At one Annual Conference I was sure the delegates had made the wrong decision and I knew what we should have done. In the months after, my pride waned as I began thinking about what it meant to disagree with a position of the wider church.
A decade later, I found myself writing these words for the Church of the Brethren congregational ethics paper: “The prayerful conclusion not to support a denominational position or program should be a matter of anguish, not competitiveness or superiority.”
Unfortunately, I experience disagreements within the church as a quest for power and an assertion of superiority. Often the lines are drawn between what some might call progressive and conservative cultures.
Yet, I believe that when the church gathers to ask questions about the faithful response to our times, the wisdom of the whole church informs our decision. So when I disagree with what the wider communion has said, I have to ask myself what I am missing. What have I overlooked in my prideful positioning? What part of the gospel is being raised to my attention? With this posture, I find myself assuming that above all else the people I am with are sisters and brothers seeking to follow Jesus. This helps me listen differently.
So what I have learned?
From progressives I am reminded that love and grace are the root of the good news. In order to witness to the wider world, I must act from a posture of grace.
From conservatives I am reminded that grace is the catalyst for transformation. As I often have heard said: Come as you are and leave as you never were.
Progressives teach me that the church witnesses to the ways of God in the world, and our actions manifest the kingdom of God here and now.
Conservatives remind me that this building of the kingdom of God is not my own doing but is the work of God in and around me.
Progressives teach me the world is a fallen place, where war and systems of oppression diminish the image of God in everyone.
Conservatives teach me that systems do not change on their own, and that we must work on our own inner heart as much as we work for justice in the world. Righteousness and justice are two sides of the same coin.
Progressives remind me that there are many roads to faithfulness. Just because someone’s path is not my own does not mean that they are wrong and I am right.
Conservatives teach me that truth is real and not relative. While we may be on different paths, there is still a need to discern whether we are indeed seeking after the same God.
Progressives teach me to value the experiences of others. In listening to their testimonies, I learn to see the ways God is at work around and in us.
Conservatives remind me that deception is a real part of our fallen nature, and that in listening I must also test the spirit in which a testimony is given.
The greatest reminder of this balance has come through the Nicene Creed. In the last section the words are both plain and convicting: “We believe . . . in one holy catholic and apostolic church. . . .” It is that tension between being one and being holy that gets me every time. How is it that we can be one and at the same time hold up the holiness explicit in following Jesus?
Holiness highlights the boundaries that make unity a difficult project. In the practice of “seeking the mind of Christ” the Brethren have worked out a way to attend to both boundaries and unity, oneness and holiness. But I am not convinced that our current models of doing so have actually produced the fruit we seek.
We have become too proud of our positions and have confused discernment with coercion. We assume that our processes are about setting one another straight, and that one side must win the argument in order for truth to be proclaimed.
Since that conference long ago I have come back to the words of Thomas Merton. Just because I think I am following the will of God does not actually mean that I am doing so. But I believe that the desire to please God does in fact please God. I pray that we will have that desire in all that we do.
Joshua Brockway is co-coordinator of Congregational Life Ministries and director of spiritual life and discipleship for the Church of the Brethren.