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Groupthink, Meaning, and Unity

Updated: Jun 15, 2022

I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:22-23 NIV)

One of the most intriguing and distressing phenomena of the last four years has been the disunity of the church when it comes to secular political power. I don’t mean voting for different candidates; sincere Christians have always cast votes across the political spectrum. What I’ve noticed happening more often and more loudly than before are Christians saying, “How could any Christian [fill in the blank]?”

The problem is that, whether they realize it or not, those people are saying, “I am a real Christian, and I don’t see how anyone who doesn’t agree with me about [fill in the blank] could possibly be a Christian.” How did we Christians fall so far short of “complete unity” (above)?

After the violent riot at the US Capitol on January 6, an author I admire tweeted an article about “groupthink” with this quote from it:

People will sacrifice their own ideas, urges, likes, and dislikes in order to fit in with their groups.

Following a group’s “rules,” he explains, creates a sense of belonging, which gives people a sense that their lives have meaning. The prospect of losing that is so terrifying that people will “argue vociferously for [the rules] even when they are transparently preposterous,” so as to continue to signal that they belong to the group.

That gave me insight into why Christians have been so baffled and frustrated by one another. It’s easy for members of a church—who are typically from the same small area and thus of similar culture—to conflate their religious beliefs with other opinions they share. They might then feel that people who don’t share all their opinions aren’t even Christians.

How can we combat this danger? We often say, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity” (a quote from German Lutheran Rupertus Meldenius). To avoid “groupthink,” or the feeling that we only belong if we agree, Christians have to get used to disagreeing about some things, so that it doesn’t feel scary.

The Church can help by regularly distinguishing between the beliefs that are fundamental to Christianity and specific ways we live them out—the non-essentials in which there is liberty—and emphasize that disagreement among believers does not affect anyone’s belonging in the family of God. Pastors are charged with helping their congregants apply truth to the many situations in our lives that aren’t specifically addressed in the Bible, but we all need to be clear about which is which. Finally, we must speak with love (John 15), to further help our brothers and sisters know they still belong even if they disagree.

As individuals, we can also take steps to make sure we are building up the body of Christ instead of causing division. My mom wrote a great blog post on the need for humility in discerning the difference between God’s truth and our understanding of it. When we hold our personal theology loosely, acknowledging that we might be wrong about some things (since we’re only human), we will be less afraid of hearing other points of view.

In discussing our opinions with others, we will inevitably have a defensive reaction at some point. When that happens, we should ask ourselves if we are truly debating fundamental truth, or if we’ve stumbled upon a “rule” (possibly unspoken) that people in our group have created (possibly unintentionally). If the latter, we must allow that other Christians might disagree with us, while remembering that such disagreement threatens neither their nor our identity in Christ.

In practice, that’s hard to do. It’s easier to stick with people who agree with us, so that we never feel our identity being threatened. But Jesus calls people from every tribe, tongue, and nation into his family. On earth, we will never all agree on everything.

The true Good News is that Jesus brought us into the family of God, and our mission to be not just his ambassadors and witnesses but his very hands and feet is the greatest meaning anyone could hope to have for their lives. When we focus on these truths, Christ’s love will enable us to have true unity in him.

If you want to explore more about God’s great love and mission, I recommend The Sacred Romance, by Brent Curtis and John Eldredge, and The Secret Message of Jesus, by Brian McLaren.

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