Wednesday, 1 March 2017

‘Right Christian, Wrong Christian’: Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ (part one)

Back in the summer of 2014, I declared Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2013) the most important read of the year (I’ll leave it to you to decide if I meant the year I read the book (2014) or the year it was published (2013)). And seeing as the world hasn’t improved in the three years since I first read Disunity in Christ—apparently there have been some unexpected political developments recently in the Western world, and the Church of England (of which I am a card-carrying member) continues to model ecclesial discord—I thought now might be a good time to revisit it.

The first chapter (‘Right Christian, Wrong Christian’) identifies how easily we in the Church categorise Christians into two main groups: ‘Right Christians’ and ‘Wrong Christians’. Right Christians are those who tend to share our own convictions about things; Wrong Christians are those who hold opinions that are clearly not aligned with the good news of Jesus (as Right Christians see them). I’ll go out on a limb here and say that I find it difficult to understand why a significant proportion of Evangelical Christians in the United States voted Donald Trump for President. In my eyes, this demographic is clearly composed of Wrong Christians. Similarly, I am baffled by any Christian who voted for Brexit rather than remain. These Christians are obviously Wrong Christians. But in both cases, I need to recognise that these Christians are not Wrong Christians but my brothers and sisters in Christ—and they may well regard me as a Wrong Christian (and need to recognise me as their brother in Christ).

Cleveland writes, ‘We represent Jesus well when we draw near to other believers, regardless of differences. This is how we show unbelievers Jesus’ heart.’ (p. 17). This doesn’t mean that theological, ideological, and cultural differences between Christians aren’t real or important, but, following Proverbs 27:17 (‘iron sharpens iron’), Cleveland is persuaded that good friendship allows space for challenging one another. ‘Friends who share their different ideas about faith or life can help us to avoid some of the nasty effects of group polarization’ (p. 18). It is not easy to work for unity, Cleveland admits, but it is essential to do so.

I’ll close this post with an extended quotation from towards the end of the chapter:

Culturally homogenous churches are adept at targeting and attracting a certain type of person and creating a strong group identity. However, attendees at such churches are at a higher risk for creating the overly simplistic and divisive Right Christian and Wrong Christian labels that dangerously lead to inaccurate perceptions of other Christians as well as hostility and conflict. What often begins as an effective and culturally specific way to reach people for Christ ends up stifling their growth as disciples. Perhaps this is because we often fail to make a distinction between evangelism and discipleship. People can meet God within their cultural context but in order to follow God, they must cross into other cultures because that’s what Jesus did in the incarnation and on the cross. Discipleship is crosscultural. When we meet Jesus around people who are just like us and then continue to follow Jesus with people who are just like us, we stifle our growth in Christ and open ourselves up to a world of division. However, when we’re rubbing elbows in Christian fellowship with people who are different from us, we can learn from each other and grow more like Christ. Like iron sharpens iron.
For this reason, I believe that churches and Christian organizations should strive for cultural diversity. Regardless of ethnic demographics, every community is multicultural when one considers the various cultures of age, gender, economic status, education level, political orientation and so on. Further, every church should fully utilize the multifaceted cultural diversity within itself, express the diversity of its local community, expertly welcome the other, embrace all who are members of the body of Christ and intentionally collaborate with different churches or organizations in order to impact the kingdom. (p. 21, emphasis original).

Quite how an introvert such as me is going to be involved in all this cross-cultural work is anyone’s guess!


  1. Very thought provoking, I ought to get hold of this book. When we left America to return to live in the UK, I asked American Christians how I could pray for them, most said for righteousness, or something like that. They wanted to be right in their beliefs and thinking. But when I asked God how I should pray for Americans he was pretty clear that I should pray for them to love one another. It certainly seemed to me whilst I was living there that they would rather be right than love someone they disagreed with.
    It's a curous paradox in the US that they have enormousy high levels of patriotism, but low levels of solidarity. I mentioned this to a few Americans but they couldn't explain why.
    Have you ever listened to the Phil Vischer Podcast? He's the guy behind veggie tales, but now does a weekly podcast on anything and everything. One of his regular panel members is Skye Jethani who has great insight into American Christian culture. Their show on the religious right (Episode 223) is particularly enlightening.

    1. Hmm . . . I can identify with the need to be 'right'. This is at an individual level, but I suppose such things can have a sociocultural manifestation, too.

      I have to say I'd not heard of Phil Vischer before (I've never even watched more than a minute or two of Veggie Tales, but I'll try to make time to listen to that podcast you mention.

  2. This is very resonant. I had a few friends allude that the Christians who voted for Trump 'were not really Christian'. But for me they are and I feel the weight of disappointment that my own would do this. It also brings in the possibility of the idea of 'collective responsibility'. This is a fairly alien idea to the Western idea but I think there is a sense in which it does exist and definitely does exist in the biblical narratives. But how this fully works is at the moment beyond me

    1. Cleveland is a social psychologist so she approaches these issues via group dynamics, etc. I hope the rest of my posts in this series will show how she goes into more detail about these things. I remember feeling quite overwhelmed at the enormity of the task of reconciliation when I first read the book, though.

  3. 'This is how the world will know that you are My disciples: that you have love for one another'.

    Sounds fairly straightforward to me, but as usual we human beings get it oh, *so* wrong. Over and over and over. Humility and kindness are what I subscribe to. I can't claim to 'know' more than that, when I am so flawed and sinful myself. I just can't.