7 Ways to Hold Space For Those You Disagree With
Unless you're part of a fundamentalist cult, then good luck finding a faith community where everyone believes the same thing.
Granted, some churches are more homogenous than others. Certain theological perspectives have narrower views of what it means to be a Christian, and as a result their churches are made up of people who mostly agree with one another (or, mostly agree with the lead pastor). Other theological perspectives are inherently more open due to their broader understanding of what is (and isn't) important, which can make for a more diverse church body.
Sometimes, though, it is easier to talk about and idealize diversity of belief within a church body than it is to actually live in to it. The risk of proclaiming that your church "holds space" for everybody, and that everyone is welcome no matter their creed, is that then you might actually get people in your church who think wildly different than you do!
Listening to Romans 14
Paul wrote a letter in the first century to the Christian Church in Rome. The church was fractured along ethnic lines between Jewish and Gentile Christians and Paul was pleading with them to become a more hospitable, peace-filled, and unified community. After laying a theological foundation for what is and isn't the Gospel, and after establishing that both Jews and non-Jews are equal in the eyes of God, beginning in chapter 12 Paul gets to some practical ways the church can live in unity.
For me, chapter 14 is a gold mine. You should read it here.
In short, there were two groups: the "weak" Christians who believed it was wrong to eat meat (presumably because it had been sacrificed to a pagan god) and who honored some days as holy; and the "strong" Christians who saw all days the same and who freely ate meat.
For Paul these distinctions were not cause for breaking the unity of the church. Instead they were to learn to live with one another in peace and humility.
Using chapter 14 I want to pull out 7 observations of ways that Paul might be inviting and challenging us to hold space for those who disagree with us.
(These 7 principles could apply in a church setting, in a work environment, in a family context, or even in a relationship. For the sake of this post, I have in mind the church context.)
1) Separate the Person from the Belief.
The first move in holding space for those who believe differently from you is to differentiate between the person and the person's beliefs. As Paul wrote in verse 1, "Welcome the person who is weak in faith."
Churches may not give equal credence or equal pulpit-time to all views and perspectives, but this need not mean that we stop welcoming the people who believe differently. Have you ever had that moment when you meet someone new and things are going well and then all of a sudden you discover that they are a democrat!? Or a republican?! Or they hold to some other political or religious philosophy that you are vehemently against? Doesn't this knowledge of how they think about things sometimes compel us to alter our posture towards them?
But when we can do the internal work to separate who they are from what they believe then we have a good starting point of holding space for them.
2) Remember Who They Are
Once we see this other person as a person instead of as someone-who-believes-this-way-about-this-thing, then we can take another step back and remember that they, just like you, are a beloved child of God. As Paul said in verse, "we belong to God."
Yes. We belong to God. We don't belong to a political party or a theological heritage. We belong to God.
This is how we can love our enemies and bless those who curse us. Because we aren't loving or blessing what they think (or even what they do). We are loving and blessing them.
You are a child of God. They are a child of God. Remember that.
3) Trust Their Journey to God
Eating meat or not eating meat are mutually exclusive beliefs and actions. Which means you either do one or the other. Isn't it fascinating, then, that Paul uses spectrum language to describe the different camps in Rome? He doesn't say, "welcome those who are wrong in the faith." No, he says that some are weak and some are strong. Implying a sense of movement and transformation.
Everyone is on their own journey of faith and it will eventually lead to their own standing before God, "all people will stand before God, each will give an account" (vs 11-12), and "Each person must have their own convictions" (vs 5).
In other words, their journey is up to them and God. Not you.
Here's the thing, disagreeing with someone is fine. But forcing your perspective on them is not. Trying to make a forced change in their spiritual journey is likely working against the work of God in their life. Everyone is on some sort of journey, and when we entrust people's journeys to God and quite thinking in terms of "right and wrong" so much, then we can more easily hold space for one another in our churches.
4) Keep Things in Perspective
While matters of theology and belief are important, they might not be as important as things like the way we treat each other and the choices we make to live in peace. In verse 17 Paul writes, "God's kingdom isn't about eating food and drinking but about righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit."
One way to hold space for people who disagree with you is to remember what is most important. You might disagree on atonement theology, or this historicity of the Old Testament, or the origins of the universe, but let's not get confused in to thinking that those are what matters most.
Recall Jesus when he separated the sheep and the goats. That's a helpful reminder about what is important.
You may disagree on some matters of doctrine, but can you both seek justice? Can you both pray? Can you both love the outcast? Can you both show unconditional love?
5) Be Intentional About Making Peace
A faith community that is hospitable to all people and holds space for varying beliefs does not happen by accident. It won't just come about if you hope for it.
You have to be intentional about doing things that create this sort of environment. Again from Paul, verse 19, "So let's strive for the things that bring peace and the things that build each other up."
Striving. Working. Trying.
One idea I think is a powerful mechanism for being intentional about making peace is to give others the benefit of the doubt. Like these hilarious commercials from Ameriquest remind us, don't judge people too quickly. Don't assume the worst in people's actions.
Give them the benefit of the doubt when they snub you at church on Sunday. Assume the best when they don't like your photo on Instagram.
Be gracious in your posture towards people, always thinking of a positive reason why they might have done what they did or said what they did.
You'll be amazed at the peace you experience in your own heart (not to mention in your relationships with others) when you intentionally decide to not judge people too quickly. This sort of intentionality for creating a peaceful environment is key for holding space for those who think differently than we do. Assume positive intent.
6) Defer Your Liberties
This was Paul's primary point in chapter 14. Those who saw nothing wrong with eating meat were instructed to be the one's who acquiesced to the other.
From verses 14-15, "I know and I'm convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is wrong to eat in itself. But if someone thinks something is wrong to eat, it becomes wrong for that person. If your brother or sister is upset by your food, you are no longer walking in love."
The vibe of a hospitable faith community that holds space for everyone is a place where people are not shamed or made to feel dumb for their beliefs. Personally, I know I can be guilty of expressing my liberties in ways that sometimes makes other people feel silly if they don't agree.
For those who don't feel like "action X" or "belief Y" are wrong to have, it is not their job to try and convince another person (which goes back to entrusting people's journeys to God) that they need to loosen up. That's it's "no big deal."
It IS a big deal, according to Paul, that we not offend our brothers and sisters because of our own sense of freedom.
7) Realize You Might Both Be Right
The last observation I have from Romans 14 about how to hold space for people who think and feel differently than we do, within church contexts, is to realize that perhaps both of you are right!
Even though Paul himself was convinced there was nothing wrong with eating meat, he could still recognize that "Those who eat, eat for the Lord, because they thank God. And those who don't eat, don't eat for the Lord, and they thank the Lord too." (vs 6)
Dualistic, black and white thinking on matters of faith and religion and even ethics, can fall really short, really fast. Sometimes there is just no way to reasonably defend one position as the one and only true position.
How many of us have spent years defending one idea as being the truth, but then life experiences and relationships with other people have caused us to change our thinking? So why exhaust so much energy insisting that your way of thinking is the only way of thinking?
Maybe you're both right. (And, conversely, maybe you're both wrong. But that sounds too pessimistic for my taste...)
Holding space for other people will go a whole lot more smoothly if you relax your insistence that you are right and they are wrong. Instead, consider the possibility that you, right now in your spiritual journey that Christ is leading you down, are right. And they, in their journey that Christ is leading them down, are also right.
You'll Never Agree on Everything
Churches are hopefully a diverse community of people who come from all walks of life. Along with that comes a unique challenge to learn to hold space for one another when disagreements arise.
Based on Romans 14 I'd like to suggest...
We are never going to agree on everything, to be sure. But we can remember that we are children of God.
We are never going to agree on everything. But we can trust God to carry one another through their own journey.
We are never going to agree on everything. But we can do our best to keep things in perspective, rallying around justice, peace, and mercy, and not quarrel over theological differnces.
We are never going to agree on everything. But we can make intentional moves toward one another to make peace. To build relationships with people who are different than we are.
We are never going to agree on everything. But we can be mindful of those areas we might personally enjoy liberty, and for those in our community who feel differently we will decide to not engage rather than make them feel small.
We are never going to agree on everything. But that doesn’t mean that one of us is right, and the other is wrong.
We are never going to agree on everything. And, at least for us at Sojourn Grace, that’s what makes us a Collective.
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