Being the Church Amid Disagreement

To the people called United Methodists, with the hope that through prayer and holy conferencing, we will engage each other in love and grace as we deal with issues upon which we disagree:

As a church facing a new millennium we continue to disagree, sometimes bitterly. Important biblical, theological and scientific questions remain in dispute among persons of good will. This has been true on many issues throughout the history of our denomination. Called as United Methodists to be vigilant on issues of inclusiveness, we urge the church to pause in reflection on the process of disagreement. What hopes would we lift up for our own denomination? When we engage in deeply felt struggle for the truth, emotions run high. Our human nature moves us to yearn for "victory"—for winning the debate, making judgment in hopes it will settle the controversy that causes us discomfort and pain as a community. The "meaning" of any communication has two parts: the content, ideas, or position on the issue, and the feelings we have about those ideas. In prolonged disagreement, we may find ourselves stepping on the feelings of others in our urgency to find the true, winning position. We remind ourselves as a community of faith to remember who we are, what both civil and religious communities perceive about us in our discord, and what we have called ourselves to be as a church.

Biblical and Theological Reflections and a Parable for Our Time

In "The Ministry of all Christians," (¶ 138), we hold ourselves accountable to this call:

"We recognize that God made all creation and saw that it was good. As a diverse people of God who bring special gifts and evidences of God's grace to the unity of the church and to society, we are called to be faithful to the example of Jesus ministry to all persons."

We can heed this call to value all of God's creation as good, and all of God's children as capable of bringing special gifts to our church and to society. These special gifts can be gifts of engaged listening, careful feedback during disagreement, and suspension of judgment and retribution. The diverse people of God are indeed that—diverse. We do not always agree. But if we heed this call to value all of God's creation, we show our world how to disagree in remarkable and loving ways.

Jesus shared a parable that speaks powerfully to our time. In the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30), he shares a story about difference, discord, and judgment that becomes a parable of grace. When asked if the weeds should not be culled from the wheat field, the householder claimed the responsibility to judge what would happen to the weeds when the harvest came. The householder did not dispute that there were weeds in the fields, but the judgment of which were weeds and what would happen to them was the householder's to make. The householder refuses to judge at the beginning. This is a story about rushing to judgment, and Jesus shares a caution based on our human nature to take action on assumptions that may or may not be true. When separation is graciously postponed, what is perceived as weed may be found to be wheat indeed! The reign of God as we know it now, as we experience it, as we try to be faithful within it, is not precise and neat and orderly. This imprecision comes as a grace to us. First of all, it frees us from the building of walls that exclude and efforts to have a "pure" community. Surely careful thought must be given to the articulation of Christian doctrine and the exposition of Christian behavior. But the grace of imprecision allows us to keep those who differ with us within the concern and the care of God. Secondly, strengthened and guided by the grace of God, we must make our own prayerful decisions about good and evil, about right and wrong as clearly as possible. But the ultimate judgment upon others and upon ourselves is not ours to make. Only God can make such judgments, and in due course this will be done. In the meantime, we must be more patient with one another. Because we do not have to sort out now who is and who is not within the reign of God, we can live with openness and freedom toward others. We must not separate ourselves from those who see things differently. This is a parable about grace and about being faithful in living it.

How shall we disagree?

In every community, there will be conflict and differences of opinion, some quite strongly held. How we disagree, more so than which position prevails, has a powerful impact on many audiences. As caring Christians, we carry responsibility for this impact whether or not we are aware of it. These are some of those audiences watching how we Christians disagree, argue, and debate together:

  • young people, our youth and children who watch us as role models for their lives,
  • our local congregations looking for wisdom and guidance in their ministry,
  • leaders of our nations and local communities worldwide,
  • those about whom we debate, for most discord is rooted in experiences of human lives, even the extreme example of less scrupulous, even reckless persons who may use our protestations and the invisible atmosphere our discord creates to justify their acts of violence.

Power of a discerning question

In the midst of engaged debate, our ability to listen to one another can weaken. True listening, hearing feelings as well as ideas, can be enhanced when we can focus for a time on questions that help us discern one another's positions on matters of importance. Questions that might help us do this are:

(1) How shall we agree to treat one another while we disagree?

(2) How can we show hospitality to one another while we disagree?

(3) What hopes for The United Methodist Church do we have in common?

(4) When confronting divisive issues along which hard lines have been drawn, can we temporarily suspend decision-making in order, through prayer, silence and study, to discern the appropriate response for these times?

(5) How can we use this period of discernment to deepen our understanding of all positions on the issue?

(6) Until we can agree on a resolution, can we agree to suspend motions, decisions, policy development that will assert one position over the other?

(7) How could we use this time of suspended judgment to deepen our understanding of all positions on the issue?

(8) What are the positive and negative effects of our disagreement on our congregations, our members, our clergy and laity, and on the communities where we serve?

(9) What action as a community of faith should we take in light of these effects?

(10) What would we like the nature of our community in The United Methodist Church to be when this issue that divides us is finally resolved?

Ministry of mindfulness

Local congregations, study groups, cabinets, clusters and districts, annual, central and General Conferences can be holy and hopeful places of discord. Regardless of our positions on controversial issues, we can practice a ministry of mindfulness of the impact of our discord. Some strategies may be helpful in these settings:

(1) Begin by sharing and studying relevant scripture, as scripture is our primary authority, and also consulting additional aspects of the Wesleyan quadrilateral—tradition, reason, and experience.

(2) Begin sharing where we agree.

(3) Remember to honor our relationships to each other as children of God.

(4) Practice the art of "feedback"—true feedback in which many positions are shared and heard, and repeated back.

(5) Place emphasis on the "spiritual discipline of true listening"—attending and listening for the feelings of the others as well as their ideas.

(6) Use facilitators to maintain safe spaces for difficult feelings and ideas to be shared.

(7) Address the issues. In the absence of consensus, share clearly and candidly what we are willing to risk for the sake of justice and compassion.

(8) Be mindful not to attack the messenger when discussing the message.

(9) Use principles of mediation, focusing on interests (what we would like to happen, how we would envision things to be) rather than the positions or stands we take to get there.

(10) Speak faithful hope for the possibility of future reconciliation and resolution. What will it be like when we are through this discord?

(11) Practice "holy conferencing"—infusing debate and dialogue with prayer, silence, and more prayer. Pray for each other, for our church, for future possibilities, for hope, and for guidance of the Holy Spirit as we move through discord.

(12) Utilize resources available to our groups, congregations, conferences and agencies to strengthen our sense of community, especially in disagreement.

(13) Pray for and practice the discipline of patience. Forging new understandings and agreements will take intentional effort.


See Social Principles, ¶ 161.

From The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church — 2004. Copyright © 2004 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.

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