Christians have always been a fractious bunch. Within twenty-five years of Jesus’ death, St. Paul was warning Christians at Corinth against taking one another to court. The apostle’s Corinthian experience would likely make him unsurprised at today’s South Carolinians: Episcopalians there are suing one another over some $500 million in church properties. Within the church the result has been tension between an ecumenical ideal, on the one hand, and doctrinal “purity” and denominationalism on the other. Here I would like to explore the idea central to unity among believers: concord. It is a concept as ancient as it is elusive, yet it has much to offer twenty-first-century believers.
Beneath countless reasons for division lies a familiar, fundamental pattern. Some of us prioritize theological precision more than others. Among those who do, anything resembling a serious dilution of doctrine triggers an effort to stave off heterodoxy—which in turn morphs into an excuse for division. Others of us, meanwhile, see little point in doctrinal exactitude when there are so many social needs to meet and political wrongs to right. The result of these conflicting priorities is discord—a discord easily amplified by the use of weaponized adjectives. Thus “orthodox” believers separate themselves from “progressive,” or “gospel-centered” from ecumenical, in a perennial effort to distinguish “good” from “bad.” Pope Francis recently offered an eloquent summary in his Pentecost homily: Christian unity is the space between “diversity without unity,” on the one hand, and “unity without diversity,” on the other.
That space is awfully hard to find, but ultimately even the “purest” group must maintain some sort of internal agreement in order to survive—and this means tolerating disagreement. Indeed, the key to survival has always been concord, fostered by the act of “agreeing to disagree.” This may sound like a cliché of modernity, but in fact its pedigree is ancient. Religious believers would do well to remind themselves of this heritage.
The story can be said to start around 400 BCE in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War, a time when Athens emphasized homonoia, or “like-mindedness,” as a spur to recovering from a generation’s worth of civil war. Concord became a key concept of Greco-Roman civilization and a feature of classical philosophy from Plato to Cicero, with Aristotle’s student, Alexander the Great, championing a global homonoia throughout his vast empire. By around 350 BCE, the concept had made its way into the pantheon of classical deities—both Greeks and Romans offering sacrifices to the goddesses Homonoia and Concordia—and had become an important part of the “brand” of any successful Roman emperor. As Edward Gibbon noted, concordia was the idea that allowed the Roman Empire to run. The emperor Marcus Aurelius, said Gibbon, helped establish a tolerant empire that allowed for a “mutual indulgence” and “even religious concord” (the emphasis is Gibbon’s.)
Though the United States is not ruled by an Aurelius, we can profit from considering how religious outcasts managed to thrive under a ruler diametrically opposed to their core beliefs. Early Christians, particularly the generation after Paul, were adamant in their insistence on unity as the basis of survival. They were persecuted and witnessed strife in the Christian communities firsthand. Fascinatingly, scholarship suggests some martyrdoms had more to do with Christian infighting than Roman persecution: in arresting Peter and Paul, for example, Roman authorities may well have been acting on complaints from Christians. Concord was therefore a matter of life and death—and, by the end of the first century, an ideal in both types of ekklesia, the political “assembly” as well as the “church.”
We need not study church history formally to notice an inverse correlation between Christian praise of concord and actual Christian practice of the virtue. Paul’s letters to some of the first Christian communities, for example, came in response to reports of discord; centuries later, the great councils and creeds were the products of epic cultural, theological, and philosophical strife. The pagan neighbors of Jesus followers recognized this reverse correlation, as is evidenced by the Greek polymath Plutarch in the late first-century, writing to comment on the renovated Temple of Concord in Rome. Occupying one of the most prestigious sites in the eternal city, the temple was “tagged” shortly after its rededication by a cynical Roman with fresh memories of the recent political unrest and blood spilled on same ground where the temple now stood. “A work of mad discord produces a temple of Concord,” read the graffito. The irony did not escape St. Augustine’s notice, who in The City of God recommended a new name for the temple: not Concordia, but Discordia.
What applications might we make from concord’s ancient pedigree? First, I would add North American Anglicans and Episcopalians to any catalogue of fraternal factions. Leave it to the self-described “middle way” to try and disprove the adage that “there are no great moderates in history.” An international group of Anglican divines has even written a book on the topic, fittingly and humorously titled Good Disagreement. The volume features essays by leading lights, from the prolific N. T. Wright to the conservative Rev. Tory Baucum, whose unlikely friendship with his liberal Episcopal bishop in Virginia drew national media attention. The very fact that successful intrareligious dialogue was chronicled in the New York Times tells us how rare a feat such concord is.
The unifying thread of Good Disagreement is concord rhetoric—and it so happens that the current archbishop of Canterbury is a master practitioner. “Reconciliation doesn’t always mean agreement,” is how Justin Welby previewed the most recent global meeting of Anglican leaders, in January 2016. When nearly forty primates came to England, the only consensus was that there would be no consensus. Nor was there: one of the first primates to leave the Canterbury meeting before its official closing did so in the interest of what he calls “pure” Anglicanism; and a few days later, the bishop of the disciplined American Episcopal church shamed the majority for further alienating gay and lesbian parishioners, citing Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
Yet some semblance of unity broke out. The progressive Americans were scolded—in the politest language possible—for their unilateral revision of their liturgy to accommodate same-sex marriage rites, leaving the more conservative representatives of the global South to return home encouraged. Welby’s idea of reconciling without perfect agreement was essential to these efforts. The idea draws on deep wellsprings. When the archbishop calls for a “harmony of heart, even if there is divergence in view,” he avails himself of a tradition of “concord rhetoric” that an earlier bishop of Liverpool would have approved—J. C. Ryle, who in 1879 warned his Victorian parishioners against “doctrinal teetotalism” and prescribed healthy debate among Christians.
These two examples point to an even earlier episode in the history of concord, one that continues to reverberate in American Christianity. The example of John and Charles Wesley is perfect for two reasons. First, they were brothers, and the fraternal bond is a classic illustration of concord, a relationship more frequently idealized in the ancient world than even the conjugal relationship. The Wesleys knew this, and were able to distinguish between essentials and nonessentials in order to maintain their fraternal bond. Like their parents, they could not see eye-to-eye on English politics (in a letter, John broaches the sensitive topic of English politics and King Charles I, inviting his brother to “Come and see what I say,” and offering the reassurance that “If the worst comes, we can agree to disagree”). What is more, the brothers’ theology led to one of the more consequential divisions within Protestantism. Demurring from the Reformed emphasis on predestination and limited atonement, the Wesleys helped to draw a boundary today popularly construed as “Calvinism versus Arminianism.” For John and Charles, this tension was not only about doctrinal -isms. Rather it was felt in the context of their personal friendship with George Whitefield, the greatest evangelist of their age, who by the time of his death in 1770 had been in theological disagreement with the Wesleys for thirty years.
While this disagreement is fairly well known among Protestants, less well known is the fact that Whitefield’s eulogy was delivered by none other than John Wesley. And less known still is that Wesley was among the first to use the phrase “agree to disagree,” and did so in this eulogy. Wesley’s phrasing stands as the prototype of concord rhetoric in the English language, and as an example for those of us all too aware that Christian politics can be Machiavellian. As Wesley’s London audience knew well, theological differences between the two revivalists were well established by the time of Whitefield’s death. Yet the priority, Wesley said, was to “keep close to the grand scriptural doctrines which [Whitefield] everywhere delivered. There are many doctrines of a less essential nature, with regard to which even the sincere children of God...may ‘agree to disagree.’”
John Wesley helped bring another ecumenically minded phrase into common currency: “In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things charity.” It is a sentiment with which pretty much everyone agrees; Pope John XXIII said as much in his first encyclical, Ad petri cathedram, in 1959. The problem with this papal pronouncement—and with Wesley’s original idea—is that concord depends on a consensual distinction of the “essential” from the non- (the necessarii from dubia). And this in turn depends on an agreed-on authority that can name adiaphora, matters not essential to faith. And therein lies the rub.
The Wesleys’ answer to this problem was relatively straightforward. Whatever their Methodist progeny might say, and despite political disagreements on matters both within and outside the church, they were committed to staying within the church, a commitment that separates their Anglican tradition from many of its Protestant relatives: the former thinks of itself as a “communion,” rather than another “denomination.” But we can only wonder what the Wesley brothers would think of their Church of England’s relation to a global Anglican Communion, which today is a “communion” in only the loosest sense. Fed up with what is seen as heterodoxy, particularly on the matters of same-sex marriage and homosexual priests, certain Anglican dioceses are linking themselves to Canterbury only by disassociating themselves from North American or British neighbors and taking circuitous routes through the global south—usually Africa.
The most recent communiqué from a group of these “Bible-based,” “orthodox” Anglicans will encourage many in that it disavows a one-size-fits-all approach to solutions for internecine disputes, accepting that there is no “single solution,” and that the path forward may well allow for parishioners to remain “within the current structures.” And yet the longer historical tendency of Christian factionalism can be discouraging. Dioceses multiplying in search of something “purer,” and denominations shrinking yet surviving: it is enough to make Protestants swim the Tiber, or perhaps head to the hills with a new Benedict. But at the end of that journey one realizes those impulses may well be misguided. As the most casual observer of the Christian religious landscape knows, no single group has a monopoly on like-mindedness.
This truth must relate to homonoia’s close association with another ancient ideal, metanoia, meaning “change of mind,” or “repentance.” The word occurs more than twenty times in the New Testament, and even so, the action it signifies remains easier said than done. And so there is work to be done, as always. Within a believing community, both sides of any given dispute are going to have to “change” their several independent minds before they are capable of thinking together, with one.