I’m a textbook middle child. I’ve spent a lifetime perfecting the art of placation, walking fine lines and threading needles. For years as a pastor, I relied on such diplomatic instincts to shepherd a politically and theologically diverse congregation.
In our current era of heightened polarization, it has become more challenging to carve out a place where people with serious differences can fellowship and worship together. Still, carving leaves a void. You keep everyone in the same room, but to what end? Neutrality suppresses incendiary topics and calls it peace.
Most people with strong beliefs distrust middle ground, especially when convinced that their perspective is biblical truth that must be fiercely defended. Decades ago, Sen. Barry Goldwater observed this tendency: “Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise.”
To the purists, the middle is where hard truth gets watered down, making it more palatable and less meaningful. Even God shows a disdain for the lukewarm in-between (Rev. 3:16). Be hot or cold, but don’t be tepid.
No wonder many congregations have homogenous viewpoints. Half of US Protestant churchgoers say they’d prefer attending a church where people hold similar political views, Lifeway Research found, and more than half think the members of their church already do. Sometimes, this unity is obtained through attrition, as unwelcome voices simply leave.
Of course, not all arguments are equally valid. Truth isn’t relative and sin matters. And when it comes to the most essential, common Christian convictions, there is not room for debate. Christian orthodoxy remains orthodox.
But here is the paradox: In many matters that polarize believers, there is at least a grain of theological truth in the views we personally—perhaps adamantly—oppose. We cannot abandon that truth without also compromising our witness.
Rather than adopting a “middle child” approach of minimizing very real conflicts or retreating to our corners, what if we embraced the tension? Could we allow for the existence of conflicting views in a manner that better testifies to the gospel we profess to share?
The way forward, I believe, lies in rediscovering the center rather than chasing the “middle.” Though they sound similar, these ideas are not synonymous. We arrive at the middle by beginning at the extreme positions and finding the point equidistant from both. Or we track where the majority lands and follow suit. To seek the middle is to seek the median or the mean.
In contrast, the center is better thought of as the center of gravity. In this sense, being centered means remaining with what is essential. Pressure from all sides forces you to drill deeper into that crucial core. To paraphrase preacher and theologian P. T. Forsyth, the center is not the place from which we calculate the middle, it’s the place from which we live.
For the church, the center is not an ideology or even a doctrine. It is Christ himself. And we find the center of his work on the cross. That is where the church derives its existence. It is also where we see tension personified as Jesus held his human and divine natures in a perfectly incomprehensible union.
Though interpretation of the Atonement itself can be a source of conflict, the Cross is far bigger than the box we build around it. It is where we see God work through paradox and where we see the cost of doing so. Christ exercised true freedom on the cross by choosing complete submission to the authority of his Father, and he demonstrated his power through refusing to access it to escape.
“The function of a paradox is not to solve opposition but to be transformed by living in the middle mystery of them,” performance artist Scott Erickson wrote on Instagram.
In his church history classes for Fuller Seminary, Charles Scalise often noted that God’s character encompasses the two paradoxical pillars of holiness and love, but his children cannot readily do the same. As limited human beings, we have trouble grasping both qualities simultaneously. Holiness is by nature exclusive, where love is inclusive.
One separates God from all that is impure or imperfect, while the other invites his impure, imperfect creatures to draw near and find grace. We need both a holy God worthy of worship and a loving God full of mercy and compassion. Yet in our fallen, finite state, each of us tends to emphasize either holiness or love, which generates conflict when we come together.
This sort of conflict was present in the earliest days of the church. Consider Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15, clashing over whether to include Mark on their second missionary journey. Paul leaned toward holiness and drew tight boundaries based on Mark’s past record. Mark had abandoned them previously; why repeat the same mistake? Barnabas showed a preference for love, believing in second chances and extending grace. Hadn’t Paul himself needed an opportunity for redemption? Wasn’t his present ministry the result of receiving the benefit of the doubt?
Both men had legitimate concerns, the tension may have felt insurmountable, and they could not find a compromise. Holiness and love reached a stalemate, humanly speaking, and the two men parted ways.
Looking to Jesus, though, we see he often refused to reduce the tension in order to appease his listeners—even when faced with seemingly clear immorality. The story of the woman caught in adultery shows Jesus steadfastly holding to both holiness and love as he tells the woman, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more” (John 8:11, NKJV).
Today, there are those who insist, “The church needs to take a stand for truth” and others who remind us, “Christ said the world will know us by our love.” Yet if both holiness and love equally exhibit God’s character, and if Christ held both intact on the cross, then to overemphasize one and neglect the other is to misrepresent his nature.
“The single story creates stereotypes,” author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie famously said. “And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”
The extremes are where our Christian witness suffers—not the center. Churches are often tempted to draw lines of demarcation. Yet doing so ignores an important truth: Other committed Christians have valid theological and missiological reasons for standing on the opposite side of some of the lines we draw. When we grasp for control, we shut off opportunity for dialogue and growth.
The intensity in our conflicts often stems from fear. Fear that the church is abandoning Scripture and accommodating culture. Fear of excluding someone. Fear that associating with the church makes us bigoted and judgmental. Fear of offending or causing someone to stumble.
But Christ stepped into dread. Taking a simplistic stance on an issue minimizes conflict, dressing the wound as if it were not serious (Jer. 6:14). Building a cross-centered church means responding to every thorny issue via the paradoxes of Calvary. The crucified Jesus has profound capacity and creativity to address each one.
The Cross is the great corrective of all our lopsided certainties. It humbles and reproves us when we are sure of our own rightness and graciously pardons us when we admit our arrogance and failings.
Our desire for others to change and come around to our position on essential matters may be biblically sound. But that doesn’t mean their pathway into truth will be instant or direct. To again paraphrase Forsyth, we can’t press the full light of the Cross on those who are only starting to feel its dawn.
The middle child in me always prefers peacekeeping; my adult self is learning to allow tension. While the middle settles for a ceasefire, the center offers the unity only Christ creates. As we see ever-increasing reasons for division, the Cross erases the distinctions with our common need for redemption (Gal. 3:28). It insists we share “one God and Father of all” (Eph. 4:6).
Being centered is neither extreme nor watered down, but rather grounded and full of conviction—a daily pursuit of the one who invites us to pick up our own crosses and follow him.
J. D. Peabody pastors New Day Church in Federal Way, Washington, and is the author of Perfectly Suited: The Armor of God for the Anxious Mind. Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column.
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