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#CRClistens: Dialogue as a Hopeful Practice

I’m grateful to have been invited to contribute to this series on “How to stay in conversation with the ‘Other Side’.” As our congregations in the CRC become increasingly diverse, this is an essential question. Having been involved in dialogue, in many different contexts, at the intersection of faith and sexuality and the realities of our LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex) siblings in Christ for the last 14 years, I have been able to observe helpful and effective postures and values in the pursuit of mutual understanding and unity.

Even with the use of quotations, phrases like ‘the other side’ perpetuate the perception of polarity, competing views, difference, and separation. When we choose to engage in dialogue we are intentionally seeking a mode of communication that resists such taking of sides. Dialogue invites participants to transcend debate, argument, and persuasion to instead seek common ground, shared goals, and ways to work together. Imagine if that was the focus at Synod this June. If we all stand in the righteousness of Christ and we all confess that we seek to glorify God, build the church, and participate in God’s mission in the world, then surely we have all the resources we need to pursue hope-filled dialogue and invest in building our sense of unity despite differences and disagreements.

So what will help us do that?
• Remember the essentials of our faith: Whether we are trying to dialogue about human origins, sexuality, conciliation with First Nations peoples, or the tensions between denominational commitments and local autonomy, all participants are Beloved of God made right with God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We stand together in the security of the sufficiency of the cross. We don’t need to fear. Our inevitable limitations in discernment or theological errors are all superseded by the accomplished victory of Christ. God’s ultimate good plans for the church cannot be thwarted.

• Remember the role of interpretation: Faithful Christians seek to be guided by God’s Word, the Scriptures. The gift of the living Word cannot fail to reveal God’s love for creation, God’s plan of redemption, and the hope we have in Christ Jesus. Human readings of Scripture are always interpretive – therefore calling us to faith. There are no perfect interpreters of Scripture and we are all called to embrace humility in our engagement with the text.

• Remember Jesus’ prayer for the church: In his high priestly prayer in John 17, Jesus prayed that the church would be one so that the world would know the good news. Jesus ties the unity of the church with our public witness. When we are unified, not uniform but standing together despite our interpretive differences, the world will glimpse the goodness of God’s desire for the reconciliation and redemption of all that God has made.

• Remember our incarnational calling: Jesus models for us the willingness to relinquish the privilege of divinity to live in identification with humanity. This was God’s strategy to overcome our estrangement. When someone says, “I’m just not convinced (of your interpretation, position etc.)” particularly when this position is held by someone on the margins, this should be an invitation to consider the effect of privilege. As an example, when the church was struggling with women in office, it was important for men to lay down their male privilege and seek to engage the Scriptures from the perspective of women. While this is just one factor in the interpretive and discernment journey, it is a significant one that is often overlooked. When dialoguing about the doctrine of discovery, if you are not a First Nations or Native American person, have you engaged the invitation to lay down your privilege and see this report through the eyes of a First Nations or Native American person?

Remember to entrust others to the Holy Spirit: In many debates within the church, there is a struggle for power and control over how a Christian ought to live as a disciple of Jesus. In our zeal to honour God rightly, inadvertent legalism can creep into our discussions. In John 21, Peter asks Jesus what will happen to John and Jesus replies, “What is that to you?” In Romans 14: 13-15 we read, “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.” There needs to be room within our congregations for people to wrestle with their own conscience, ensuring that their decisions and actions don’t become an impediment to the faith of another. In our dialogue with one another, it would be good to ask ourselves, “Am I erecting or dismantling barriers for the other to experience and grow in their faith in Christ?”

• Remember that dialogue can be spiritually formational: Dialogue is more about process then destination. Dialogue is not the most efficient mode of communication when decision-making is necessary. But dialogue does mature us to journey together in our diversity. Dialogue first challenges us to listen deeply and this might mean laying down our own arguments, at least temporarily. This will require patience. It will require gentleness, goodness, kindness, and self-control. All the fruits of the Spirit are needed to pursue unity. Dialogue means we ask for forgiveness when we react disrespectfully, or use power inappropriately, or are blind to our own pride. Dialogue means we resist making assumptions about each other, we learn to resist getting defensive, and we practice not being so easily offended. Dialogue grows us up.

• Remember how to measure success: Unlike debate, dialogue resists the win-lose proposition and seeks a way forward marked by a sense of win-win. Uniformity of perspective may never be attained. So how do we know when dialogue is being successful? Jesus said that you would know a good tree by the good fruit it bears. Dialogue bears good fruit in enlarged understanding and love for the other – and probably oneself too. Dialogue isn’t just about a static, “agree to disagree” but rather can lead to creative and innovative ways to work together toward common goals. Maybe congregants cannot agree about how to best welcome a married same-sex couple when it comes to membership, but they can work together to cultivate an environment where inappropriate language and lack of hospitality are addressed and eliminated.

• Remember the marks of our shared life together: Dialogue can demand energy and focus. When the topic is especially contentious, it can be exhausting. To sustain the process and glean the growth and learning that such dialogue offers, we need to live in the unforced rhythms of grace as marked by worship, thanksgiving, prayer, encouragement, serving one another, testifying to God’s faithful presence and provision in our lives, hearing life-giving teaching from the Scriptures, and sharing in the tangible grace of God through the sacraments. We might need to take breaks now and then from the dialogue process, and when we do we’ll find that God was still at work stretching us and blessing us. Wherever our dialogue takes us, might it cause us to love each other more deeply, serve each other more willingly, forgive each other more quickly, listen to each other more patiently, and see God in one another more fully.

Can we hope to experience such dialogical spirituality at Synod? I invite you to join me in praying that we will!

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Editor's note: During this series, we hope to learn together how to communicate about contentious issues in ways that build up the Body of Christ. Above all, we hope that this series will help you stay in conversation in constructive ways that honor and respect the image of God in those you disagree with and in the people affected by the issues about which you are talking. Perhaps these reflections will even help us to engage well as a Christian Reformed Church in dialogue around hard questions, particularly at Synod 2016. 

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