Agreeing to Disagree Agreeably
The Right Fist of Fellowship
Emmanuel Baptist could trace their history back to
colonial days. It was a typical New England congregation situated
outside of Boston. The village grew from a farming community to a
bustling suburb. The church grew with the town. Pastor Linehart had
guided them through 25 years of change. He faithfully challenged the
congregation with conviction on the three Ts—temperance, television
and the Trinity.
After Pastor Linehart retired the church formed a
new pulpit committee. They search long and hard for a new pastor and
were thrilled when Pastor Waite accepted. He was a very warm and
welcoming pastor. It was a very smooth transition for Pastor Waite
and the life and ministry of the church continued. Pastor Waite was a
good preacher and he reaffirmed the traditional Baptist doctrines at
first. A few months into his tenure he began to say some strange
things. He had a different way of talking about Jesus. He keep
pushing for the church to reach out the AIDS patients at a nearby
hospice center. Then he changed the worship service.
Brother Fowler did not like all the changes nor
did he enjoy listening to the people who came to him with their
complaints. At a Board of Deacons meeting recommended the Board call
a congregational meeting to review the ministry of Pastor Waite.
During the discussion Pastor Waite was able to convince enough of the
members that the issues could be handled in a different way. Waite
was gifted at getting his own way either one-on-one or with a small
group of people. Tensions began to escalate and the congregation
broke up into sides. Some thought Pastor Waite should go and others
defended his ministry and his ideas.
On the third Sunday in May Brother Fowler stood up
during announcements to call a congregational meeting to dismiss
Pastor Waite. The deacons had met without the pastor and agreed to
call such a meeting as required in the by-laws. As Brother Fowler
began reading the formal announcement Floria Waite, the pastor’s
wife, pounding out “Have Thine Own Way” on the piano. She was
joined by Sister Carly on the organ who had also amp-ed up the sound.
Together nothing but the music could be heard. Brother Fowler walked
over to the wall and before the congregation started the second verse
he unplugged the organ and Brother Brian shut the lid of the piano.
After a long uncomfortable pause, Brother Ray
walked over to the pastor the way a person approaches an injured
animal. They had a heated exchanged under their breath. Satisfied
Brother Ray turned and walked to his pew but his foot became
entangled in the microphone cord. He fell. The congregation gasped.
Pastor Waite delayed reaching out his hand to help Brother Ray up.
The pause was just long enough to convince those seated in the front
pew that Pastor Waite had pushed Ray down.
Ray thought so too. He bounced to his feet threw a
punch that hit the pastor square on the nose. A melee broke out.
Shoving and punching one another the congregation converged onto the
chancel. Hymn books were thrown. Someone threw the flower arrangement
at Brother Ray. The fight finally ended when the sheriff arrived and
Church conflict seldom breaks out into such
violent exchanges but internal squabbling can get very nasty.
Friendships are destroyed and seldom reconcile. Attendance declines.
Visitors avoid the church and look to quieter congregations. It
sometimes takes years to rebuild. Such conflicts cause some to see
the similarity between the church and Noah’s Ark. If it were not
for the storm raging on the outside, we could not stand the stench on
While our congregation has been blessed to avoid
such intense conflict, we are part of a denomination that has a
history of internal conflict. Before the 1700s Presbyterians broke up
into two schools of thought. The “New Lights” accused the church
leadership of becoming “Pharisee-teachers” because they did not
share the same energy, enthusiasm, and moral integrity as newly
converted believers. The “Old Lights” claimed the the Great
Awakening revivals had created religious zealots who lacked
intellectual depth to their faith. The New Lights measured a
minister's spiritual state by his evangelical spirit and the Old
school insisted on a sound theological education from an reputable
school such as Harvard, Yale or one in Europe.
When the issue of slavery engulfed the nation the
church mirrored the division of the country causing a split between
Northern and Southern Presbyterians that lasted over 120 years.
During the 1920s a faction demand that the clergy adhere to the
fundamentals of the faith. The conservative movement was abrasive and
their opponents overreacted and forced them out of the denomination.
That split has still not been mended. Fights over race relations and
the ordination of women marred the 60s and early 70s. Middle ground
could not be found. It was an either / or. Those who could not ordain
woman were forced to leave. Since 1976 we have been debating whether
to ordain those who are practicing lesbians, gays, bisexual and
transgender people. We have also had some arguments over our
understanding of who is the person of Jesus Christ. These debates are
becoming more and more intense. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians
has much to say to our denomination. I wonder if we are willing to
hear it. His letter also gives us valuable wisdom in handling
The divisions in the Corinthian Christian
community came to Paul’s attention several years after he started
the church. He writes that reports by “Chloe’s people” (v. 11),
literally, “those of Chloe.” Paul is writing to the Corinthian
community from Ephesus, and it is not certain who Chloe’s people
are. They could be slaves, free employees, family members, friends or
business associates. The expression “of Chloe” indicates members
of Chloe’s household. In the ancient world the household was an
extended group of people in some way dependent on or related to the
head of the household, and this group could include business clients
as well as slaves and relatives.
That Chloe, rather than her husband, is the point
of reference may indicate that Chloe was a widow or that she was a
woman of sufficient means to establish an identity with Paul and the
Christian communities associated with him independent of her
husband’s authority. Since Chloe is mentioned only here, there is
little on which to construct an identity for her, and the consensus
of scholarly opinion (influenced, perhaps, by the figure of Lydia,
Acts 16:14) is that Chloe was a wealthy businesswoman who supported
Paul’s missionary activity, perhaps in Ephesus, Corinth, or
Since the reports of the divisions in the
Corinthian community have come from Chloe’s “people” and not
Chloe herself, it is also possible that Chloe was not a Christian,
but that some members of her household or associates were. With so
little known about Chloe, it’s impossible to decide conclusively.
The conflict appears to be personality-generated.
As Paul describes the conflicting loyalties that were fraying the
community, he uses proper names to distinguish one group from
another. The first three names Paul mentions are men who have taught,
preached, witnessed and baptized within the new body of believers in
Corinth. Paul cites himself and Cephas (Peter) as the apostolic
witnesses who have taught and preached among them. The other teacher
who attracted a zealous following is Apollos. From Acts we learn that
this teacher is well-regarded, schooled in the ways of witnessing,
and a genuinely gifted orator. Paul seems almost amused by the
loyalties some Corinthians are investing in a certain name. He almost
mocks such one-upsmanship by writing "or I belong to Christ"
to the end of the list. Paul could not resist pointing out that our
self worth or identity is not found in any other human personality.
Paul uses three rhetorical questions to teach them
that the true nature of the church is unity not division. He first
asks, is Christ divided? This question is easy. Of course not. God is
Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.
their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against
itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against
itself will not stand. ”
Paul’s second question shows the weakness of all
human leadership. The question applies to every leader. They may be
the most talented person you have ever met. They may be articulate,
persuasive even charismatic but not one leader would ever say that
they have been crucified for their people. A few might say that they
have been crucified by their people.
The third question follows the second. If our
leaders cannot be crucified for us, than neither can we be baptized
in their name. When we are baptized we pledge are loyalty, our
devotion, our commitment to the person in whose name we are baptized.
Rules for Agreeable Disagreement
In the opening sentence of this paragraph, Paul
has pleaded with the Corinthians to come together as one. This plea
is grounded in their identity in Christ. Several questions now arise.
How are we to handle disagreements? What specific practical steps are
we to take when we disagree. Paul did not give the Corinthians a step
by step set of instructions. However, I believe that we can glean
from other passages wisdom that offer guidance
The first attitude that we must maintain in any
conflict is respect for the other person. There has been a lot of
talk recently about the lack of respect shown in American politics.
Actually, disrespect has always been apart of the political forum.
A slur upon the moral government
of the world
John Quincy Adam 1767-1848 on Thomas Jefferson
The Harpers Weekly r once summed
up an American politician in these words: "Filthy Story-Teller,
Despot, Liar, Thief, Braggart, Buffoon, Usurper, Monster, Ignoramus,
Old Scoundrel, Perjurer, Robher, Swindler, Tyrant, Field-Butcher,
Who was being talked of? Abraham
Nothing more than a well meaning
General McCellan on Abraham Lincoln
Garfield has shown that he is not
possessed of the backbone of an angleworm.
Ulysses S. Grant
(1822-85), 18th American president
The people are tired of a man who
has not an idea above a horse or a cigar.
Joseph Brown on Ulysses
S. Grant, 18th American president
Reader, suppose you were an
idiot; and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat
Mark Twain (1835-1910), American writer, on Congress
While public insults by of politicians by
journalists and other politicians has nearly become an American
pastime it should never be present in the church. Jesus reaffirmed
the Second greatest command, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Every home owner and renter knows that we will not always agree with
our neighbor. Sometimes our neighbors will be found in the pew we
share or sitting in front of us. Our neighbor may have a different
view on politics, the economy or the environment. They may understand
God in a completely different way than we do but we are called to
love them as we love ourselves. We cannot love without showing
The second trait that should mark our
interpersonal communication is understanding. Francis of Assisi once
prayed, “Lord, grant that I might seek to understand more than to
In the practice of law, good lawyers will make
sure that they can articulate the position of the other party. They
cannot mount a defense unless they know what the other person is
going to argue. Lawyers do this to win a positive decision for their
client. We are to do it for much different reasons. Do you really
know both the what and the whys of the other person? The whys may
even be more critical than the what. Sometimes people believe strange
things or want things done in a certain way for very good reasons
that are not always apparent.
When two parties are more concerned about
understanding the other person than proving their own point of view,
friction is always lessened. Striving to win is removed. Combatants
may also become allies because understanding brings clarity and
clarity sometimes reveals that the two positions have more in common
than the parties realized. Or they may even be saying the same thing
in different ways.
Sometimes even with two people showing respect
toward one another; even when they strive to understand the other,
they may never come to an agreement on every issue. In those moments
of respectful disagreement they must agree to disagree agreeably.
This was evident in the lives of two very great preachers of the 19th
century—George Whitefield and John Wesley.
During the early 1800s Whitefield and Wesley led
massive crusades that had thousands of people come to Christ without
the aid of a projector and screen, sound system, Facebook or Twitter.
Their work made a tremendous impact on this nation.
They disagreed on many issues but they never
allowed their disagreements to create conflict between their
supporters. Because their worked in harmony they changed two nations.
Benjamin Franklin once said that after George Whitefield spoke
made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or
indifferent about religion, it seem'd as if all the world were
growing religious, so that one could not walk thro' the town in an
evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every
These men could have become bitter rivals. They
could have included much time in their sermons pointing out the
errors of the other person. But they did not. On occasion they even
worked in harmony with one another. In his sermon at George
Whitefield’s funeral service, John Wesley urged the faithful to
follow Whitefield’s example and to “agree to disagree” on the
non essential doctrines that have divided denominations. This was
actually the first time this phrase had ever been used in a
theological reference. Theologians have not been known for the
Conflict is an inherent temptation to people with
strong religious interests. They study the Scriptures to learn the
heart and mind of God. They think through the logic of their position
and come to a conclusion that they believe is the best interpretation
of Scripture. Therefore all other interpretations must be wrong. We
defend our position as if we are defending God’s reputation. That
may seem silly as I explain now but, I have been in too many
discussions with pastors and lay people who suspect me of heresy.
They relentlessly pushed their arguments on me.
A story is told of two men who were shipwrecked on
an island for years. After their rescue they were brought before the
captain of the ship. The captain noted that he saw three small huts
on the island. He assumed that each man has his own hut and so asked
for what purpose did the third hut serve. The rescued sailors
explained to the captain that for safety they both stayed in one hut.
The other hut was built shortly after they arrived as a place for
worship. They designated it as the island’s designated as the
island’s First Presbyterian Church. The captain then asked what was
the purpose of the third hut, to which the sailors respond, “Oh,
that was the Second Presbyterian Church.”
Whenever two or more people gather together they
will have differences of opinion on many subjects. Paul appealed to
the Corinthians to learn to agree with one another because just as
Christ cannot be divided neither can they. Learning to agree with one
another is not an option but an imperative.