Contentious Christians: How should we handle controversy?

UnknownMost bloggers establish some ground-rules for those who want to participate in the discussion. And that’s a good idea, especially considering the tone of much of what’s online today. Some of the rules are obvious to most of us (I hope). If you use any vulgar or obscene language, or if you insult other commenters, your comments will be deleted. But, as Christians, I think we’re called to a higher standard than just not being obscene or insulting.

John F. Kennedy once observed that “too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” Unfortunately, this is all too true today, even among evangelical Christians. It’s human nature to polarize and divide over issues. We see this polarization running rampant in our political system and, sadly, we frequently see it at work in the church as well.

As those who worship the one who not only exemplifies truth but, in some profound way, is truth, we should be expected to carefully examine each issue, to ensure that we truly understand differing viewpoints, and to know the underlying reasons for any disagreements. However, people―Christians included―have a tendency to listen to only one perspective. Many receive all of their information from “their side” and rarely give their opponents a fair chance to explain their views. Those who are politically liberal tend to listen to liberals. And usually the only time they hear conservative viewpoints is when they hear other liberals describe what “those conservatives” believe. Of course, if you’re not liberal, don’t get smug just yet . . . because most conservatives do the very same thing.

This way of “being informed” creeps into the body of Christ and affects how we handle controversial issues. We often end up talking past each other without making any impact because we don’t really understand where the other side is coming from. We haven’t learned some important lessons taught in the book of Proverbs: “The first to speak in court sounds right―until the cross-examination begins” (Proverbs 18:17), and “Spouting off before listening to the facts is both shameful and foolish” (Proverbs 18:13).

The manner in which we sometimes express our disagreements also greatly concerns me. When researching differing viewpoints online, there are times when I’m dismayed by the unloving and unchristian animosity displayed toward opponents who are brothers and sisters in Christ. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t debate, and debate vigorously. But who are we to impugn the motives and intentions of fellow believers? Can we see the heart? Are we qualified to judge it? Sometimes the interaction becomes so mean-spirited and vitriolic that I have to check and make sure that it’s actually spewing from a “Christian” site. Brothers and sisters, this should not be.

So how should we handle controversy in the church? Here are a few suggestions (and expectations for this blog):

1. Begin with an attitude of love

From what Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13, we can have all of our doctrinal t’s crossed and i’s dotted, but if we don’t have love it doesn’t amount to much of anything. This doesn’t mean that truth is optional. Speaking the truth is imperative, but we must speak the truth “in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Remember when the lawyer asked Jesus which commandment was the greatest? Jesus gave him two commandments, both having to do with love. Love God; love each other. He said that all of the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments (Matthew 22:34-40). Jesus also said that the defining characteristic of his people would be the love they have for one another (John 13:35). If we were truly loving toward each other in our debates, do you think this might eliminate much of the hostility? If the world saw a church where Christians consistently showed love for each other―even when they strongly disagreed―could that maybe have an impact on people looking for a faith that’s real? one that really makes a difference in people’s lives?

2. Watch out for pride

Ego creeps in so easily! It begins to be all about my views, our side, what we believe. Us vs them. Once we’re looking at an issue this way, it becomes very difficult to fairly listen to the “other side.” We see this in politics all the time. We lionize our leaders and demonize theirs. We try to justify whatever our party does, no matter how despicable, and when the opposing party does something commendable we pick it apart. Why? Because we have to be right; we have to win! It becomes a matter of pride. Before we look at the actual issue, we need to acknowledge: it’s not about me. It’s not about what will make me look good. It’s not about helping my side win. Instead, our focus needs to be: What is true? (Whether I like it or not.) We need to sacrifice our egos. Are you willing to admit it when you’re wrong?

(Notice that before we’ve examined any specific issue, we’ve examined our own attitudes. If we entered into discussion and debate with right hearts―before God and toward each other―it would alleviate most of the rancor in our disagreements.)

3. Seek the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth

What this doesn’t mean is checking out an issue until I’ve amassed enough catchy points to win the argument! Remember, it’s not about winning arguments. It’s not about defending my position. It’s about actually understanding an issue and discovering what is really true. Seeking the truth also doesn’t mean listening only to my side’s explanations of the views of our opponents. It means having the courtesy to truly listen to opposing viewpoints and fairly consider them. It’s not compromising the truth to give another person a fair hearing. You don’t have to be convinced . . . but are you willing to be? Remember the old saying: If you never have to change your mind, you’re probably not using it! Are you so focused on the truth that you’re willing to change even a long-held position? Which is more important to you: truly being right, or having everyone think you’re right?

4. Be fair with your opponent

If it’s not all about winning, this shouldn’t be such a problem. But too often it is. If you’ve read many books on Calvinism, you’ve probably found descriptions of what Arminians believe that no Arminian would ever recognize as their own! And Calvinists can make the same complaint. If we are explaining the position of our opponents, they should be able to listen to us and say, “Well put! That’s how I would explain it too.” We need to be scrupulously fair in the way we describe the beliefs of others. Do you like to be misrepresented? Do you enjoy it when you’re falsely accused of motives you don’t have and beliefs you don’t hold? Then let’s make sure we don’t do that to others. Express your opponents’ views accurately and fairly.

5. Try to persuade instead of winning arguments

If you’re truly convinced that your brother or sister is wrong, if you’re concerned that this error is potentially harmful to them, and if you have a loving attitude toward this person, how will you interact with them? By bombastically hitting them with every argument within reach and overpowering them with your array of facts and bulletproof logic? By hounding them until they’re forced to concede that they’re wrong? Is this really the way to change someone’s heart and mind? Perhaps we might be more effective if we adopt a more scriptural style of interaction:

A servant of the Lord must not quarrel, but must be kind to everyone, be able to teach, and be patient with difficult people. Gently instruct those who oppose the truth. Perhaps God will change these people’s hearts, and they will learn the truth.

2 Timothy 2:24-25

6. Distinguish between essential truths and non-essential viewpoints

We must not compromise the essential truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ. But there are a number of secondary issues that we routinely fight about that are not worthy of dividing over. The manner of Christ’s return is a wonderful, blessed hope and a fascinating topic for discussion. But it’s a little silly for us to be so dogmatic over something of which we are still so ignorant. Some issues require a firm, unyielding stand; others invite ongoing consideration, discussion and illumination. We should seek the wisdom to appropriately distinguish between them.

7. Realize that you won’t convince everyone . . . and that’s okay

It’s not our responsibility to change people’s hearts. We communicate the truth, the Holy Spirit works in their hearts, and they eventually either respond or resist. When people don’t come around to our way of thinking right away, it doesn’t mean that we’ve failed or that they are automatically rejecting God. We can’t control this process or the timing. Even if some Christians don’t agree with you, they’re still your brothers and sisters, and you still need to treat them with love and respect. And we just might be the ones who need to reconsider our viewpoints! Keep these passages in mind:

Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.
Romans 12:18

Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters:
You must all be quick to listen,
slow to speak,
and slow to get angry.
Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires.
James 1:19-20

I think that sums it up quite well.