21 August 2023
Take one look at our public media and it seems that our modern society is fuelled by discontent, disagreement and dissent. A recent study from Camilla Bjarnøe at Aalborg demonstrated that political news articles framed as conflict increased their consumption and discussion in social settings. Chris Bail’s extensive study of social media, in Breaking the Social Media Prism, highlighted its power to demarcate and divide, a power which is starkly elevated by its lack of physical interaction. Our 21st century culture effectively “runs” on disagreement and dissent.
But lest we think that this is some novel form of malaise, generated by screens, binary politics, or other pressures of modern life, we hear this long history of conflict in the musings of Jonathan Swift’s Lemuel Gulliver:
Difference in opinions has cost many millions of lives: for instance, whether flesh be bread, or bread be flesh; whether the juice of a certain berry be blood or wine; whether whistling be a vice or a virtue; whether it be better to kiss a post, or throw it into the fire; what is the best colour for a coat, whether black, white, red, or gray; and whether it should be long or short, narrow or wide, dirty or clean; with many more. Neither are any wars so furious and bloody, or of so long a continuance, as those occasioned by difference in opinion, especially if it be in things indifferent.
How then may we – as Christians – wrestle with dissent and disagreement, especially as it inevitably infiltrates our church? The Scriptures hold a wide variety of advice, from the apparently conflicting aphorisms of Proverbs (e.g. 26:4-5), to formal mechanisms and examples of conflict resolution (e.g. Matthew 18, or Acts 15).
Among these we find in the Johannine high priestly prayer, in Jesus’ words, a rationale for engaging in the mess of dispute and dissent:
I ask … that they may all be one … I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:20-23)
Given our apparent predilection for conflict, is this degree of unity simply a pipe dream? Can we get some idea of what this looks like in the church? One short vignette in Acts gives us some insight into how this might occur.
In Acts 15 we find a church conflicted over the question of the incorporation of Gentiles as Gentiles into the church, with Paul and Barnabas being sent down from Antioch to a gathering in Jerusalem (15:2). After significant debate at the first Jerusalem Council the outcome was to seek the unity of believers by “not making it difficult” for Gentiles (15:20), but still preserving table fellowship for Jewish believers (15:21).
The council appears to be a resounding success, but only a few verses later we find the same Paul and Barnabas in sharp disagreement over the inclusion of John Mark that the end up parting ways in the following journey. What should we make of this, and why do we find it hot on the heels of the Jerusalem Council? In many ways the answer lies in the messiness of human social interactions and the reality of groups and organisations. The theological ideal of unity, as expressed in John, tends towards the spiritual and perichoretic – the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity. Even within that gospel we see differences in opinion and approach. Indeed, we find similar today.
Social psychologists have had a particular interest in the study of dissent and division in groups and organisations, especially when it tends towards schism. Fabio Sani at the University of Dundee has had a particular interest in the schism of groups – including studying the debate over women’s ordination in the Church of England – and has identified a specific problem with approaches to mediating division. Often approaches to disagreement aim to find a resolution to the dispute, so focus on a single position to be held or “correct idea”. Sani has continually observed that these attempts at papering over a fracture often lead to further fracturing. In his continued study of the Church of England he found that the suppression of both parties’ ability to voice concerns only led to further dissatisfaction and dissent with the church as a whole, ultimately leading to schism and secession. Instead, the means for generating unity was to allow for robust dissent and debate, a practice that some have termed “strategic dissent”.
However, this approach to dissent and division must also be placed in a broader context. In a study on strategic dissent, Codou Samba and Daan van Knippenberg found it could have the opposite effect, fomenting dissatisfaction and division within an organisation. While they found that strategic dissent allowed for a variety of approaches and positions for any given decision, the effect was not universally applicable across an organisation. Indeed, two factors came to the surface. First, dissent and division amongst senior management presented a divided picture over an organisation’s strategic direction, diluting the organisation’s purpose. Second, they found that once the strategic direction was diluted or divided, various work teams often retreated into entrenched positions, and believed that other groups were simply incorrect or wrong. Both are highly relatable outcomes.
How can these be held in tension? Especially given Jesus’ prayer for the church to be united as a witness to the world (John 17:21). Disagreement and strategic dissent can be helpful as they allow for representation, and a shared understanding of others in the group, as the social psychological studies show. Organisationally strategic dissent offers new ways to resolve issues and mitigate against schism. But this is best expressed at the “ground level”, in smaller teams and groups, between those who have the opportunity to truly listen to each other. Perhaps even more critically, it is dependent on a core vision of the organisation, and that is set at higher levels – yes, with input from smaller teams – but directionally.
These two aspects are what we see in Acts 15, with the Jerusalem Council followed swiftly by Paul and Barnabas departing in separate ways. We can see the unity in the gospel offered by the council, with the open arms of fellowship to the Gentiles, along with instructions to maintain table worship. However, it is on the basis of this unity of vision that we find that Paul and Barnabas are able to part company despite their disagreement, and still engage in their missions. We read on in Acts of the outcomes of their missions. Indeed, Paul reflects positively about Mark in 2 Timothy and Colossians.
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So too for our church. This regular opportunity we have is exemplified at synod, which provides an opportunity to disagree well. Synod allows for strategic dissent, where we need not paper over divisions but can engage with them. However, as our second study highlighted, to do so well we need to have a strong common vision that our entire church is aligned to.
The vision of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne is “Making the Word of God fully known”, and the strategic directions allow for a breadth of approaches to that. We will undoubtedly have different mechanisms for achieving this, and quite likely disagree over them. But if it is truly our vision we will allow for disagreement and with Paul we can say: “The important thing is that in every way … Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice” (Philippians 1:18).
The Reverend Dr Christopher Porter is post-doctoral research fellow at Trinity College Theological School and primary investigator on Figuring the Enemy, a research project examining religious enmity.