Attentiveness: Us - Gordon Conwell

Attentiveness: Us

Dr. Scott W. Sunquist

Above all, clothe yourselves with love… Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. (Colossians 3:14, 16)

When Christians have disagreements it should be, “We are having a disagreement within the family,” and not be framed as an “us versus them.” The outcome of any family disagreement must be to bring the family back together in love. Christians start with unity and then listen to the pain, differences, and misunderstandings of our family members. Then we seek to address and heal the wounds and misunderstandings, bringing us to a deeper level of unity in love. We do not start with our differences. That is simply bad theology as if we are primarily defined by our community, culture, gender, or theology. We are primarily defined by our life in Christ. Always.

This was the great lesson learned in the early 20th century by those theologians who were involved in the Faith and Order Movement, the Life and Work Movement, and the International Missionary Council. Eventually these movements united and became the World Council of Churches. In the early days they tried to develop unity among churches by looking at their differences. It was a mistake, because it was bad theology. Later they looked at their similarities: what do we hold in common? Why do we work at greater unity?

The answer was simple: because we have remembered that we are already one in Jesus Christ. What we are doing is not trying to BE unified, but EXPRESS our unity already given. This is a very different way forward.

We live in an age of us versus them. This is true in politics, even in international politics (Brexit is one expression in Europe). The Church is also easily tempted to think this way in our divisions. Again, it is not just a U.S. problem, but it is global and ecumenical (the whole Church in the world). Talking to Roman Catholic bishops in Sri Lanka about 9 years ago, I was shocked that one retired bishop found greater unity with Buddhists than with newer expressions of Protestant Christianity: Pentecostals were “the other” for this very open-minded bishop. It is very painful to hear of such division within the Christian family, but we all know it is far too common.

We, as Christians, need to ask how we can be part of the solution, and not contribute more to the problem. In all of our conversations, our outcome must be a unity which embraces difference with great joy.

It is very hard sometimes to remember that Christians with which we differ are our sisters and brothers first. Very hard, but also very important. The witness we have to the world is this: we are one in Jesus Christ (and we can still be very different too!).

When we have differences, we must start with a thought like this: “She (or he) is in my family, or on my team. This is not ‘them’ I am talking with. This is my family. Lord help me understand and listen to my sister (or brother). Show me how to love this person, now.”

Such an approach requires a deep (very deep) spirituality. I believe it will require humility, courage, and an extra portion of grace. I do believe the church needs such deep formation so that we can resist the pervasive cultural untruth of “us versus them.”[1] In the Church we must start with “us”, “we,” (not “us versus them”). We must start with our common life in Jesus Christ which can also be understood as the milieu for all our discussions. And, of course this is where we finish also: “I in them and you in me: that they may become completely one so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17: 25)

Therefore, Christian mission is of the same fabric as family unity in diversity. Then we can truly say to others, “Welcome to the family!”

[1] See Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure. (NY: Penguin Books, 2018).

Scott W. Sunquist, the President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, writes a weekly blog, “Attentiveness” which is posted each Tuesday on the Gordon-Conwell web site. He welcomes comments, responses and good ideas.