Unity vs. Conformity: Two Divergent Paths
The collard greens were done almost to perfection on that crisp October afternoon. Tender, scented with a bit of side meat, and slightly bitter—just the way I like them. The pinto beans needed only a few more minutes of simmering, and the cornbread had just come out of the oven. I was slicing some onions and salivating in anticipation of a proper autumn supper when she walked in the back door.
“Ugh… what’s that smell?” she asked, with only thinly disguised disdain for the aroma that filled our small kitchen.
“It’s supper!” I replied, proud of myself for having gotten it all done before she returned from an afternoon outing with her sisters. “We’re going to be eating high on the hog tonight, and I did it all myself.”
“Yuck…,” she uttered, holding her nose and squinting incredulously. “I appreciate the effort, but I think I’ll have some of that leftover chicken and rice from last night, if you don’t mind. That stuff smells awful.”
Thus emerged the first significant disagreement in our life together. At the time, it seemed like a pretty big deal to me. I mean, who wouldn’t enjoy such a simple, savory meal? It was the kind of meal that I, the son of a mother and father who, respectively, had been reared in blue-collar and agrarian milieux, had myself grown up on. But she, through the unavoidable circumstances of birth, had grown up on more gentrified fare—an unwitting gastronome more accustomed to painstakingly-prepared dishes based on a wide variety of meats, cheeses, fish, fowl, and exotic spices. The differences in what we considered delicious, everyday foods were pretty stark.
But now, almost 33 years and four fine children (one by marriage) later, we’re still together, and have learned that for a lasting marriage, conformity must sometimes take a back seat in favor of unity. Susan and I compromised on the beans and greens (she agreed to tolerate the smell while I agreed not to ask her to eat them), but the important point is that neither of us expects the other to conform to a single idea of what makes for a good plate of food. That willingness to make room for each other’s perspective—especially when our perspectives seem irreconcilable—has helped us to avoid the fate that nearly 50% of marriages suffer these days.
There is, I believe, much that our denomination can learn from the lessons that a successful marriage can teach. This has become especially relevant recently as I’ve observed the emergence of some pretty divisive issues at almost every level of our ecclesiastical government. Cumberland Presbyterians—good Christians, all—through prayer, and through studying the writings of the Bible in their historical settings, comparing scripture with scripture, listening to the witness of the church throughout the centuries, and sharing insights with others in the covenant community have come to quite different but sincerely held perspectives on some of these issues. Different perspectives inevitably (it seems) lead to disagreement.
As I see it, at the most fundamental level we have two choices as we attempt to address our current disagreements. Whether the topic is unification with the CPCA, the status of LGBTQ Christians in the full fellowship of the church’s life, or some other question of conscience, practice, or culture, the choices we make can either help ensure the unity of the denomination into the foreseeable future, or they can hasten what may arguably be our impending demise. Our choices involve the extent to which we value conformity relative to unity.
These choices need not be mutually exclusive. Certainly, there are matters of doctrine—the covenant of grace or the preservation of believers, for example—without conformity to which our identity as Cumberland Presbyterians might be diluted. But in matters of conscience and practice—our disparate interpretations of scripture concerning homosexuality, or the significant differences between worship styles in the CPC and the CPCA, to cite but two examples—a requirement of conformity to a single perspective only threatens the unity we currently enjoy or seek to promote.
Instead, perhaps it is time for us to affirm the differences in conscience, culture, and practice that exist in our family—to present ourselves to the world as a denomination that is not only reformed, but actively reforming, and welcoming to all who simply yearn for new life in Christ. In the service of unity, perhaps it’s time for compromise on divisive but non-doctrinal issues, and for allowing individual ministers, elders, congregations, and presbyteries the freedom to minister and worship as the Holy Spirit leads them.
A willingness to make room for the perspectives of others—especially when our differences seem irreconcilable—not only can help us to avoid the fate of becoming yet another in a growing list of denominations torn asunder by a short-sighted quest for conformity, but may in fact belie the unfair assumptions that people outside the church have often formed about Christians.
Affirming freedom in matters of conscience and practice within our respective denominations (as well as within our united denomination) rather than codifying conformity to one perspective or another might be our best chance of preserving unity, and would allow all of us to focus our efforts where they really belong—feeding the hungry, advocating for victims of injustice, welcoming the stranger and the refugee, housing those experiencing homelessness, and serving the other imperatives of the one we call Master.
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And as we celebrate grace and forbearance, we are devoting much of the current issue of The Cumberland Presbyterian magazine to celebrating the life of former Moderator Beverly St. John, who died on 18 May 2017. Like many Cumberland Presbyterians, I had known Beverly for most of my life. She worked tirelessly with my father as he and others strove to bring about reconciliation between black and white Cumberland Presbyterians in the sixties and seventies, encouraging and affirming him when the road became rough.
She and her husband, Bill, were in our home several times, and she always had the time to make me feel that I, a child, was the most important person in the world to her at that moment. After reading and hearing many reminiscences of her, it’s obvious that those were perhaps her greatest gifts to those around her—encouragement, affirmation, kindness, and unqualified support.
In more recent years, after I’d come to this position, I knew Beverly again as a wonderful source of encouragement and support. Her positive outlook defied what I sometimes perceived as oppressive realities, and I never doubted her love and concern. I visited with her several times over the last few years of her life, and even in the confusion she sometimes experienced, she always greeted me by name, as if I were a long-lost son, asking after my family, and affirming her belief in me with those sparkling eyes and ready smile.
Our denomination lost a saint among saints when Beverly died—but as much as anyone I have ever known, her legacy of kindness, generosity, encouragement, compassion, and a love for justice will remain an indelible part of who we are for generations to come. Well done, Beverly. And thank you for loving us.