One of the three major topics at this meeting is “moral discernment” – which behaviors and actions the church thinks are okay, and which aren’t.
But the question for us wasn’t so much about what it is okay but how we decide what is okay. We were looking at the process of how we come to our particular beliefs about moral and ethical behavior.
The reason for looking at process rather than end product is simple: the churches around the world – and even our own countries – often come to different opinions about what behavior is okay and what isn’t.
And in the body of Christ, it’s not good enough to simply assume that those who disagree with us are not faithful, or not reading their scriptures correctly, or are just plain wrong. All of us are seeking God’s leading, all of us are trying to be faithful disciples. So maybe there is something to learn from each other about how we come to our points of view. If nothing else, even if don’t agree about moral positions maybe we can at least look at each other and say, “I understand how, as a faithful Christian, you got to your position.” That’d be a big step forward, and might at least enable us to stay at the table even when we disagree.
So we each had a case study to read (mine, as previously noted, was on controversy around stem cells), and in small groups we tried to figure out how the people in the stories had come to their convictions on each side of the issue. The trick was that we were not supposed to take sides on the issue itself – or even discuss the merits of one argument or another.
That proved difficult. My group, like all of them, was diverse: Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Reformed, Presbyterian; from Germany, Argentina, Myanmar, Malawi, Greece, Zambia, Sweden, and the United States. The morning session on Saturday left me feeling wary – our group had a hard time getting away from “but the Bible says…” or “my church teaches…” There was a lot of confusion about what, exactly, our task was.
But by afternoon, we found our stride. We moved from what we liked and didn’t like about the case study into new ways of thinking:
- what we appreciated about how others came to their conclusions
- where we saw faithfulness in the other that we hadn’t before
- perspectives on discernment that we hadn’t considered
- the challenges of dealing with issues not directly addressed by Scripture
- a fuller understanding of the ways in which we come to our own perspectives
It’s one thing to say, “We believe Scripture is the ultimate authority.” It’s another thing to admit to each other that we preference particular verses over others, or that our culture impacts our interpretation, or that our emotions, our personal experiences, or our sense of power (or lack thereof) figure heavily in our moral discernment.
These things are not necessarily bad. They are at the very least human realities, and we’re all subject to being human no matter how much we want to believe otherwise.
Being able to admit that to each other – especially as we discern moral “absolutes” – may be the key to sticking together in times of disagreement.