Guest Post: Bridging the Theological Divide

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Today’s guest post comes to us from David Nilsen, whose contribution to the Rally to Restore Unity was one of my favorites. David is a writer from a small town in Ohio. He currently works as an IT Specialist at a bank and also runs his own used book business on the side.  He and his wife Lyndie have experienced some changes in their faith over the past few years, and are currently in the process of leaving (on good terms) their Reformed church and looking for a new one to call home. David blogs about faith, marriage, parenting and adoption. And he says he can make better paper airplanes than you.  

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One Sunday when I was eleven years old my dad was the guest speaker at a church in a nearby town. He spent much of his sermon talking about the value of human life and how horrible euthanasia was. Being eleven and having the vocabulary of an eleven year old, I spent the entire sermon thinking, What does my dad have against the youth in Asia? This seems racist. 

What made it even more uncomfortable for me was that a friend's family was there, and they had brought their sixteen year old foreign exchange student from Thailand. He was sitting in the pew in front of me. I spent half the sermon staring at the back of Thailand Pete's head thinking, This must be hard for him. 

I exited the church somewhat somber, trying to figure out what the Asian young people had done to piss my dad off so much, wondering if maybe racism was okay for Christians as long as it wasn't against black people. That didn't seem right, because even though everyone I knew was white except for Thailand Pete, I knew we weren't supposed to be racist. Like seriously ever. It was in the Bible. 

I finally asked my dad about it later that day. And he clarified himself. And I went on with the rest of my day and my life never again having to think my dad was racist, which was and is a relief.  

As an adult Christian I have often disagreed both culturally and doctrinally with the conservative believers with whom I attend church,  and yet we've remained in fellowship together. I have learned two important lessons from this that I will carry with me the rest of my life as a follower of Jesus. The first is that actually talking things out clears up a lot of misunderstandings, and the second is that it's really hard to feel hateful toward people who just fed you dinner. 

I agree on very little doctrinally with my pastors. They are Reformed, with all the beliefs that come with that. They are also among the best men I have ever known. I have given their Calvinist hearts plenty to worry about in the last few years, but they have consistently treated me with kindness, grace and understanding. They have told me when they disagree and think I am on dangerous ground theologically, but this has always been framed within the context of love. A relationship of mutual respect has allowed our differences to be a sharpening tool for us rather than a blade of division.

If I were not privileged to be in these relationships, it would be easy for me to demonize or belittle people who hold theological beliefs more conservative than my own. But when the person who holds some doctrinal position diametrically opposed to my own is sitting across the table from me eating chicken wings while we watch football, laughing at the joke I just made, it becomes a little harder to start a flame war with him online. We're friends, so when we find ourselves stuck between parting ways or talking out differences, we've so far been able to choose the latter. 

You will not always like the people who disagree with you, and you will not always be able to have civil disagreements with them. But if you can start and maintain relationships with Christians who see things differently than you do, you'll discover they are real human beings who care about other people. When they think a lot of the same things are funny, and when they like a lot of the TV shows you like, you'll have a harder time calling them (and people like them) Pharisees or Heretics or Nazis or whatever else you are tempted to call the people with whom you disagree.   

When I thought my dad had an issue with all the teenagers in Asia, two things kept me from taking the misunderstanding too far. I asked (and allowed) him to explain himself at the first available opportunity, and I trusted his heart in the mean time because our existing relationship had revealed him to be an all around good guy. If we use the same pattern with other Christians, we can often save ourselves, and I think maybe even God, a lot of grief.

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Have you ever found yourself in a situation in which you were a minority, theologically or politically? How did you maintain healthy relationships in spite of that? 

[Note: If you are in the process of deciding whether or not to stay at your church, David's been working through that on his blog and has some great thoughts.]

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