18 Jan 2013

The Author

I am a youth worker, blogger, writer, and student at Yale Divinity School. I love helping others to ask and to answer difficult questions about faith for themselves and to shape a meaningful understanding of their own role in the world and their relationship to the communities and traditions that surround them.

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When is it Time to Stop Arguing?
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I remember hearing a story in college about a large church with a young pastor who boldly preached the gospel according to Calvin and Albert Mohler.  The mega-church he led had lost a sizable number of members (though certainly not enough to diminish its mega-church status) and a friend commented that this was because this pastor was “preaching the truth.”  What he meant, which I agree with, is that the truth isn’t always what we want to hear.  What he implied, which I want to question, is that any consequences of bluntly telling the truth are perfectly acceptable.

A friend of mine said to me recently that what we believe determines how we live and treat others.  Whether he meant to or not, he seemed to imply that the primary concern of any spiritual leader must be making sure people believe correctly.  Lifestyle will follow if we just get people’s theology in order.

But can our quest to enlighten others with “the truth” do more harm than good?

What happens when people ask for our advice and we discover that they believe “the wrong thing?”  What happens when revealing to others the theologies or ideologies that we hold dear causes them pain?  What happens when arguing for what we believe causes others to walk away from the faith altogether?

Before we go any farther with this I need to confess that I am by no means a master of discretion when it comes to delicate situations.  So what follows is not the teachings of an expert but the honest questionings of a fellow journeyer.  If I’m honest, I must confess that I am guilty of having done (and probably will do again) many things similar to those I am about to describe, so I write this not to criticize others but to bring to light a concern that all of us engaged in conversations about faith need to keep in mind.

With that confession on the table, let me share three types of situations in which conversations about faith often turn into “arguments” which subject the people around us to “friendly fire”:

The first happens when we cross lines of theological difference.

I have heard many pastors, bible study leaders, and seminary students, whether they be Calvinist, Wesleyan, or none-of-the-above, describe moments in which someone came to them with a question or a pastoral concern which simultaneously revealed that they held the “wrong theology.”  Not missing a beat, said “teacher” took the opportunity to inform their new, unsuspecting “student” of a more theologically robust and accurate way of conceptualizing the “issue at hand,” with the resulting private lecture in systematics often taking up most of the 30 minute block set aside for their “coffee meeting.”  With a shrug many of these stories end with “I haven’t heard anything from them lately…”

The second happens when we cross lines of political difference.

A friend told me a couple of years ago about a painful experience involving a mentor and colleague who was leading a local church outreach program.  In the course of meeting to plan activities for this program, they realized that they came down on opposite sides of a very controversial political issue.  My friend humbly asked to continue working with this mentor and colleague despite their disagreement.  In return she was given an ultimatum: until you change your mind about this, we can’t work together.

The third happens when we cross lines of cultural or experiential difference.

Squeezed into the middle seat on a long Southwest flight to visit family for the holidays, it comes out that we work in ministry or are studying theology.  Or maybe the guy next to us notices the title of the N.T. Wright or Kathryn Tanner book we are reading.  Whatever it was, suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere a host of stereotypes and accusations are flying: the diatribe against organized religion from the woman on our left, the stories of personal pain and hurt caused by church when the fellow on our right was growing up.  My instincts, and I suspect I’m not alone, are to do one of two things:  either dodge the bullet and play the I’m-not-that-kind-of-Christian card, or spend the rest of the flight arguing about why my new “opponents” have got Christianity all wrong.

Underlying all three of these types of situations, I think, is a concern for the advancement of particular commitments and beliefs in the life of the church.  And on one level, these are good, important things.  The church needs to better educate its members about theology.  The church needs people who are serious about arguing for the right application of Christianity to the needs of this world.  The church needs to deal with its historical and cultural baggage and needs to try to change people’s hearts and minds.  And when we engage in conversations about faith we will often find ourselves on the front lines of all of these concerns.

But what also needs to be considered is the concrete reality of the other person in each of these situations.  Does the church member across the table from us need a lesson in theology or do they need to be heard out?  Does the colleague with whom we disagree politically need an ultimatum or do they need an outstretched hand?  Do our fellow passengers (or perhaps prisoners?) on a long flight home need the sales pitch for our particular brand of Christianity or do they need someone willing to own the harm done to them and simply say “I’m sorry”?

These are difficult questions to answer and there are no hard and fast rules for deciding them.  And while I certainly would be the first to say that at times we need to argue for what we believe to be true, I also want to acknowledge that all too often we go into conversations with those with whom we disagree trigger-happy and ready to shoot.  Spoiling for the fight, we don’t take the time to stop and consider the consequences of our words.

I was pretty astonished today when I watched this “interview” of Alex Jones by Piers Morgan:

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Unfortunately, many people see Christians this way and a lot of times we Christians act this way toward one another.  Aggressive, argumentative, and even obstinate have become synonyms with “Christian” in our society, and we haven’t done much to help our cause.

Too often we forget, I’m afraid, that sitting across the table from us is a real person who has real needs and real questions, and that they are looking to us for answers.  There is a time and a place for arguing, but have we forgotten that there is also a time and a place for sitting still and listening to what others have to say?

Even when we know that they are wrong?

 

Alexander Marshall is a blogger, writer, teacher, and student at Yale Divinity School.  You can connect with him on Facebook, Twitter, or by visiting his blog.

3 Comments
3 Comments
  1. All good points, thank you. I got it this way from a friend: “Nothing is more important than the person you are presently with.” In whatever capacity we may find ourselves, this is true not only for what we might be able to do for them but also what they might be able to do for us. I was advised to earnestly search for the spirit of what is being said, and that is usually about their state of being and not necessarily about the statement of beliefs. Treat the physical first, then the heart, then the mind. We have no way of knowing exactly what is being asked of us or stated to us without an open ear and mind. Imago dei…”Christ in all his many disguises”: this is who I am with, no matter what I may think or believe.

  2. Oops, I forgot to confess that my advice is not always there for me when engaged in things I am passionate about. But I am getting better at promptly apologizing.

    • Thanks, Jerry!

      I think you are definitely right to point to the image of God and of Christ in everyone as a reason why we have to take seriously the immediate needs of the person in front of us, even when those needs conflict with making progress toward our own goals for the church or the individual. Its hard to balance those two priorities, especially when we are engaged in things we are passionate about. All we can do is keep trying to learn and to listen.

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