The Oxford English Dictionary has chosen “toxic” as its word of the year for 2018. It’s derived from the Latin term for “poisoned.” The key consideration for the honour was how the word has been employed in many different ways. Oxford listed the top 10 contexts: chemical, masculinity, substance, gas, environment, relationship, culture, waste, algae and air.
I’m going to add another context: denominational atmosphere.
In my presbytery, like most, members are deeply divided over the issue of the theology of marriage. And while some of us have had spirited and respectful conversations on the issue, there’s been calm in the past year or so. What’s great on one level is that we have sincere respect for one another. But on another level, it masks an underlying problem: unaddressed divisions are essentially toxic.
It’s all about differences and divisions – and how each is a unique beast.
Differences in the church are nothing new. Worship styles, music preferences, Biblical translations and gender roles have resulted in resignations and severed ties over the years. The body gradually healed.
But when differences run deep enough, they produce divisions.
In the short-term, divisions can be tolerated. They might even have the appearance of a healthy environment. Two elders with wildly differing theological views can nod their heads in agreement on some matters of ministry and the result is a satisfying professional relationship. This happens to me in wonderful regularity in Presbyterian circles. I count as dear friends many ministers with whom I have profound differences of opinion.
But the Spirit of Christ cannot work effectively in a divided state. The church can only function as the hands and feet of Christ if the head and the heart are in synch. If we are of radically different mindsets, then our hearts cannot receive Christ’s power. And if we cannot do that, the Holy Spirit cannot work within us as a body. Rev. Ian Shaw, the chairman of Renewal Fellowship’s board of directors, puts it this way: “When one doesn’t agree in the mind, it is harder to partner wholeheartedly in mission and ministry. That’s like the toxicity of the flu as opposed to the toxicity of a ruptured appendix. And given our fallen-ness the lower level toxicity may be a forever reality that we manage. The rampant kind that is more and more in evidence is beyond managing.”
Differences, like diversity, can be managed. Not so with division.
When we avoid conversations on certain subjects, we practice avoidance. The differences, lying deep beneath the surface, are used as fodder for the Enemy, who thrives in dark places. The unseen, spiritual world is on fire over certain issues, and – whether we believe it or not – it affects our day-to-day business. Because the renewal of the church is propelled by the Holy Spirit, any spiritual conflict in our midst will act as a barrier.
What’s a church to do? Well, the fact that we have an unprecedented initiative – the Committee of Former Moderators – at work is heartening. I applaud those rational voices who plead for civility in debate and who rightly point out that social media is not the place for discourse on profound theological divisions. But that is only the first step. Discourse needs to take place.
The committee of former mods is on the right track as it backs General Assembly’s call for the lower courts and colleges of the church to reflect upon and respond to the document “On the issue of unity and diversity.” Deadline Jan. 31, 2018.
But then what? Frankly, I don’t believe there is anything we can do, other than seek deep faith and radical submission, while waiting in prayerful anticipation for the hands of God to work. Nothing less than the power of the Holy Spirit will be capable of mediating and devising a resolution in which heart and mind can work together.