For writers, tone is a tricky thing to get right.
It’s also one of the most important things to get right.
And like most writers, sometimes I get tone right and sometimes I get tone wrong. As a Christian, I work especially hard to make my writing as irenic and winsome as possible, while remaining faithful to my authentic voice. Which is hard. Because my authentic voice is kinda snarky.
But when I began writing about gender equality in evangelicalism, it became apparent to me that no matter how careful my tone, no matter how reasoned my arguments, no matter how gentle my critique, my work would inevitably be characterized as “divisive.”
“How dare you challenge a man of God?”
“The world can’t see us disagreeing like this; it hurts our witness.”
“We should be talking about more important matters.”
“Let’s just focus on what we agree on and let these minor issues go.”
“Can’t this be settled privately and not publicly?”
"You need to calm down and stop being so emotional."
“Stop being so divisive. Jesus wants us to be unified.”
Just yesterday, when I raised some challenges about an evangelical leadership conference in which just 4 out 112 speakers were women, another writer characterized the situation as a “meltdown…from which no one has seemed to emerge more Christlike” and then issued a call for unity, complete with a prayer.
Similarly, when a group of Christians in the Asian American community recently released a letter detailing some of their concerns about common stereotypes and prejudices within the evangelical community, I saw many on social media critique this action as “divisive” and “harmful to Christian unity.” One person asked why this group had to “air the church’s dirty laundry” before a watching world?
This is a common response to those of us who speak from the margins of evangelical Christianity about issues around gender, race, and sexuality, and it’s an effective one because it appeals to something most of us value deeply: Christian unity.
Like most Christians, when I read the prayer of Jesus from John 17, my heart aches for the day when the Church will be unified, when our love for one another and for the world will be our greatest witness to the truth of the gospel message. And any time another Christian suggests I’m not doing my part to help make this happen, I feel a sharp stab of guilt.
Maybe I shouldn’t say anything.
Maybe I should just let it go.
Maybe I was wrong to bring it up.
At times, these are good instincts to follow and it’s best just to let something go. But far too often, the “stop-being-so-divisive” line is used by those in power to diffuse, or even silence, difficult conversations about why things might need to change.
In fact, I know from speaking with several survivors that in some extreme cases, this same rationale—“You don’t want to cause division in our church, do you?”—has been used to discourage victims of abuse from reporting their abuse to the authorities.
One of the easiest ways to discredit another Christian is to label their questions, concerns, or calls for justice as too "divisive."
Obviously, there are issues of privilege at play here. Because the reality is, some folks benefit from the status quo, and it is in their best interest to characterize every challenge to the status quo as wholly negative and a threat to Christian unity. This makes it difficult for those who perceive inequity within the status quo to challenge it without being labeled as troublemakers out to make Jesus look bad.
In other words, the advantage goes to the powerful because things rarely change without friction. And if friction is equated with divisiveness, then the powerful can appeal to Christ’s call for unity as a way of silencing critics. This was an effective strategy for white clergy who opposed Civil Rights.
Meanwhile, those on the margins are typically working with less power, smaller platforms, thinner finances, and fewer numbers and in the face of subtle but pervasive stereotypes, prejudices, and disadvantages that make it nearly impossible to advocate for change without causing friction.
For example, it always makes me laugh when I’m told that women shouldn’t use social media to advocate for gender equality in the church, but should instead do so quietly within their own congregations. These people seem to have forgotten that social media is often the ONLY platform women have for speaking to the church! That’s kinda what we’re trying to change! And when it comes to discussing gender issues in particular, things get extra challenging because where outspoken men are often described as “passionate,” “convicted,” and “strong,” outspoken women are often perceived as “shrill,” “emotional,” “whiney,” and “bitchy.” So women speaking about gender issues in the church have a lot working against them when public questions or critiques are automatically dismissed as divisive and whiney.
I don’t like being divisive. Believe me.
But I don’t like being silenced either.
There has to be a way to discuss controversial, difficult topics—even on social media—without resorting to outright hostility on the one hand or sanctimonious silencing on the other.
And I wonder if it begins with acknowledging that friction doesn't mean division.
We Christians suffer under this rather fanciful notion that no one in the early church ever argued about anything, that the first disciples of Jesus sat around singing hymns and munching on communion bread, nodding along in perfect agreement about how to apply the teachings of Jesus to their lives.
But the epistles would suggest otherwise. The epistles would suggest that when you throw together a group of people from vastly different ethnic, religious, socio-economic, and religious backgrounds there is going to be some serious friction. Within the early church raged debates over everything from the application of the Mosaic law, to whether Christians should eat food offered to idols, to how to handle the influx of widows in the church, to disagreements around circumcision, religious festivals, finances, missions, and theology.
So when Paul urged the Ephesian church to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace,” he followed this with an acknowledgement of the Church’s diversity, in which there are “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers…so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
This Body is still growing, so there will be growing pains.
But if we love one another through these growing pains, “then we will no longer be infants…instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”
I suspect Paul combined this call for the Body’s unity with an acknowledgement of the Body’s diversity because he knew that unity isn’t the same as uniformity.
We’re not called to be alike; we’re called to love.
We’re not called to agree; we’re called to love.
We’re not even called to get along all the time; we’re called to love each other as brothers and sisters, as people united in one baptism, one communion, one adoption.
Maybe we need these differences to be animated, to be alive, to mature. Maybe friction isn’t a sign of decay, but of growth.
The world is certainly watching. But this doesn't mean we hide our dirty laundry, slap on mechanical smiles, and gloss over all the injustices and abuses, conflicts and disagreements, diversity and denominationalism present within the Church; it means we expose them. It means we talk about them boldly and with integrity, with passion and with love. I suspect that talking about our differences is better for our witness than supressing them, and I'm sure that exposing corruption and abuse is better for our witness than hiding them.
And when it comes to injustice, a far more important question to me than "What will the world think if they see us disagreeing?" is "What will the world think if they don't?"
So when we find ourselves in a position of privilege in the Church, this means listening with patience to the concerns of our brothers and sisters from the margins, even when their calls for change strike us, at first, as bitter or unwelcome.
When we find ourselves speaking from the margins, this means putting in extra effort to ensure that our challenges are issued respectfully and kindly, even when it seems exhausting and unfair to do so. And it means responding to shaming tactings (deliberate or inadvertent) by pressing on and continuing to speak the truth, even when it makes people uncomfortable.
For all of us, I think it means abandoning the notion that unity requires uniformity and that arguments, even heated ones, mean we don’t love one another.
We are, after all, brothers and sisters.
Let's fight like them.
[P.S.: I think Jonathan Merritt responded in a helpful way to the situation by taking a few steps back and examining the overall Christian conference culture here.]