, to begin with God as ‘Creator, Lawgiver, Judge’ could lead to the conversation being set up in terms of a morality and pastoral practice of rules, of sin and the call to repentance.  Some might describe this in terms of search for what is ‘right’.

To begin with Christ as Saviour could lead to a morality based on the development of virtues rooted in grace, forgiveness and resurrection. The pastoral responses might speak in terms of leaving the past behind and the freedom of a fresh start.    Some might speak of a search for what is ‘good’.

By contrast, to begin with an understanding of The Holy Spirit as Love, even as Lover, could lead to a situational morality, celebrating the rich diversity of human life and sexuality.  We might engage in a search for what is ‘authentic’.

Of course we should want to say that God can be thought of as Creator, Lawgiver, Judge, Saviour, Lover and many other metaphors.   The point is that our starting point is likely to shape how we see the moral question and the pastoral options that are open to us.

3.  Because they look to different social and cultural sources for morality.

An exploration of contemporary social psychology, in Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind, suggests that there are six primary foundations for morality.  Haidt identifies these as

(i)  care / harm

(ii) liberty / oppression

(iii)  fairness /cheating

(iv)  loyalty / betrayal

(v) authority / subversion

(vi)  sanctity / degradation.

(As an aside, it is intriguing to note how closely these relate in different ways to the Decalogue.  Thus; ‘God who brought you out of Egypt’ resonates with the liberty/oppression theme;  ‘No other gods; do not take God’s name in vain’ takes us into purity and danger, sanctity and degradation.  “Keep the Sabbath Day holy’ is partly about sanctity and partly about care for others.  ‘Honour father and mother’ resonates with respect for authority/ submission.  ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is about respect for human life:  care and harm.  ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ refers to respect for faithfulness, loyalty and betrayal.  ‘Thou shalt not steal; Thou shalt not bear false witness’ are about fairness and cheating.  ‘Thou shalt not covet’ is about loving enough not to be envious, about care, compassion/harm.)

Haidt’s argument (for a predominantly American readership) is that

(a) (American political) liberals tend to major on care/ harm, liberty / oppression and to some degree on fairness/ cheating; their most sacred value is ‘care for victims of oppression’;

(b)  libertarians tend to major on liberty/ oppression  and to some smaller degree on fairness / cheating;  their most sacred value is ‘individual liberty’;

(c)  conservatives tend to depend on all six foundations;  their most sacred value is ‘preserve the institutions and traditions that sustain a moral community’.

Why a person chooses to be a liberal, libertarian or conservative is, Haidt argues, something to do with genetics and nurture.   I would want to add that I think it is also to do with the values to which we aspire.   Anthony Storr, for example, in The Integrity of the Personality, argued that ‘It is clear that it is as legitimate to ask towards what end a process is directed, as to inquire from what cause it originated,  and I believe that any psychological description of human beings must attempt to answer both questions.’

Many factors thus may contribute to our choice of source for our understanding of morality.   Among these might be the personality differences noted by Carl Jung, and by the Myers-Briggs work on temperament types.  Another factor might be the extent to which different people  -  indeed different cultures  -  prioritise the two hemispheres of the brain in providing two different ‘takes’ on the world.   As Iain McGilchrist has demonstrated in The Master and His Emissary, the left-brain ‘take’ is more analytical, focussed and linear whereas the right brain tends to operate with a more holistic gestalt, open to new undefined horizons.  His example of the sparrow makes the point.   It concentrates on pecking seed  (left brain activity), but every now and then looks up to take in the wider world and check for safety  (right brain).    Both, of course, are needed, but our Western culture  - McGilchrist argues  -  has become dominated by left-brain analytical ‘pecking’  to the detriment of more holistic, open and creative ways of thinking.

With reference once again to our example: the question of same-sex relationships. There are Christians who believe that our primary task is an analytical, exegetical ‘pecking’ of biblical texts, to discern God’s Word;  others believe that a broader based biblical theology of sexuality, relationships, commitment and the call to holiness provides the proper context in which such texts may be responsibly understood.

 4.  Because there are different ways of being religious.

Emerging out of the interplay of personality differences and social and cultural factors, there are different ways of being religious in today’s culture.   William James’ classic The Varieties of Religious Experience, (recently revisited by Charles Tayjor in Varieties of Religion Today), set the agenda for much subsequent psychology of religion.    One major piece of work by Batson and Ventis The Religious Experience, working from a social psychology perspective identified three main  ‘orientations’ in being religious.  They call these  ‘means’, ‘end’ and ‘quest’.   Thus religious experience may be

(i)  extrinsic:   an individual uses their religion as a means to serve other ends  e.g. social status,  to earn a place in God’s kingdom etc.

(ii)  intrinsic:  an individual ‘lives’ their religion as an end in itself,  and it carries over into other aspects of their life.

(iii)  quest:  an open-ended approach to existential questions.

How a person is religious is likely to contribute to their preferences for sources of authority in decision making, for the guiding metaphors which shape their reasoning, for their sources of morality, and their ‘take’ on the world.  The psychology of religion may have a great deal to say about why Christians disagree.

5.  Because of a different approach to basic philosophy

Underneath all the above discussion, however, there is an even deeper cultural factor in some disagreement between Christians.    In her book Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism, Nancey Murphy argues that much contemporary theology is affected much more than it realises by modern philosophy (from Descartes onwards).  Contemporary philosophy has moved on from ‘modern’ to ‘post-modern’, she argues, and Christian theology could benefit considerably from the changes that have taken place in three aspects of contemporary philosophical thought.  She discusses religious language (is it referential or expressivist?), and different ways of construing God’s action in the world (interventionist or immanent?), but her primary point concerns epistemology, the theory of knowledge.

Whereas ‘modern’ philosophy is largely ‘foundationalist’, that is it seeks a universal knowledge based on some indubitable foundation, (Descartes spoke of knowledge as built on a foundation rather as bricks are built into a wall), post-modern philosophy of the past few decades has rejected foundationalism in favour of an organic, network approach to truth   -  a truth of coherence and correspondence.

However, Murphy argues,  theology has tended to remain with a ‘foundationalist’ approach,  seeking an indubitable foundation either in Scripture  (conservatives)  or in reason (liberals). This is the cause of some differences between Christians:  they start from different ‘foundations’ for knowledge.     She proposes that Christian theology needs to move away from foundationalism and towards a ‘network’ approach to knowledge.  Her primary point is to remind theology of its sometimes-unacknowledged debt to philosophical assumptions.


We do not know why Euodia and Syntyche were in disagreement.  Did they look to different sources of authority?  Did they think differently about God?  Were they influenced in their choices differently by genetic make up or environmental factors?  Did they have a different vision leading to different values?   Did they express their faith in different ways?   We, of course, do not know.   We can assume from what St Paul says that their disagreement was destructive of fellowship in some way.   But not all difference is destructive.   Indeed, the very texts that celebrate our Christian unity in Christ  (one Lord, one faith, one baptism), are those which refer to the variety of gifts within the Body of Christ, and the differences between different members in that body.    The unity for which St Paul prays is not a uniformity of view, or an identity of ministry, but a personal unity, by baptism into the one Lord.

Richard Hooker wrote before there was any concept of ‘foundationalism’. And though he does refer to a ‘foundation’  (namely Jesus Christ), he does so in a way which is not far from the organic, living metaphor of which non-foundationalists speak, when they talk of truth emerging in the coherences, as part of a story, part of an on-going narrative.   He operates with what we today might call a ‘Gospel hermeneutic’.  Thus referring to St Paul, he says:

And as his words concerning the books of ancient Scripture do not take place but with the presupposal of the Gospel of Christ embraced; so our own words also, when we extol the complete sufficiency of the whole entire body of the         Scripture, must in like sort be understood with this caution, that the benefit of nature’s light be not thought excluded as unnecessary, because the necessity of a diviner light is magnified. (Laws. I xiv.4).

When Hooker refers to Scripture as ‘foundational’, he makes clear what he means:

If the foundation of faith do import the general ground whereupon we rest when we do believe, the writings of the Evangelists and the Apostles are the  foundation of Christian faith…;

but then he immediately adds:

But if the name Foundation do note the principal thing which is believed, then is that the foundation of our faith which St Paul hath unto Timothy:   God manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit…This is Christ the Saviour of   the world.  (Learned Discourse of Justification, 15-16).

In other words, the foundation of Christian faith is the living Triune God, the incarnate Saviour, the justifying Spirit.  As the authors of Growing Into Union said, God’s self-revelation is personal.  In other words, truth is ultimately personal.  Our knowledge therefore,  (as Michael Polanyi has put it), is personal knowledge.

According to Polanyi, referring to the practice of science, personal knowledge emerges within a community of conviviality as a commitment of faith, based on sufficient evidence, is tested out, seeking reality to reveal itself to our explorings; it is corrigible and open to change; it is also open to being called in question, and to discovering hitherto undreamed of possibilities.

This is not far from the ‘critical realism’ advocated by Tom Wright for reading biblical texts:

This is a way of describing the process of ‘knowing’ that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence ‘realism’), while also fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiralling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence ‘critical’).   This path leads to critical reflection on the products of our enquiry into ‘reality’, so that our assertions about ‘reality’ acknowledge their own provisionality. Knowledge, in other words, although in principle concerning realities independent of the knower, is never itself independent of the knower [except for the special and highly complex case of self-knowledge.]   (The New Testament and the People of God, p. 35).

In his discussion of moral enquiry, Alasdair MacIntyre demonstrates that all interpretation  of texts involves the discovery that the text also interprets the reader.   We need to come to the text with what he calls a ‘tradition of moral enquiry’, that is certain attitudes and dispositions that we bring to the text for them and for ourselves to be called in question.

Between them ‘critical realism’ and a ‘tradition of moral enquiry’ offer a fresh (and non-foundational) way of looking at the engagement between Scripture, Tradition and Reason, and indeed the various other factors which we have outlined that may contribute to Christian disagreement.  To adapt Polanyi:  God’s self-revelation takes place within a community of faith and worship, through our personal dialogue and conversation with the narrative of Scripture, as the Holy Spirit interprets it to us, and interprets us in its light. We come to it within a tradition of interpretation, but ready to have this and ourselves called in question by God’s self-disclosure.   This is a process through which faith matures in the journey of healing and salvation.  Our knowledge is always corrigible and provisional, but none the less dependent on the reality of the living God.

Tom Wright’s own conclusion is worth quoting in some detail:

Knowledge has to do with the interrelation of humans and the created world.  This brings it within the sphere of the biblical belief that humans are made in the image of the creator, and that in consequence they are entrusted with the task of exercising wise responsibility within the created order.   They are neither detached observers of, nor predators upon, creation.   From this point of view, knowledge can be a form of stewardship; granted the present state of the world, knowledge can be a form of redeeming stewardship; it can be, in one sense, a form of love….To know is to be in a relation with the known, which means that the ‘knower’ must be open to the possibility of the ‘known’ being other than had been expected or even desired,  and must be prepared to respond accordingly,  not merely to observe from a distance.’  (New Testament and the People of God, p. 45).

An epistemology, a hermeneutic, of love?   I think St Paul might agree with that.

First published in Ministry Today UK,  59,  Autumn 2013.

13 thoughts on “Why do Christians disagree?”

  1. Happy New year Bowman I like the way you slip bits of education into your replies. Would.t i be right in thinking that the Civil New Year is where they got the tax year from? I read about th grave in Salisbury Cathedral where there is a child registered as born after it died! That has made me think is that one of the possible answers to the discrepancies in the dates of Christ Birth? Sometimes I think that many of the differences that we have as Christians come as a direct result of the discrepancy of facts rather than the belief of incident actuality ie if the date does not fit there is an assumption that something could not be possible we can be a bit slow when it comes to changes through time. THe . Biggest problem is always redaction.

  2. “I seem to remember that Andrew Goddard in an article some time ago described ‘fundamentalist’ as a ‘theological boo word.’ I can’t pin down the quote and if my memory is misleading me I apologize to Andrew. But I think that is a fair description which also applies to ‘literalistic’ and ‘wooden’.”

    Phil, I too recall Andrew’s useful ‘term of art,’ and am inclined to agree with you about ordinary usage of ‘literalistic’ and ‘wooden.’

    Tom Wright misses few chances to correct the sloppy thinking behind most uses of ‘literal’ in this context. Villagers of Fulcrum have probably heard him do this at least once or twice.

    ‘Wooden’ is a word that I formerly understood to refer only to eisegesis that supposes the truth of a system and is unpersuasive apart from it. The complaint was that ‘wooden’ readings lock down the meanings of some scriptures in ways that serve a system but resist the context at hand, so that readers approach the inspired text with decidedly uninspired presuppositions about it. To me, the rule-seeking sort of reading done pursuant to the ‘regulative principle of worship,’ for example, seems forced when we are considering the fluid church order of the C1. But a neo-Calvinist might not see the problem at all.

    However, I hear ‘wooden’ today in what seems to me to be another sense. Presentist readers use it to refer to readings that are perennialist or even primitivist. In that sense, my readings of Ephesians 5 tend to be ‘wooden’ since I doubt that present social patterns have wholly changed certain perennial dynamics of the male-female dyad (eg male patterns of conflict avoidance), which may even be primitive if they are neuroendocrinological. Those presentists who believe that only social codes matter and that those are indefinitely variable because people can be programed to do anything usually think that my doubts about this are silly, just as I find their confidence in human indeterminacy and programability uninformed.

    Thank you, Phil, for raising this question about the article. In resolving disagreements among Christians, it would be helpful to have words for these senses of ‘wooden’ that are not pejorative.

  3. Art

    I agree with Alistair McIntyre on his theory that (1) sin infects
    (2) that sin has become so entrenched for some that people no longer know the difference and therefore a moral compass is lost. It is the issue of pushing boundaries for the right reasons, but the consequence can sometimes be that consequences occur that lead to actions for the wrong reasons.

    Sin and the interpretation of it is the greatest cause for conflict amongst Christians and Non Christians and other believers, to the point where the zest to prevent people from “sinning” can actually become a sin itself in such instances direction is lost and disagreements occur. The concept that McIntyre is talking about was first introduced in genesis of course at the fall, Christ then came along with the New Moral compass, but of course what appeared to be moral to those who followed was highly immoral to those who did not understand.
    So David Atkinson is right to highlight all the human interventions that can actually become obstacles to reaching agreement in the way the the Gospel is approached and faith acted out in such instances the moral compass is personal responsibility to God and discernment to know when we may be misunderstanding or misunderstood, or maybe just plain human and forgetting that which we already know, That to be a living sacrifice is what we are called to be, but if you are honest Art you know it is not an easy calling for any of us if it is then it is not a sacrificial offering


  4. David Atkinson suggests five ‘factors’ which ‘give us different ways into the question: ‘why do Christians disagree?’ Here are my observations (not in the same order as in his article) on these 5 factors, and my observations on other aspects of the article.

    Because they draw on different guiding metaphors for God. They may do this but should they. No. David Atkinson himself points out in his last paragraph of this factor that we should always start with the whole of who God is and what he is like. Of course this, as I keep saying, brings us to the most fundamental and deepest disagreement between those who believe that Christianity is in some sense true – we differ on who God is and what he is like.

    Because there are different ways of being religious. All of the three main ‘orientations’ mentioned are inadequate to describe what Christians are called upon to believe and do. Of course, as imperfectly sanctified sinners Christians fail, sometimes miserably, to believe and do as they are commanded. But no Christian should be satisfied with any of the three orientations.

    Because they look to different sources of authority. David Atkinson’s crunch point here is that one reason why Christians disagree is because some Christians have a fundamentalist, literalistic and wooden understanding of Scripture because their understanding is without reference to the living Word and detached from the personal self-revelation of God. Similarly, ‘Tradition, if pushed too far without reference to the living Word, becomes a dry and ritualistic formalism’ and ‘Reason, if pushed too far without reference to the living Word, leads to a loss of any clear Christian identity.’ I seem to remember that Andrew Goddard in an article some time ago described ‘fundamentalist’ as a ‘theological boo word’. I can’t pin down the quote and if my memory is misleading me I apologize to Andrew. But I think that is a fair description which also applies to ‘literalistic’ and ‘wooden’. Does David give any examples of what he means by fundamentalist, literalistic, wooden? He makes three references to the same-sex disagreement and one to the women’s ordination disagreement. Are these references such examples? See below for my comments. I can’t see any other examples elsewhere in his article. And: just what is ‘reference to the living Word’ and attachment to ‘the personal self-revelation of God’ and just how do these things avoid a fundamentalist, literalistic and wooden understanding (as he sees it) of Scripture and Tradition becoming a dry and ritualistic formalism and Reason leading to a loss of any clear Christian identity?
    The view of ‘Growing into Union’ is ‘Scripture, however inspired, was not meant to be self-sufficient as a means of instruction and life, but to operate within the common life of the Christian community by way of preaching, sacrament, fellowship and prayers’.
    David Atkinson seems to quote this from ‘Growing into Union’ with approval. Is this then, at least with reference to Scripture, what he means by reference to the living Word and attachment to the personal self-revelation of God? So that when the Bible operates within the common life of the Christian community by way of preaching, sacrament, fellowship and prayers a fundamentalist, literalistic and wooden understanding of Scripture will be avoided? But, again, just how does this work?

    Jesus emphasized to his disciples the importance of hearing and obeying what he said. Surely this is a key aspect of the Christian’s personal relationship with Christ. A good deal of what he said can reasonably be viewed as him speaking directly to us who are his disciples. As I have said in previous posts, I believe the situation is just that. When we read or meditate on Jesus’ words as recorded in the Bible he is speaking to us in real time and the meaning of what he is saying is determined by the words recorded in the Bible. Is this view of things fundamentalist, literalistic or wooden? I invite David Atkinson and those who agree with him to answer that question. If they answer ‘Yes’ I suspect they are denying their personal experience because I believe that when they read Jesus’ words in the Bible they take Jesus to be speaking personally and directly to them. But if they answer ‘No’ then we are agreeing that we are in direct personal communication with the living Word and receiving his personal self-revelation, whether we are reading the Bible alone or whether we are ‘…within the common life of the Christian community by way of preaching, sacrament, fellowship and prayers’. Given space I believe I could make the same case for the whole Bible, based on its witness to itself.

    Contra David Atkinson’s assertion that ‘There can be coherence in all three sources of authority, Scripture, Tradition and Reason, if the triad is held together by a doctrine of the living Word or Wisdom of God, by the Holy Spirit’, God’s personal, verbal self-disclosure in Scripture is the living Word and Wisdom of God to hearts that the Holy Spirit has opened..

    And this leads to my comment on the factor Because of a different approach to basic philosophy. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. Lost sinners who become his disciples are still essentially the same as when Jesus walked the earth. We should emphasize, as Jesus did, hearing, listening, obeying his words and rebukes as recorded in the Bible, as the basis of our experiential personal fellowship with him and his Father. We should not view this unique self-disclosure through the lens of a philosophical framework, whether foundationalism or a network approach to knowledge.

    My comment on Because they look to different social and cultural sources for morality: David Atkinson writes, ‘Why a person chooses to be a liberal, libertarian or conservative is, Haidt argues, something to do with genetics and nurture. I would want to add that I think it is also to do with the values to which we aspire’. I agree that nature and nurture influence whether we tend to be liberal, libertarian or conservative in outlook. But Christians are called upon to confront themselves, in agonizing self-examination, with the living Word whose written word truly is ‘…quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart’. It is to that word that we should look!

    My comment on the references to the women’s ordination disagreement and the same-sex disagreement:
    If sound exegesis of the Bible yields a clear view on any disputed point no amount of experience or personal conviction should contradict that clear teaching. As I see it and as I have argued in previous posts, the Bible is clear that the ordination of women is contrary to its teaching and the Bible is clear that homosexuality is a sin.

    An observation on the Conclusion: David’s ‘The unity for which St Paul prays is not a uniformity of view…’ is contradicted by Philippians 2:2 ‘…fulfil ye of me the joy in order that the same thing ye think, the same love having, one in soul, the one thing thinking…..’.

    Why do Christians disagree? To adapt a slogan from American political culture, shorn of its scornful address, ‘It’s the exegesis, friends!’.

  5. Jesus chose the twelve disciples to represent the twelve tribes of Israel he chose his” team” They were a team of different occupations in an attempt to evangelize all, they were very much a team of individuals, with other members of the team having no experience in the occupation of the others. In some ways this was the key to a successful team because it was built on the mutual respect of the skill of the other, This made the purpose of their mission less selfish because they relied on each others skills to be complete. This is a misrepresentation When it comes to social structure nothing much has changed over the centuries for only Christ Knew that Judas was planning to betray him . So all was not as well in the communication as each of the others thought.
    The words “purpose” ( noun mass noun and a verb) ie the reason the objective and the resolution and “driven” (verb)
    Rick Warren “the purpose driven life”
    How will you respond to Jesus call? Will you try to get Jesus to facilitate your purpose for your life, or will you abandon yourself to his purpose to influence others for him? “You have a choice to make. You will either be a world-class Christian or a worldly Christian. Worldly Christians look to God primarily for personal fulfillment. They are saved, but self-centered . . . Their prayers focus on their own needs, blessings, and happiness. It’s a me-first faith: How can God make my life more comfortable? They want to use God for their purposes instead of being used for his purposes. In contrast, world-class Christians know they are saved to serve and made for a mission. They are eager to receive a personal assignment and excited about the privilege of being used by God. World-class Christians are the only fully alive people on the planet. Their joy, confidence, and enthusiasm are contagious because they know they are making a difference. They wake up each morning expecting God to work through them in fresh ways. Which type of Christian do you want to be?”1 – See more at: http://www.xenos.org/teachings/?teaching=18#sthash.x8gSFu5N.dpuf
    The reason for our lives is that we give purpose to one another it is to have a reason to follow Christ in order to achieve the objective which in Christ terms was PEACE resolution comes when we have PEACE . This indeed is the purpose of many religions it seems like in the objective of PEACE we have agreement amongst ourselves and cross culterally yet when it comes to resolution it seems to elude us, almost as though when we find PEACE we lose our drive/motivation which in biblical terms “catches us sleeping” Is it possible to have Peace in disagreement or is it disagreement that keeps us awake and striving for Peace? or are we at Peace and seeking resolution? if we do not have a resolution is it possible to have Peace? Continuity is a key factor in Resolution and in striving for resolution we Hope WHY? because really we are not at Peace without resolution. This is why Christians disagree, we each have a different viewpoint through the lens, in much the same way as the disciples at the cross had a different viewpoint of the events of the crucifixion. The same events a different viewpoint. PEACE comes not always with agreement, but with acceptance, if we accept with the “mind of Christ” then it is a stronger stance than if we accept disagreement with our own which usually just leaves us feeling beaten. We know that is not the Purpose of Christ. Being beaten is not the same as being broken, unless we are broken and no-one puts the pieces together healing is all about putting the pieces together. As the new year approaches we have a mixed bag of agreements and disagreements to reflect upon,
    resolution is an aim and objective and the reason is because we are broken people in a broken world, we do not start the journey as the finished product , but we know what we are aiming for.
    Wishing you a Peaceful New Year

  6. It’s a brave man who tries to untangle the mess of a kitten’s ball of wool. And so thank you David for this admirable attempt. Yet I guess, given our “Culture of Interpretation” (Roger Lundin), you have to perforce go down the road you have. And yet, and yet …

    Firstly, it is high-time we laid to rest this mythic mantra, supposedly derived from dear Richard Hooker. As Rowan Greer puts it: “My suggestion will be that the idea [of the “Triple Cord”] is less helpful than it appears and that it proves impossible to argue that Hooker’s view really illustrates it or that the Caroline divines after Hooker follow his views” – Anglican Approaches to Scripture: From the Reformation to the Present (Crossroad, 2006), p.14. And certainly David’s namesake would agree. See Nigel Atkinson, Richard Hooker and the Authority of Scripture, Tradition and Reason: Reformed Theologian of the Church of England? (Paternoster, 1997), which upsets many received views of Hooker especially from the 19th C onwards: hence the subtitle.

    Then secondly, we need to listen well to Janet Martin Soskice in her essay, “Naming God: A Study in Faith and Reason” in Griffiths & Hütter, eds, Reason and The Reasons of Faith (T&T Clark, 2005), pp.241-254, at p.242: “The early modern crisis of knowledge was such that philosophy in many quarters became epistemology – the problem of knowledge. In retrospect, the anxieties about salvation that shook the late medieval church, although doubtless provoked by clerical corruption, indulgences, failed conciliar movements and so forth, had a good deal to do with uncertainty about everything. It is not clear that we are beyond the trauma of knowing yet.” And this trauma applies as much to the shadow of Enlightenment ‘reason’ as to the irrational curse of many forms of postmodernism.

    For thirdly and lastly, it has always been the case that our human knowing is itself devastatingly affected by sin itself. And not only or even decisively with regards to our epistemic or mental capacities. Our sin infects and disrupts a wholesome confluence of heart, mind and spirit as we seek to know – to which problem the best antidote is St Paul’s exhortation to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice”. In fact, the pair of opening verses of this hortatory section of this magisterial presentation of the Gospel, Rom 12:1-2, should govern our way of dealing with disagreements. For our entire culture of interpretation, as assembled here, quite possibly belongs to “this aeon”! Alasdair MacIntyre’s “disquieting suggestion” would seem to suggest so. For the bottom line is surely given us in Gal 4:9 – “Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to weak and beggarly elemental spirits?”

    It is only as we humbly let ourselves be known by the Living God through Jesus Christ and in his Holy Spirit, as we allow his apprehension of us to gain an ever deeper hold upon us, that we may more authentically apprehend him and so come to fuller agreement among ourselves.

    [Of course, it may be that David disagrees with my diagnosis just as I disagree with his! As admirably as I too hold the many authors cited by him.]

  7. Such a pleasure to hear Angela and Roger on this topic!

    Yes, Roger does speak my mind on the way that team-mindedness short circuits adaptive thinking. We humans enjoy belonging to huge teams– it is a distinctive of our species– but when facing emergent opportunities or threats, these teams can get badly stuck. Though needing to adapt to thrive in such crises, they too often rally their old defenses against the necessary playfulness of strategy. The ethos of teams in conflict is often disturbed by the impartial observation, reframing, and experimentation that tame crises in unconventional ways.

    Please note, however, the essay’s useful counterexample– Growing Into Union. In this case, small teams of evangelicals and catholics were creative problem-solvers together. Because the authors (including both J. I. Packer and Eric Mascall) agreed on a critique of the way both their teams had understood ‘tradition’ in the past, they found fertile unexplored ground for shared thinking, and together rethought Anglican-Methodist union, coming to the consensus they offered the churches.

    However, ‘the exception proves the rule,’ for embattled teams are ill-prepared for shared thinking. On one hand, self-reflection within and between teams requires collaborators of exceptional authority and insight. Adaptive thinking can be risky surgery on bodies of thought and feeling, and team members often disown lesser figures who try it. On the other hand, these collaborators must also be seen as impeccably representative of their respective teams for their results to be broadly accepted. Yet such eminences are not always available to every team, nor does a team’s identification with their conventional views automatically elicit assent to their adaptive proposals. So although the deference of teams to thoughtful captains can open a tiny window to more flexible responses to crises, the comforting habits of closing ranks and attacking novelty as threat can also slam it shut again. We have seen this in many threads of conversation in the village.

    Much about the way churches discuss hot topics might be inferred from the fallibility of teams, but most are best left to another post. Here I will note only that organised campaigns for specific changes in churches through the polarising procedures of modern synods almost inevitably enmesh thinking more in team-mind than in Christ-mind. And as Jonathan Haidt’s research implies, the fact that we may be, in some frame of reference, ‘righteous’ does not give us any immunity to the usual blindnesses of the ‘righteous mind’ of a team. Thus it is possible to look back on past controversies and say that, although the result reached was close to correct, the path to getting that result was an ecclesial and pastoral disaster that only winning ‘happy warriors’ hardened to ‘collateral damage’ may fully respect in the end. We need to find another way.

  8. Thank you for your response Roger, It certainly is a difficult dilemma, people working on their own are vulnerable to being blinckered and can put themselves in danger, and Teams can also cause a person to be blinckered by the team ethos. Individuals are individuals and no matter who they are the redactive process and personal understanding of common concepts will always be individual. It then all boils down to character analysis, but then there are difficulties because people are drawn to different personality types, if you put all those personality types into one team you would think, that must be the answer, but of course it isn’t because communication is never that clear. So Christians disagree, I am thinking right now of the “I believe God help me in my unbelief” as a parallel to “I disagree please help me to find a foundation we can agree upon reconciliation I always believed was that foundation. I am not so sure now ! I think that possibly the foundation is PEACE which can be obtained without reconciliation, and then adversely reconciliation may or may not occur . But I think it is an individual thing and not one bought about by the team mentality. Having said that it is important to be able to be a team player , which is different to the gang mentality of a team all being of the same mind against an individual, in such instances the individual will never be safe as a team members first loyalty is to their team. It raises other dilemmas such as where is revelation in the team ethos. anyway from team Angela and Jesus have a peaceful time

  9. I also thought that this essay was a clear and concise and I accept Davids case and opinions, I agree with him. On this occasion Bowman I am not so sure I agree with you entirely with regards to teams when it comes to reconciliation. My experience is that every time that teams move in to solve disputes that the weaker rather than the wrong normally become silenced, or they find diverse ways of being heard .There is nothing wrong with that apart from the fact that it does not bring about reconciliation rather it brings about separation and division often closing off channels of communication.

    Christians disagree for all of the reasons that David cites I feel that we sort of all understand that really, but what I feel is not understood is how people of all status and persuasion is the amount of obstacles a particular person or group may face when they set about preserving there own safety and the safety of others. By the nature of objectivity such teams never connect emotionally or spiritually and therefore can do more harm than good in the first instance. We know that from all kinds of interventions. The problem with teams in the issue of reconciliation not just of spirits and mindsets and histories but also with the long term objective being incomplete by the virtue of the fact that people move on . This in my view is a dishonest representation of reconciliation, because a place or person as an individual is broken by a team then there will be movement eventually forwards in that particular place or person however there are still life long consequences which are lived with everyday. This will be the price paid before people and places rebuild, but remember they are rebuilding on a different foundation, the foundation may be good it may not be so good, but it certainly is not reconciliation. My interpretation of reconciliation is that people are united on the new foundations looking at the world and God through the same lens. Sadly what we have are individuals broken by teams who are looking through the same lens but in isolation, the connection is lost, and from a place of isolation in spirit reconciling Man to God and fellowship is severely limited.

    reconciliation is such instances becomes unobtainable. Yet we can hope that one day the unobtainable of the day becomes the obtainable for the future. That does not appear to come from agreeing all the time but respecting the opinion of the other and maintain our position with God whilst facilitating others to maintain their position with God by concentrating on that that unites and not on that that divides, whilst at the same time not disempowering people or not denying them meaningful relationships friendships and fellowship. It is a hard road and it is not one that teams can maintain they can only facilitate avenues of communication and enable understanding.

    • Angela, I may be wrong here, but I suspect that Bowman would agree with you the way team mind-sets can hinder reconciliation. He writes, ‘Experimental psychologists have a wealth of evidence that stronger arguments from an opposing faction stimulates a person’s team mindset and thereby deepens rather than reduces disagreement with that faction.’ We can become more fully entrenched in our differences when we foster the united front of a ‘team’ mentality.

      Barbara Brown Taylor, although writing here about inter-faith relating, has some apposite words that can be applied to Christians that differ. I believe she’s at the heart of the gospel when she writes,

      ‘Where articles of belief threaten to set people in opposition to one another, we may embody articles of peace. Where difference is demonized, we may host suppers with surprising guest lists. Where religious identity is wedded to political power, we may resist, although never by adopting the tactics of those in charge. We may test the premise that God uses the weak to confound the strong, as well as the promise that the God who made others different from us is revealed in them as well as us. “The supreme religious challenge,” says Rabbi Sacks, “is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image.” for only then can we see past our own reflections in the mirror to the God we did not make up’ (‘An Altar in the World’, pp. 99-100).

  10. This splendid essay, featuring several of my favourite books deserves a broader response. Here I note only that whilst the author has explained the initial disagreements among Christians, what prevents us from reconciling those positions in dialogue is the social fact of polarisation. It is one thing for a broadly unified church to have disagreements in which a Christian’s position on one matter does not predict her position on the others. It is quite another thing for a church to have disagreements on which the same polar positions attract the same people time after time. The latter draws individuals into the rigid mindset of teams, and that tends to defeat the dialogue-and-consensus approach to resolving disputes.

    Experimental psychologists have a wealth of evidence that stronger arguments from an opposing faction stimulates a person’s team mindset and thereby deepens rather than reduces disagreement with that faction. Although at first surprising, it explains some familiar facts about public controversies. This is why indabas have not narrowed the gap between sides, even when all praise them as productive– more exposure to the arguments of those from another pole of opinion arouses the ‘righteous mind’ of teams which often and perversely makes it harder to agree with those arguments. It is also why the rare changes of mind that do occur are sponsored by stalwarts within and not critics without– a person of exemplary loyalty who advocates for a small change demonstrates that group cohesion need not suffer if others agree with him.

    Among Christians, the solution to polarisation is a broader vision of Christ’s reconciling work (cf St John 17, Galatians 3:28, etc), and an insight that authoritative leadership and authentic followership is always in its service. This enables a church to reframe its discussions, not as attempts to construct a compromise, strike a grand bargain, or stipulate to a minimal consensus to give a paper unity to the polarised, but rather as a patient exploration of the no man’s land between the poles that has intrinsic worth where Christ’s Lordship is recognised. The several heuristics mentioned in this essay show that the Kingdom has all kinds of minds, and that only time can show their respective contributions to the whole. When a thoughtful centre re-emerges in Christ, Christians are free to leave the mountain fortresses of the ‘righteous mind’ for the fertile valleys of the wise. A deeper appreciation for Christ’s reconciling work as the deep truth of this aeon should occasion a different way of truthfully healing dissensus.

    • Thank you so much David for your excellent essay, elegantly and persuasively exposing a number of areas within which Christians differ. Within this comprehensive approach you pick up on, for example, differing temperaments, within which people vary in the prime way they tackle the biblical text: left hemisphere folk offering analytical, propositional, sequential thinking and those with a dominant right hemisphere coming to the Bible intuitively, imaginatively and creatively. Surely all are needed if the Scriptures are to divulge their, often hidden, riches.

      As Bowman stresses, we so easily polarize in our differences, often reinforced by our contrasting temperaments. This ‘oppositional identity’, to use Barbara Brown Taylor’s term in the context of the three Abrahamic religions, so easily reinforces our adversarial positions. “You make your case more convincingly, I must revisit and strengthen my position.”

      In terms of postmodernism and anti-foundationalism, I find the nuances of reader-response theory constructive in reminding us that we all bring our own stories, temperaments and experiences to Scripture. Edgar McKnight, for example, traces the reaffirmation of the Bible’s historicity and declares that ‘the reader and the text are interdependent’ in such a way that ‘the text is actualized by the reader in a fashion that the text may be said to actualize the reader’ (‘Post-Modern Use of the Bible: The Emergence of Reader-Oriented Criticism’, p. 15).

      Perhaps the most obstructive feature of Christians differing is in the way many of us struggle (or, more worryingly, don’t struggle) with our prejudices and blind spots. We cannot approach Scripture with a blank sheet. Inevitably we bring our hang-ups and misconceptions to the text. It is here that we all need to allow the Spirit of God to breathe fresh insight and wisdom into our muddled minds and complicated hearts. As a result, we will not necessarily end up agreeing with one another at every point but, hopefully, we will be better listeners – to ourselves, to others and to God. As we listen and, with God’s help, obey, we can be nudged towards a patience and graciousness with others, even where we differ. As St Paul puts it, ‘If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peacably with all’ (Romans 12: 18).

      This is where David sums up his analysis so well: we can discover an ‘epistemology of love’ as the Spirit prompts our knowing, and a ‘hermeneutic of love’ as we both interpret the text and allow the text to interpret us.

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