Weekly Edgework #33 - Feb. 14, 2005

Group Think

Unity is a profound, even mystical quality. It takes great effort to achieve, yet mere effort will never produce it…Unanimity, on the other hand, is very tidy. It can be measured monitored and enforced (The Myth of Certainty, Daniel Taylor, 35).

I am no longer surprised to find Christians in the church who prefer “group think” to authentic dialogue. For them it is a process designed to maintain unity within the church. Recently a friend articulated this phenomenon in the context of having discovered a small group in which he could share his experiences and ask hard questions that did not have clear-cut answers. He put my own thoughts into words when he said something like this:

I can’t believe I am doing this. I am telling you my story with all its pain and unanswered questions. All my adult life I have gone to Bible Studies and always it was the same. Phony questions are asked of the text we are studying to which everyone knows the correct answer. When someone parrots this answer, a smugness settles over the group because they are now affirmed that they are still on the right track. Never could you get personal or bring the ambiguities of your experience into the discussion. For the first time in my life I feel I am set free to be honest with my brothers and sisters and grow in my understanding of faith and life.

Many of us have been there as well, have we not? I have. Sometimes I have felt like screaming to shatter such smugness – such “group think”. Where does it come from and why do so many people play along with this game? On the one hand, I think it comes from a deep well of insecurity. We are afraid of what would happen if we would allow the ambiguities of our experience to disrupt a tidy Bible Study where all questions and answers are known in advance. Just as afraid as our leaders are to allow for new questions which don’t have ready answers. The more insecure we are, the more we will insist that our discussions remain within the bounds of a well-rehearsed orthodoxy.

On the other hand I think such “group think” also comes from a misguided notion of what the Bible is all about. It is thought that the Bible is a codebook – a kind of dictionary in which you can look up the answers to thousands of questions, both large and small. And since there is no ambiguity with God, there is always only one answer given for each question. Perhaps this assumption is a carry over from the time when baptismal candidates memorized a hundred questions and answers about their faith in preparation for baptism. It is a sad commentary on the lives of many to have to admit that they never studied the Bible seriously beyond this process. In their minds the goal of Christian maturity was to know as many questions and answers as found in the Bible as possible by rote memory. This being the case, it is small wonder that for such people it is threatening to allow the Bible to breathe life and Spirit in all it mysterious splendor.

Another pressure for “group think” in Christian circles is rooted in a confusion between the concepts of unity and unanimity. It is sometimes thought that unless everyone is agreed on every point there is disunity in the group. That is, unless there is unanimity there is no unity. The Apostle Paul admonishes Christians to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3). But does unity in the Spirit mean unanimity on every point. I don’t think so.

Unanimity has the appearance of being tidy. There have been many experiments in the history of the church in which unanimity was attempted among all adherents of a group. In such groups it is imperative that everyone believe and behave in precisely the same way. When unity is defined in terms of sameness it takes on a central role in the life of a community. It must be measured, monitored and enforced. If there is even one dissenter, unity is broken. So, in the process, the drive for unanimity becomes an instrument of control, even as it deals a deathblow to freedom, joy and growth. Unanimity becomes a hard and brittle measuring stick beating its members into submission. I have witnessed this in the context of some ultra-conservative communities.

But, unfortunately, I have come across this approach to faith and life in the context of evangelical congregations as well. Sometimes it insists on having had a particular kind of experience with God. It is not open to listen to the stories of fellow pilgrims for fear they might not line up with what is considered to be orthodox. At other times it demands the use of a specific form of pious language. Along with Flannery O’Conner, I have become suspicious of excessive use of pious language because of the realities it tends to cover up. When unanimity becomes a central focus in any community it becomes inflexible and closed to the work of the Spirit in its midst.

Unity does not presuppose unanimity. Of course there have to be some common underpinnings for unity to emerge, but that list of commonalities is probably shorter than we have been led to believe. Unity can never be forced. It takes great effort, yet in the end it is always a gift. It is a source of great comfort, but at the same time demands risks. When it emerges it is flexible and strong, even as it allows for a diversity of opinion on many matters. It is in the context of a community where there is a “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” that real growth can happen. Seldom does growth happen in the context of “group think” dynamics.

It us for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery (Galatians 5:1).