Freedom and Disagrement in the Church

What is the role of "Spiritual Authority" in the Church and how do we teach our children to respond to it?
Yesterday afternoon, I discussed the book, A Tale of Three Kings, a classic in some circles about biblical responses to spiritual authority, with a fellow church member. We had a good discussion, and then last night I watched a Netflix documentary titled: I Escaped a Cult. It too stirred many thoughts about spiritual authority because the central force that kept people in the cults presented was the accepted teaching that the leaders spoke and acted with God's authority and the members had no place to freely disagree with the leaders.

This is not a new topic for me. I have had my own questions and confrontations regarding authority and disagreement. What makes (or who proclaims) that someone is a "spiritual authority"? Do Christians go far enough to insure that the individual guidance of the Holy Spirit can find valuable expression within the Church? Are we developing a character in our children that allows them to disagree without "breaking the bond of Christian unity"? Without pursuing my rationales too deeply here, I want to highlight a few conclusions:

  • Rather than merely fearing disagreement and division, I believe churches should focus more on teaching about the value of unity with reasonable philosophic diversity.
  • Pastors and others with "spiritual authority" should encourage discussion and present alternate viewpoints. Too often leaders focus on "truth" and fail to note the diversity of Christian opinions surrounding those truths. Rather than merely teaching categories of truth and falsehood, Christians should learn to think in terms of "degrees of certainty." Some things must be held with commitment as Truths, but there will be a continuum down to "I don't know and it doesn't matter very much."
  • Christian schools must play a central roll in teaching children not only to be respectful to authority, but they must teach how to discern and even oppose improper authority.
  • Ultimately, we must embrace the unity of the Body of Christ in spite of the diverse perspectives within it.

In case these thoughts are unfamiliar, they come from my scholarly background. Scholars live in a world of respectful disagreement. They focus on studying their own concepts as well as the opposing arguments of others. Then they modify their own arguments as needed, and then they present what they consider to be a more convincing argument for others to discuss. From my own experience, I find that most church (and often school) leaders do too much talking and not enough discussing. I believe this encourages spiritual apathy as thinking and discerning seem to be the appointed domain only of a few leaders, and it leads to a weakening church as those with alternate views are treated as dissenters whom others are glad to see leave.

I am not one who likes conflict, but who says that disagreement must be defined as conflict. Lets develop the character and understanding that enables us to have hearty disagreements that bring out perspectives we can all learn from, then end with a warm time of prayer. Can it be done?
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