Believing the Best About Other Christians

by Matthew W. Bassford

I’ve stayed out of the online debate about how churches should respond to the coronavirus and whether churches that assemble are more righteous than churches that don’t (or vice versa). As far as I am concerned, this is a marvelous opportunity to honor the great Scriptural principle of congregational autonomy. If we all mind our own business, Facebook will be a quieter, happier place.
However, I did see an argument advanced that I thought was worthy of further consideration. Somebody online, I don’t remember who, opined that continued suspension of services was a problem because many Christians would get out of the habit of assembling and never come back. I don’t think that’s true. From what I see, the vast majority of Christians assemble because they want to, not out of habit. Those who stopped assembling because of coronavirus isolation probably would have stopped assembling soon anyway.

The argument does reveal, though, a lamentable tendency among brethren — a mistrust of other Christians’ moral capacity and goodwill. We can’t trust them to figure out the right thing to do or to do it if they did figure it out, so we have to figure it out for them and manipulate or coerce them into doing it.

I think this is what is behind, for instance, the “conservative” conception of modesty. In I Timothy 2, Paul instructs Christian women to be modest, supplies a few examples related to costly rather than revealing clothing (not normally a preoccupation of brethren today), and then leaves it to the sisters to determine what modest dress means for themselves.

However, some today are not content with leaving modesty where Paul left it. From the Scriptural principle, they draw their own conclusions about appropriate hemline height and neckline depth, using some truly obscure passages (Exodus 28:42, anyone?) to bolster their arguments. To them, these conclusions have the same force as “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” and woe betide the woman who shows up at church with a 23-inch skirt instead of a 24-inch skirt!

I believe that those who make such arguments sincerely believe that they have to, that without such explicit, concrete application, the women of the church are foolish and ungodly enough that they won’t reach the right result on their own. Here, too, I disagree, not merely with the result but also with the mode of thinking behind it.

Fundamentally, the churches of Christ exist because of the conviction that individual Christians can understand and apply the Scriptures for themselves. If we don’t think that’s true, if we believe instead that most brethren are not willing and able to figure out what pleases God on their own, we might as well give it up and join the denomination of our choice!

What’s more, when church leaders insist on doing all the thinking for their people, even if the sign out front says “church of Christ”, within, a denominational spirit predominates. The Bible is no longer the authority. The church leader is.

Second, those who are so skeptical about others would do well to turn their skepticism on themselves. All of us have our moments of foolishness and ill will. We all grapple with the temptation to determine our conclusion first and twist the Scriptures to fit. When we disagree with someone else’s conclusion, then, rather than seeking to impose ours on them, we first must humbly re-examine our own thinking. Even after we have done so, we must accord their views the respect we desire for our own.

I recognize that to some, this vision of Christianity will seem unbearably chaotic. You will end up going to church with people with whom you disagree. Based on their different conclusions, they will say and do things that make you uncomfortable. Where is the I Corinthians 1:10 unity in that?

We must remember, though, that Jesus prayed for His people to become one rather than expecting them to start that way. Greater unity in local congregations must come from below as we grow in understanding and love for one another rather than being imposed from the top.

Top-down unity, though appealing, is brittle. It relies on church leaders silencing or driving out those who disagree, which doesn’t sound much like John 17 or I Corinthians 1 either. Instead, we are called to believe the best about one another, speak the truth in love, and be patient. That way, over time, those who are in error will be called to grow beyond their mistaken conclusions.

Maybe we will be the ones who will grow.

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