Good Christians Disagree, But Right Christians Do Not
“Good Christians disagree about this issue” is a diplomatic claim frequently on the lips of those involved in ecumenical projects. Good Christians disagree about the Eucharist. Good Christians disagree about icons. Good Christians disagree about the Bible, about faith, about good works. While reading Augustine’s City of God, students encounter claims about angels, miracles, and prayers to the dead which are incompatible with what their Presbyterian or Lutheran churches teach, and so they say, “In my church, we believe…” or “My pastor says…” In such circumstances, the teacher will be tempted to say, “Good Christians disagree about this,” and then do a little soft shoe about how whatever theological issue at hand is “not a salvific issue.” Such a routine will cause the moment to pass without embarrassment, and the teacher can quickly get on to the next chapter of the City of God or the Summa wherein something less divisive and less Catholicky is discussed. While smooth, while appeasing, “Good Christians disagree…” undermines the entire classical project, and merely defers the moment of confrontation to another teacher, another moment. There is a better way.
The greatest problem with “Good Christians disagree…” is that the statement divorce Truth from Goodness. The goodness described in “Good Christians disagree…” is moral goodness. “Good Christians disagree…” means that kind Christians disagree on the issue, or that gentle Christians disagree, or it means that Christians who are outstanding members of their communities disagree on the matter of icons, Scripture, or cremation. While kind and gentle Christians might disagree on the matter of cremation, philosophically sound Christians do not. Two Christians who disagree about cremation may both be generous, but they cannot both be right as concerns the issue at hand. When teachers tell students that “Good Christians disagree…” on the matter of cremation or icons, students hear, “This issue is not important. It is pedantic, historical, frozen. No opinion on the matter of cremation is genuinely important. A man’s position on the matter of cremation is entirely sequestered off from his standing with God.” As such, the student will begin to wonder why St. Augustine is so adamant that Christians not be cremated, why Western history is so adamant St. Augustine was a genius, and why the school is so adamant that St. Augustine be taught and tested over.
While teachers can avoid confrontation here and now with the claim that “Good Christians disagree…” they are nonetheless contributing to a horrible crisis of faith years down the road. When students hear teachers say, “Good Christians disagree,” they intuit that the teacher is trying to avoid saying, “Your pastor is wrong.” Instead of saying, “Your pastor is wrong,” the teacher doubles down on diplomacy and declares, “Your pastor is (probably) a good Christian, even if he doesn’t agree with St. Augustine.” Of course, the teacher has never met the pastor who disagrees with St. Augustine, and the student knows this. What the student comes to understand, then, is that being polite and tolerant is more important than believing the Truth. As soon as the student is in college, he will meet atheists, transcendentalists, Muslims, secularists, and they will be kind enough. The student will recall “Good Christians disagree” and realize that some of the atheists he knows are even more kind and generous than the people with whom he goes to Church. The student will recall the insistence of the teacher that kind and generous Christians disagree on the matter of icons, Scripture, and so forth. In a smooth, ballet-like movement of intellection, “Good Christians disagree on the matter of icons….” will easily become “Good human beings disagree on the matter of Christianity,” and the diplomat will cave so deeply to diplomacy, he will cease to actually represent a foreign country where things are done differently.
As Lewis notes in “Man or Rabbit,” Christianity is not a religion which is aimed at making men moral. Rather, Christianity is a religion which makes men divine. Morality is indispensable, but morality will be swallowed up in the apotheosis of a man. Classical education does not work against such intentions, which means that a classical education is unconcerned with whether “Good Christians disagree…” on an issue.
An ecumenical community should foster a number of pan-traditional friendships; if an allegedly ecumenical community does not feature friendships between Catholics and Lutherans, Orthodox and Presbyterians, the community will not last long and should not expect to accomplish much. The Catholic-with-a-generous-soul and the Presbyterian-with-a-generous-soul who become fast friends have not learned that dogma does not matter. They have learned of the profound liberality, leniency, and mercy of God. They have learned that God uses “the things that are not to confound the things that are.”
When students bring up disparities between a text and their parents, or their church, be honest with them. Tell them, “St. Augustine and the SBC are not in agreement on this issue.” Do not pretend the issue is inconsequential, for neither the Presbytery nor the Synod thinks these issues inconsequential. Disagreement is no cause for embarrassment. Do not tell students a controversial issue “does not matter,” for they will believe you, and take your own teaching farther than you wish. Tell students that secondary matters are significant. “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he,” and so a belief in icons or cremation or Sola Scriptura gets down to the essence of your person. It is not some mere ornament.
“Slow but steady wins the race” works both ways. The Devil will not ask a student to doubt the importance of the Resurrection before first getting the student to spend a few years doubting the importance of everything which falls just left of the school statement of faith. When students bring up disparities, send them back to their elders. Any teacher worth his salt who is teaching the City of God to a class of engaged Presbyterians, Lutherans and Baptists should be regularly fielding questions for which the answer is, “Speak to your pastor about this. Talk to a teaching elder about this. You are a “man under authority” and you owe diligence and obedience to your spiritual caretakers.” Such students will not merely believe the right things, they will believe the right things deeply. The Presbyterian student who will not cave on the issue of icons will neither cave on the divinity of Christ.
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