The Place of Argument in the Church
Until a few days ago, I was a moderator in a theological discussion forum on Google+ called Theogeeks. For the most part I enjoyed this time as a source of discussion across denominational traditions and all over the world. However, more recently I have begun to realize how much it wears on me. Recently I blogged about the Hole in the Emerging Church which was inspired by a much more positive, although still very tiring, conversation with a conservative cousin-in-law. It has gotten me reflecting about what is the best way to approach engaging disagreement in the church and I tend to see people go to one extreme or another.
One option for dealing with the Christian brothers and sisters who you disagree with is to spend a lot of energy deliberately arguing, or “discussing” in the nicer variation, with those opponents. The main advantage of this, or at least you would be inclined to think, is that you have the opportunity to influence the other side and you have an opportunity to learn from them, too. But while this posture of learning from each other is ideal, it is extremely rare to find it in both conversation partners and I’m sure in large part because it is so exhausting. It depends on the issues being discussed of course, but on the big things where you have completely different understandings of God, that middle ground is hard to find and it can be a huge effort just to start the conversation on a productive track. Typically you’ll find prominent evangelicals in this category of response and I believe this is why most think of Christians as judgemental, angry, and only trying to convince others – Christians or not – that they are right. Even if the message is genuinely good news, when carried out through aggressive methods it can be counterproductive since it will never come across as good news.
Non-evangelicals sometimes join in this style in an attempt to make sure people can see a “better” vision of God who isn’t angry at them and just waiting to throw them into Hell if they don’t affirm the right doctrines fast enough. We want to make sure that people know that conservative evangelicalism is not the only form of Christianity and is not even close to the majority of Christianity. To a degree this may be helpful, but there is also a certain degree to which it is necessary in doing this to also use the aggressive methods which we are objecting to even if we are using it to convey what we think is a more loving, and thus more accurate to God’s character, message. Once again, our methods seem to contradict the message.
Sometimes I think of this like Jesus’ words about casting pearls before swine. No, I am not calling every Christian I disagree with pigs. Jesus’ purpose of that line I think is simple: giving pearls to pigs is not only a waste of the pearls but also counter-productive. What are pigs going to do with pearls? They’re going to try to eat them. Then they’ll get mad because that will hurt them. Then they’ll take that anger out on you and others. I think this is analogous with getting into certain debates in the church where we are just throwing ideas at each other that we know the other will not accept. It is just getting everyone angry and hurting each other plus anybody caught in the crossfire. Nobody gains anything by it but everybody feels like they did their duty because they proclaimed the truth! (as they see it of course). In reality, we’ve failed to proclaim love and that is far more important than any doctrine.
In the case of Theogeeks, I sometimes found myself getting into this zone of counter-productive frustration (rarely outright anger). More often I just felt like it was a waste of time. When musing and tweeting about this topic, somebody pointed out James 1:27 to me:
27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
At the end of the day, helping others get their theology right doesn’t matter that much. Even me getting my theology right doesn’t matter all that much. Modern Protestantism really likes to emphasize this and sometimes even ties going to Heaven, which is often seen as the goal of religion, to it. I value learning from others and I value teaching others, but ultimately I know much more than I need to know in order to live a life following Jesus. Theology is a valuable, probably even vital, discipline particularly in the Western intellectualized world, but it can never be allowed to be the end goal. The end goal is the Kingdom of God.
I do not suggest stepping away from discussing theology entirely but I’ve come more recently to admire those who prefer to stick to their spheres of influence instead of picking battles with strangers. These spheres usually work in such a way that people are somewhat close to your thinking but not necessarily on the exact same page. I have a couple of more conservative friends who will happily and respectfully engage in conversation with me and I with them. The big difference between these situations and Theogeeks is that these are my friends. They are people who have invited me to speak into their lives and who I have invited to speak into mine. It is a noble goal to try to engage in tough and controversial conversations as spiritual siblings across the world and I don’t think it is impossible to do. However, I do think it is a lot of effort for at best a relatively small gain.
Precisely because theology does matter and we hold it so tightly, we need to be sure that love precedes, permeates, and follows from theological discussion. After all, if we have everything else but have not love, we are just a clanging cymbal (Romans 13). If you can do that effectively with strangers who strongly disagree with you, all the power in the world to you. I think that it does have a valuable place. Just don’t enter into it lightly because I have learned that it is a lot harder to do with love than we might think.