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Musing on InterVarsity Christian Fellowship: Conflict, Avoidance, and Convicted Civility

by Carson T. Clark on October 8, 2012

A pair of helpful theological terms I learned in college were orthodoxy and adiaphora. The former technically means “right belief” but in practice has come to mean the set of central, essential, and vital beliefs. This is a narrow category containing doctrines like the Trinity and Christ’s bodily resurrection. Likewise, the latter technically means “things indifferent” but has come to mean the peripheral, non-essential yet still important beliefs. This is a broad category including things like modes of baptism and eschatology.11.Eschatology = Theology of the End Times

With that framework in mind, I’d like to outline three general ways Christians tend to discuss adiaphora:22.To be clear, these categories are anything but unique to the theological-church realm.

  1. Conflict. If you’ve spent any time at all in the church you’ve likely experienced such theological warfare. Fighting is, in my estimate, the easiest and most natural. It requires little in the way of maturity or discernment.33.Honestly, all you have to do is go with the flow and it’ll happen.
  2. Avoidance. If you’ve spent a fair amount of time in the church you’ve probably run into people who are burned out with fighting and have opted to instead “just love one another,” by which they mean steer away from contested doctrine. It’s the second easiest, requiring maturity but little discernment.44.It does require a certain measure of intentionality but still ain’t that difficult to pull off.
  3. Convicted civility.55.“A lot of people today who have strong convictions are not very civil and a lot of people who are civil don’t have very strong convictions. What we really need is convicted civility.” – Richard Mouw Even if you’ve spent a lifetime in church it’s not unusual to have never seen this. It involves people openly discussing their differences but doing it in a charitable manner; neither hostility nor apathy, but seeking to understand and appreciate each other amidst cordial challenges to one another’s beliefs, opinions, perspectives, and presuppositions. It requires both maturity and discernment.66.To do this you have to continually be intentional, swimming upstream against the contentious and/or shallow culture.

This three-fold distinction is a major reason I love InterVarsity. Whereas denomination- or tradition-specific campus ministries often define themselves in opposition to others and non-denominational campus ministries regularly boil everything down to a bland mere Christianity, InterVarsity is inter-denominational. It explicitly encourages Christians of various backgrounds and convictions to humbly yet forthrightly engage with and learn from one another. It seems to me there’s far too little of that in the Body of Christ.77.It’s a culture and a model I hope to learn and borrow in the near future as a simultaneous InterVarsity staff member and an Anglican pastor, respectively.

  • Pat

    “It’s the second easiest, requiring maturity but little discernment.4″

    Actually, I don’t think avoidance necessarily exhibits maturity. For some, it’s a running away from conflict, as though that is the answer, which is actually a form of immaturity in my opinion.

    • Carson T. Clark

      I cannot disagree with that.

  • Derek Rishmawy

    I think that there are times when #2 is simply required. You know that even if you attempt to have a convicted but civil conversation with someone on at issue, it will immediately escalate to conflict that is unhelpful. I dunno, I think there are times to be ready to have some conflict, other times to hold your tongue, and other times when you can have the conversation. It’s like proverbs. Sometimes you answer a fool according to his folly and sometimes you don’t..

    • Carson T. Clark

      Good reply. Good nuance. I don’t disagree. Obviously a big part of life boils down to plain wisdom. We can have good general principles, but they must be discerningly lived given particular circumstances. Yeah, if I’m dealing with an aggressive S.O.B. who just wants to shove Dispensationalism down my throat and seems wholly incapable of any measure of thoughtfulness, then I’m probably going to avoid him and/or that topic. What I’m talking about are those principles, though. Or, perhaps, the life patterns that we live and culture that we live within. I love InterVarsity because its culture is one of convicted civility.

    • Derek Rishmawy

      I get ya, and I agree. The general tenor of life, the tone, the climate of discussion in a group is a distinctive.

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