I have friends who believe in baptizing infants. We remain friends even though we both believe that (a) getting baptism right is important and that (b) the other guy is just plain wrong. Though we disagree about a matter that is weighty to both of us, we get along just fine.
Of course, there are some things my friends’ churches and my own would not be able to do together. There are also things our churches could do together, if there was much to gain by doing them together. Nonetheless, we get along just fine.
Apparently it’s possible to hold firmly to a set of convictions, live them faithfully, and teach them emphatically, yet simultaneously stay on respectful, friendly terms with Christians who reject those same convictions.
So why can’t the fundamentalism-and-culture disagreements work that way?
Well, they can. It does happen.
Just as I have friends who baptize infants, I also have friends who use music in worship that I could never use in good conscience. They do other culture-oriented things I don’t think are right either. Each of us knows where the other stands and, to some degree, why. We don’t back down, but we get along fine. If we wanted to, I think we could even have a healthy debate about these matters. So why is the interaction on culture questions usually so unlike that?
One reason is that a healthy debate begins with a certain state of mind and heart. Clues about that state of heart are evident in the peaceful relationships between paedo- and credo-baptists, and evident also among believers who differ on culture, yet get along.
Respect has several varieties. One is the kind we show by choice independently of what we think or feel; it is something owed that we pay (Rom. 13:7). If Mr. Obama came by for a visit, I’d try to make sure he got the most comfortable seat in the house and the best meal we could put on. I’d call him “Mr. President.”
Another kind of respect must be earned. It’s a combination of intellect and heart: positive opinion plus high regard. We don’t consciously choose this kind of respect because the object of the respect evokes it in us by his or her spirit and conduct.
A third kind of respect is perhaps a blend of the first two. It is internal, yet intentional. It’s a decision to consider what sort of opinion I ought to have of persons when they have not earned my unintentional respect but have also not earned a lack of respect from me. I may have to examine my heart and challenge my impulses, but if I do, I am forced to admit that I have no reason to believe this person is a fool, a deceiver, or a malicious crank.
In other words, there is a kind of respect we owe fellow human beings—and far more so, fellow believers—by default. It’s a respect we presume.
Between my culturally non-conservative friends and me there exists a level of respect that contributes a great deal to our getting along. I know that their beliefs in this area do not constitute proof that their love for God is inferior, that their commitment to obedience is lacking, or that—on the whole—their degree of ignorance is greater than mine. (They are ignorant, but we are all ignorant of many things!)
For the most part, they apparently believe the same about me.
Though there are still ugly fights over baptism now and then, the tension isn’t nearly so ubiquitous as what we typicially see over culture questions. Cases of conspicuous gettin’ along are far more common among folk who disagree on baptism, too. Why?
For one thing, the baptism debate is so, so old. A product of that oldness is that the conflicting views have actually become clear—and clarity discourages ugly meta-debate. Anyone who wants to understand the baptism debate can pretty easily find literature in which the conflicting views are fairly represented in terms the adherents accept (mostly), and in which both the points of agreement and the points of disagreement are widely recognized.
In short, at some point, the baptism debate grew up. It got beyond adolescence. Some who disagree on that subject can’t get along. But the debate itself has grown up. It gets adolescent only when those involved ignore what has already been settled.
My culturally non-conservative friends and I get along, in part, because we understand to some degree what the other believes and why. Though some points of disagreement and reasons why remain unclear, we understand that our differences do not in themselves entitle either of us to think ourselves better than the other. Oh, we both think we’re better than the other in the areas in question. We just understand that better in one way is just better in one way, nothing more. If my fellow believer is more patient than I am, more joyful than I am, more humble than I am, it doesn’t make him right about culture. But it does mean he’s still more patient, more joyful and more humble.
And if I fail to appreciate that, I’m sinning, plain and simple.
I have a relative who is an ordained Episcopal priest. We get along fine. It helps that his denomination is what most of us would call separatist (though they do not see it that way at all)—it is a communion that holds to the inerrancy and authority of Scripture and emphasizes the gospel.
This relative and I are not together often, but when we are, the conversation is—at least for me—fascinating. Among other things, he posseses an awareness of huge chunks of Christian history from a perspective I don’t find anywhere else. But I digress. We get along mostly because we already know most of the places where we emphatically differ and simply don’t “go there.” It’s amazing how well you can get along with someone if niether of you ever attempts to talk the other out of anything.
Because that’s our usual mode of operation, I’m confident that neither of us would intentionally go to points of disagreement unless we had one of two goals in mind (if not both): (1) increasing understanding, or (2) a sincere effort to persuade.
How does this experience relate to the fundamentalism and culture debate? Mostly in this way: many who are vocal on the subject claim they are not interested in the subject. It’s a curious thing. If they see the whole matter as unimportant and/or long-settled, why do they keep talking about it, sometimes quite loudly?
I can only think of a couple of explanations: (1) they are more interested or less settled in their view than they realize, or (2) they engage in the conflict for some purpose other than increasing understanding or a sincere effort to persuade. In the second case, what would their other aims be? I’ll not speculate, though it’s tempting—instead, an assertion:
Unless our aim is to increase understanding or make a sincere attempt to persuade we ought to seriously consider simply leaving the matter alone. “Peace through space” sounds like an ad for the International Space Station, but it might also make for a good motto for many in the culture clash.
If for no other reason (but, yes, there are other reasons), the ambiguities of language virtually guarantee that even people who respect one another will—if they discuss or debate things they strongly disagree about—verbally offend. So believers who strongly disagree and manage to remain friends are those who, along with other factors, practice certain disciplines. I’ll not develop them in detail here, but these disciplines relate specifically to how we respond when people do us wrong with their words.
Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. For “Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit; let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. (ESV, 1 Pet. 3:8-11)
Of course, there’s a time and place to rebuke. But it’s our nature (as human beings, not as fundamentalists) to employ the tool of rebuke too often, too soon, or simply for the wrong reasons. Sometimes we’re really just being vindictive or venting a bitter spirit.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom. 12:19-21)