Last month a friend of mine posted this as his Facebook status:
“It’s not even the 2016 election yet, and unfriend season is already in full swing. How did we get here so fast?”
When I read this I laughed, because I feel 100 percent the same way. Although for me, “unfriend season” is not limited to election years. Whenever a hot button issue hits the news and my feeds fill up with rants, I click “unfollow” like it’s going out of style.
Just to be clear, I do have a method to my filtering. I don’t unfollow people simply because I disagree with them. I unfollow people because they are mean-spirited or fear-mongering. Not only do I find their rants distasteful, but they have a negative effect on me. The more I absorb words of anger, hostility and fear, the more I become angry, hostile and afraid. Social media rants also feed my inner-jerk, who does not need any more ammunition.
That’s the thing—I’m not all that different from the people I unfollow. I may not post my rants online, but I have just as many angry thoughts. I slander people in my mind, I am condescending, I am self-righteous and I dig in my heels. I am just as uninterested in hearing their viewpoint as they are in hearing mine.
There is a term in the Bible that appears throughout the Old Testament: “stiff-necked.” It comes from the image of an ox on a plow. When an ox is compliant, it can be guided with relative ease, requiring only one hand on the reins. However, when an ox stiffens its neck it becomes difficult to guide. A “stiff-necked” ox is one that no longer submits to its master. It is resistant and stubborn.
Throughout the Old Testament, God rebukes the Israelites for being a “stiff-necked people.” The term is synonymous with arrogance (Neh. 9:16), rebelliousness (Deut. 31:27), a hardened heart (2 Chron. 36:13) and an inability to listen (Jer. 19:15). It refers to the act of disobedience, but it also entails one’s disposition. It describes an unwillingness to be moved by God. The stiff-necked person is, in essence, unteachable.
To my mind, “stiff-necked” describes a lot of what we see on social media and the climate of the church today. Many of us confuse stubbornness with conviction. Many of us assume the position of a stiff-neck, mistaking it for courage.
That’s why Christian disagreement often looks identical to worldly disagreement. Our conflicts are no more marked by love—or by the gospel—than anyone else’s.
We cannot be both stiff-necked AND be the church. God simply made us too diverse. Each of us has different gifts, strengths and ways of seeing, all of which complement one another and benefit the whole (1 Cor. 12). These differences can be frustrating—even infuriating—but they can also serve as the reins of God’s will in our lives.
In short, if we want to be the church as God designed it, we must submit to our differences like an ox to the plow.
Our diversity means we are going to disagree. We are going to fight. We do it all the time. However, I’m tired of letting our stiff-necked country determine the climate of the church. Wouldn’t it be amazing if, instead of feeding into the division, we chose to model redemption? What if, instead of being a stiff-necked people, we engaged in gospel disagreement?
In the world of the Internet we don’t get to witness loving disagreement often, so it’s hard to know what it looks like. However, there is one place we see it quite often: healthy marriages. A healthy marriage is not marked by the absence of conflict, but by the right kind of conflict. In healthy marriages, the spouses fight fair. They don’t stiffen their necks and refuse to be wrong. Instead they listen, they apologize, they extend the benefit of the doubt and they recognize their spouse as a means of grace in their life.
Just to give you a practical example of this, I once read a research study about what makes marriages last. One of the findings was, not surprisingly, how spouses handle conflict. The researchers discovered that in healthy marriages, spouses would pair their criticisms with at least four to five affirmations. For example, a wife might say, “I understand why you work such long hours and that you want to provide for our family, and I love that about you, but sometimes I feel like your job is your priority. We just miss you and we love having you around, and we want more of that.” This type of conflict assumes the best, seeks to build up and leans toward the other in love. It’s not about winning, but preserving the relationship.
What if church conflict looked like that? What if online conflict looked like that? What if we recognized that having a stiff-neck is just as toxic to the church as it is to our marriages? What if we listened, apologized and affirmed as often as we criticized and complained?
What if, like a healthy married couple, we fought like we loved each other?
I’m not saying we should abandon our convictions and affirm all views as equally valid and right. We need to hold onto our convictions, but among those is the belief that God made us a diverse Body of Christ, and we need each other. That means we should continue to be firm, but not stiff-necked. We must be teachable, while disagreeing in love. In a country as divided as ours, let’s bear witness to the truth that love doesn’t require the absence of conflict. Instead, love anchors it, directs it and redeems it.