When differences of opinion (or what we deem to be the 'right' way to think/do/speak/feel) surface, we get might touchy! And often, we become downright angry and resentful. This is especially true when someone else's different way of doing things affects us directly.
It's true that the world speaks a great deal about tolerance, but the reality is, even within the secular world, the tolerance only extends as far as what seems to not affect others in a direct manner. (We could certainly discuss some different interpretations of 'effect' but lets not for today.)
I believe God would love to speak to His people, in partiular, about how we are to accept one another's differences. I've seen in my own relationships, in my church family and among the people of God as a whole that differences bring separation and I believe this deeply grieves the heart of God.
Jesus was pretty specific about this concept in John:
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 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 17:20-23 (NIV)
God desires unity among His people. If that is the case, how do we deal with the differences of opinion? And for that matter, why does He even give us these differences?
Do you know how many times I've asked God to just sort of brainwash me so that I could think the way 'John Smith' thinks instead of always battling in my mind about how 'John Smith' might be 'doing it wrong'? Well, I can tell you, it's a LOT of times. A LOT!! (maybe this is especially difficult for women since our position within the church is not one of leadership?)
But I am coming to believe that God has a unique purpose in allowing these differences. We know that God works all things together for the good of those who love him and are called according to His purpose(Rom 8:28). So that has to include all the differences right?
I believe that what God calls His people to do is this: when there are differences significant enough to breed contention, he desires us to take our frustration, our resentment, our concern, our anger.....all of it.....directly to Jesus and ask Him to deal with it.
And leave it there.
Our differences are intended to cause us to more carefully look to Jesus as the author and perfector of our faith. They are NOT intended to divide us, or cause us to hold resentments, or to avoid people, or to hate people. They are there to bring us to the end of ourselves so that we can begin to look more like Jesus. Ultimately, they are meant to bring us to a point of humble unity.
Yes, there are times when we do have to confront things that are in error, but have we first really left it with Jesus and waited for Him to point us to a godly confrontation?
These things are very much a part of what allows us to truly and unconditionally love the people around us. May we wholehearted seek unity through submission first to Christ our Lord.