I’ll never forget the moment. Years ago, William Sloane Coffman was at Bridgewater College for an endowed lecture on militarism and homosexuality.
As the liberal theologian launched into his address, he made this startling confession: “I always allow for the possibility that I might be wrong.” What a brilliant opening! By acknowledging the limits of his own knowledge and perspective, he disarmed his audience and invited it to listen in a less hostile and defensive way.
Sloane Coffin was also being biblical. Anticipating the imminent appearance of God to deliver the people from their exile in Babylon, the prophet Isaiah exhorts, “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:6-7).
Then speaking on the Lord’s behalf, he reminds these exiled Judeans, and us, that no one fully knows the mind and the ways of God. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
No matter how convicted we are of the rightness of our position, none of us fully knows the mind and ways of God. We must always allow for the possibility that we are not in full possession of the truth. That frees us to listen and learn from those with different perspectives and perhaps come closer to the truth we all seek.
After dealing with matters of belief in the first three chapters of Ephesians, the author begs Christians: “Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3).
The unity of the church is a gift of the Spirit, and humility, gentleness, patience, and forbearing love are required to maintain this unity. This God-given unity is not uniformity. The miracle of the church is that it breaks down barriers of race and class and gender and culture and brings together a breathtaking assortment of people who, for all their differences, are all united by their goal of a world redeemed in Jesus Christ.
A church that is divided and preoccupied with its differences can hardly bear witness to the world of God’s redeeming love. Those looking at all the turmoil and division in the church would wonder why they should be part of that mess: If the followers of this Jesus behave like that toward each other, either he’s a joke or they’ve forgotten what he taught and how he lived.
Of course our personal beliefs matter, and we should hold them and share them with conviction. But when we value our personal positions over the unity of the church, when we think that others in the body must believe as we do, when our belonging to the body depends on the body’s agreement with us, that’s a good time to remember that no one fully knows the mind and ways of God. That’s a good time to allow for the possibility that we might be wrong, to ask if we are “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
After urging his listeners to do just that, the author names the underlying treasures that are the basis of the church’s unity: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).
In other words, that which unites the church is far greater than anything that could divide it. If all this unites us, how could anything ever divide us? If all this binds us together, how could anything ever tear us apart?
Robbie Miller is college chaplain at Bridgewater (Va.) College, and an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren.