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One of the greatest problems that we face in the church today is disagreement. Anyone who has served in a position of leadership in the church will know exactly what I am talking about. The real problem that we face, however, is not so much the presence of disagreement as the way that disagreement is usually carried out and what typically happens as a result. Disagreement, in and of itself, can be a good thing. It can provide important clarification and refinement when we are developing a plan of action. It can also provide protection for the church as a whole, so that no one is able to kidnap the church and take it in an unbiblical or unwise direction. Disagreement forces us to think. It opens our eyes to different perspectives and challenges us to see issues from different points of view. At its best, disagreement strengthens and protects the church and its individual members.

The problem that I see is not that we disagree with one another. The problem is the way that we disagree and how we respond to the disagreement of others. Most of us have a hard time disagreeing without also being disagreeable. We tend to adopt an “us vs. them” mentality. We go on the offensive, and we fight to win. No doubt, pride is a big part of why this is so. We are prideful people—all of us. And pride, as C.S. Lewis has so helpfully pointed out in Mere Christianity, is always competitive. It seeks to win. It doesn’t simply want to be good; it wants to be better than someone else. It doesn’t simply want to be strong, fast, or wise; it wants to be stronger, faster, or wiser. Pride makes our disagreement competitive in an unhealthy way because it always seeks to exalt the “us” over the “them.”

But disagreement doesn’t have to be an unhealthy competition. It can be a healthy one. The key is in realizing the lie of the “us vs. them” dichotomy. Satan is “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). He wants to keep us as far away from the truth as possible. He doesn’t want us to see that the “us vs. them” dichotomy never leads to victory but only to loss. He doesn’t want us to see that when we engage in unhealthy disagreement, we are ultimately attacking ourselves.

This idea first occurred to me many years ago in regard to my marriage. I was studying Paul’s teaching on the unity of the husband-wife relationship in Ephesians 5 when it dawned on me that if husbands and wives really are “one flesh”—as Paul (and Moses) says that they are—then that means that every time I have a disagreement with my wife, I am actually fighting with myself. I realized that up to that point I had been fighting as though we were two separate people, each seeking to win over the other. As I began to appreciate the fact that we were not two separate people but one flesh, it began to change the way that I saw our disagreements. I understood that for me to fight to win was really a losing proposition. It was like one half of me fighting against the other half of me. In this scenario, it wouldn’t really matter which half wins, because the whole of me would lose either way. As I began to see this for the first time, I came to see that “fighting to win” really meant fighting so that the whole of “me”—i.e., my wife and I together as one flesh—could win, not just one half of “me.”

The doctrine of union with Christ means that when we disagree with our fellow Christians, we are really fighting with ourselves.

The same thing is true in the church. We know this because, in Ephesians 5:29–32, Paul likens the union between Christ and the church to the union of the husband-wife relationship, which means that the church is not only one flesh with Christ, so to speak, but one flesh with one another as well. When the Holy Spirit unites each believer to Christ, He also unites him to everyone else who is united to Christ. Each of us becomes part of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27). Just as eyes, ears, arms, and legs are all united to our bodies, so they are also united to each other. The same blood is flowing through them all. The same head oversees and orchestrates their movement. Each member has a vested interest in the others. When one member suffers or is hurt, the body as a whole is affected. And so it is within the body of Christ as well. The same lifeblood flows through every member of the body. The same Head oversees and orchestrates the movement of each part. When one member suffers or is hurt, the whole body is affected.

The doctrine of union with Christ means that when we disagree with our fellow Christians, we are really fighting with ourselves. Satan’s lie has been to convince us that there actually is an “us vs. them.” But the truth is that there isn’t. We are one body. The “us vs. them” dichotomy pits arms against legs and eyes against ears. The body not only suffers in this case, but each member suffers along with the body. The trouble is that we don’t feel this as acutely as when we experience it physically in our bodies. Every part of the human body is affected when someone breaks a leg, for instance, because every other part has to compensate for this affliction. We feel that acutely. But we don’t feel it so acutely when a brother or a sister in Christ suffers or is hurt. We ought to, but we don’t. The degree to which we don’t feel that is the degree to which we don’t really understand our union with Christ.

The truth is, there is no “us vs. them” among Christians. There is only “us vs. us.” If Christians can only embrace this reality, it will revolutionize the way that we disagree with one another. We still need to fight to win in our disagreements, to be sure. But the “win” will look different. Our disagreements won’t be about “us” winning and “them” losing. Instead, they will be about “us” winning together as one body.

If the church can appreciate the fact that we are “one flesh” and learn how to disagree well among ourselves, we just may attract the attention of the world at large and that may in turn lead them to ask for the reason for the hope that is in us. We can certainly pray together to that end.

Worshiping in the Light

Luther and the Life of the Pastor-Theologian