Preferences and the Problem of Unity in the Church
It was time to eat, or so I thought. I came home at 5:30pm, ready for dinner with my new bride. She had agreed to make dinner, yet when I came home she was not scurrying around the kitchen putting together a meal that would impress Paula Dean. Instead, she was sitting on the couch, watching a show, and recovering after a long day of work. “When’s dinner?” I asked with obvious frustration that the meal was not ready.
“Dinner?” she replied, “It’s only 5:30. No one eats dinner at 5:30.”
Oh, I beg to differ, I thought, but thankfully did not say. In my home growing up dinner was always ready at 5:30. It did not matter who was preparing the meal, unless something unexpected happened, the meal would always be ready like clockwork at 5:30. Not only did I assume this was when dinner was supposed to take place, but I also preferred it that way. I enjoyed skipping breakfast, eating an early lunch, having dinner at 5:30, and grabbing a snack before bed. Surely, I thought, others had figured out the clear benefits of structuring their eating habits in this way. I mean, who wouldn’t?
My new wife—that’s who wouldn’t. Growing up, her family ate dinner at 6:30. Her dad’s work schedule hindered him from getting home earlier so they ate a bit later. I came home that day ready for dinner and she was just beginning to think about what to cook.
Marriage exposes a wide range of these types of preferences. Some prefer a live Christmas tree, and some a fake one. Some prefer the sound of a TV or music playing all the time, while others love the sound of silence. Some want their toilet paper to greet them over the top of the roll and others from the bottom. Some want the house to remain in pristine condition throughout the day, and others could not care less. Some want a big family, and some only want one little princess. The list could go on and on.
Everyone has preferences. Certainly, we are all united in our union with God through the glorious gospel message. Yet, preferences are inescapable—a God-given facet of what makes you, you and me, me. In most cases preferences are not right or wrong either. It is not “right” to eat dinner at 5:30 and “wrong” to eat at 6:30 (as I quickly learned). These preferences are based on our life history, our experiences, our gifts, and the uniqueness of our personality and they drive hundreds of decisions we make each day.
No two people’s preferences are exactly alike. Marriage provides a unique case study for the way two people with unique preferences are forced to work together to achieve unity. Either you find a style of life that will work for you both, or you are in for a miserable marriage. It doesn’t much matter if you eat at 5:30, 6:30, or somewhere in between, but you’d better pick one and make it work.
Christians are no different. We are all different—shaped by a vast array of circumstances that God has used to draw us to Himself. We come to our roles with different sin propensities, influences, backgrounds, training, senses of calling, and experiences in the church.
These preferences make it challenging for diverse people to unite in the church. At times these preferences may move along stereotypical lines, with certain generations preferring a defined form, structure, or ethos within the church. But this is not always the case. Certainly, not all seasoned pastors prefer a liturgical worship style and not all younger pastors preach in jeans. All people do, however, prefer certain things, and the intersection of these preferences is a potential battlefield for unity.
A Divided Church
Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth was written to such a church. Paul responds to the issues that he has heard that are hindering the mission of the church. The first, and perhaps the most important, was that the church was deeply divided. To this church, Paul writes, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10). Paul warned that preferential matters can undermine and hinder the work of the church. The unity that should be seen by virtue of Christ’s work can be veiled through needless divineness, likely the result of the following four factors
The Voices that Influence Us
The preferences of Christians are often shaped by the voices that speak into their lives.
We are all prone to parrot voices of those around us. At first, this can be a good thing. When we begin our discipleship journey, few of us have any clue what we are doing, so we find other Christians we admire and mimic them. Over time, however, we can become a rote, thoughtless, caricature of someone else. This reality is not as dangerous if you are modeling the preferences of a personal mentor or trusted friend with whom you have spent countless hours. But, in our day, this is often not the case. Rather than modeling the voices of mentors, we often imitate famous leaders that we only know via their podcasts, blogs, books, or sound bytes on Twitter. We respect them, so we try to become like them.
I’ve noticed this tendency in my own preaching. If I’ve spent too many hours listening to Matt Chandler preach, then I often find the tone of my preaching changes. If I listen to David Platt, I begin my sermons with “If you have a Bible and I hope you do. . . ”. If I read Piper, then the frequency of the words “supremacy,” “exaltation,” and “glory” goes through the roof. We admire certain people, pattern ourselves after them, and judge others who don’t fit this style as well. The fact that you respect these leaders is not wrong, but when you expect others to be like them to win your approval, then you needlessly isolate yourself from others. Not only that, but you squander the privilege of being yourself, choosing to become merely a replica of someone else.
The Theology that Compels Us
Theology can have a similar divisive effect. Here it is critical to make a distinction. Truth matters, and false teaching should be aggressively exposed and rebuked in the church. It is important that the church work to think rightly about God. We should scour our Bibles in an effort to discern the faith that was once and for all handed down to the saints. We should work to align our preaching, teaching, and leadership to the revealed Word of God. Sloppy, trustless unity is not Biblical unity.
Theological concepts compel Christians to take risks, love the marginalized, and pursue pastoral ministry, church planting, or international missions. For example, the idea that men and women around the world who have never heard the gospel are destined for an eternity apart from God has incited in many a passion for international missions. In stunning irony, the very words that we use to speak about God and the way in which we use those words can be a tool Satan uses to cause division in his church. Christianss often size-up others based on the particular words they use to speak about God and the theological camps in which they stake their claim. Many align themselves to certain theological systems or concepts, join forces with others who hold similar ideas, and avoid all those who don’t see things the same way. Such theological snobbery serves to divide God’s church.
Recently I attended a meeting with a group of pastors and church leaders that included leaders from diverse generations. As the meeting concluded, one of my younger peers raised his hand and said, “This is great and all, but you guys have forgotten about the gospel. Without the gospel, none of the rest of this matters.” This guy’s heart was in the right place (I think), and he wanted to remind us of the need for gospel centrality in our ministry. What he missed was that these leaders had been talking about the gospel–they simply had not said it the way he would or used the same buzzwords that were important to him. Because they did not say it his way, he thought they had not said it at all. The result was that these established pastors felt undermined by a younger leader who had publicly shamed them for missing the gospel.
The Neglect that Angers Us
Preferences can also be formed negatively. We see something wrong and want to do something about it. A broken world certainly has enough pain and suffering to provoke anger in us all. From sex trafficking to malnutrition and unsafe drinking water to racial discord, we have plenty of pain to address. Christians often embark on their respective ministries in direct response to some unmet need in the church. From stale religious traditions to a lack of evangelistic intentionality to sloppy theology, we are all responding to something.
They are then stunned to learn that not everyone shares their passions. The person with a particular passion for orphan care may not understand why others are not heartbroken for these children as well. The individual with a passion to propel the church to think outside of the church’s walls may not understand those who have a passion to help the church formulate accurate theology. We are prone to forget that God has sovereignly orchestrated our lives, our circumstances, and our passions to prompt us to care about certain needs while doing the same in other people in order to prompt them to address other needs.
I had a wonderful experience in seminary. My time at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary was rich, and I was taught a deep love for disciplined theological insight. This, combined with my introverted and contemplative personality, means that trite, illogical, or unreflective teaching and preaching uniquely frustrate me. This is not true for others. Many pastors were trained during a time when seminaries were far from a bastion of conservative theology, and they saw their peers fall prey to social gospel liberalism. For them, academic theology does not conjure up positive notions. Those who spend hours debating seemingly minuscule theological notions only to neglect the practical aspects of loving others and sharing the gospel anger them. If I am not careful, I can quickly fall prey to a sterile intellectualism that divorces theological reflection from a life on mission. For this reason, it is vital that I consistently acknowledge this propensity and repent when it hinders my leadership of God’s people.
The Mission that Drives Us
Finally, Christians should be those who are compelled to action. We see something broken and want to be a part of God’s work to fix it. God plants a mission in our hearts and we act. This passion often consumes younger believers who are just awakening to the beauty of the gospel and the mission of the church. Many are overly confident, while still naïve, immature, and often foolish. They have a passion to experiment—to try things even though they may fail. For example, a teenager in the youth group may notice the apathy in his church and determine to give his life to church-planting to counter this complacency. His passion for this mission may isolate him from the leaders who are laboring to bring change in local churches where apathy reigns supreme.
The seasoned believer may understand his mission differently. He has invested countless hours of blood, sweat, and tears into seeing a group of people conformed to the image of Christ through the local church. It may appear to those on the outside that all he cares about is the institution of the church, but in his heart he understands his mission to love these people faithfully. He may, unintentionally, feel threatened by younger men and women who come along—fearing that they may not love people the way that he does or harm the church he’s invested in for decades.
Our preferences may be shaped by these four factors: the voices that influence us, the theology that compels us, the neglect that angers us, and the mission that drives us. These factors shape every leader and make him or her unique and produce Christians with a unique set of preferences. The danger is when these preferences become ultimate—making us abrasive to others, dismissive of their counsel, and increasingly prideful—thinking that we have somehow mastered the art of doing church. Unity does not mean that we relinquish our preferences, but that we have the wisdom and maturity to love and serve others in spite of our preferences. [quote]Unity does not mean that we relinquish our preferences, but that we have the wisdom and maturity to love and serve others in spite of our preferences.[/quote] Through genuine effort and honest conversation, they can work to see beyond preferences and find a person who may love Jesus and his church just as much as they do.