How to Debate Debatable Issues: The Art of Godly Disagreement
How to Debate Debatable Issues: The Art of Godly Disagreement

See the end of this article for web-only content: practical next steps you can take in response and helpful resources you can use to dig deeper into this issue.

 

By Jon Weatherly

I have the spiritual gift of opinions. I have opinions on everything, including things I know nothing about. I think my role in life is to help people agree with my right opinions. If you hold an opinion that’s different from mine, or even if you hold no opinion at all, get ready to be enlightened.

Some say that I think I’m always right. That’s not true! I agree in theory that scattered among my right opinions are a few wrong ones. I merely think that any particular opinion of mine is right. On those rare occasions when I realize that I was wrong, I change my opinion, and then I’m right! I like how that works.

Funny thing about spiritual gifts, though: having them and using them as God gave them to be used are two entirely different things. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading 1 Corinthians 12–14, it’s that you can blow up people and churches with the ungodly use of godly gifts. That applies to my gift of opinions.

And a funny thing about opinions: everyone has them and wants to share them. No one thinks I’m always right, but everyone thinks I’m right about THAT. Therein lies the explosive power of opinions. Any of us can weaponize an opinion, including right opinions, because our opinions are, well, what we believe.

Nevertheless, in my opinion some people seem more adept at dealing with their opinions, especially when their opinions differ from others. Their opinions aren’t weaponized; they’re sensitized. They practice the art of godly disagreement.

 I’d like to learn that godly art. To do so, I suppose I should think about God more. In my opinion, thinking about God—and putting those thoughts into action—is the essence of godliness.

Of course, you’re free to disagree. But you’ll be wrong.

So here goes.

 

Things God Does that I Can’t Do

It’s obvious God does things that frail, mortal humans can’t. That is, it’s obvious until an argument breaks out. Then suddenly the arguers are like God, knowing good from evil.

How does this blasphemous hubris get expressed? I express it when my disagreement moves to judgment about who is in God’s good graces and who is out. When I posture as a watchdog or assume the role of gatekeeper, I’m miles from Jesus’ teaching that in God’s kingdom, God does all the judging (Matthew 7:1-5). As a subject of God’s kingdom, I’m called not to divide sheep from goats. My calling is to gently help others remove their specks, drawing on my costly experience of having first removed my own logs. And I do have logs.

We log-in-the-eye folk appropriate some other God-only jobs. Sometimes I like to predict the future, as in “This [insert what one disagrees with] will someday lead to [insert a dystopian vision of the future].” Well, we humans do poorly enough knowing the past and the present. Our work on the future is typically valuable only for later generations to laugh at.

And, in fact, our knowledge of the past is bad enough that we mostly ought to lay off of what God does very well, which is compare the present to the past. The divine Christ was perfectly able to strike an authoritative comparison between those who refused to listen to him and those who refused to listen to God’s spokespeople in the past (Matthew 12:41, 42).

I, on the other hand, tend to idealize or demonize elements of the past through selective memory and overbroad generalization. So my saying, “This is just like what the Pharisees did!” or “These people are present-day versions of the liberals who tried to take over a hundred years ago!” or “Things were better when I was young!” should at best be taken with several bushels of salt. Or maybe I shouldn’t offer such blanket comparisons in the first place.

God also knows the motives of others, which I never will know well. It’s not that I’m ignorant of everything going on inside another person. Over time, people have a way of revealing their true selves. But my assessment of my own motives is often wildly inaccurate, at least according to my family. So I should steer clear of pronouncements about other people’s hearts. “All you care about is [insert dishonorable thing]” proves accurate about as often as an online horoscope.

But here’s what makes this hard. The truth is, I love winning arguments so much that I will do almost anything to win. God always wins, at least in the end, so to grab some of that divine winning, I will repeatedly pretend that I can do what God does. Then to augment my pleasure in winning, as if I look down from Heaven on my adversaries, I will toss on some scornful condescension: “poor, pitiable heretic!”

I suppose I should repent, but that feels like I’m losing. I hate losing.

 

Things I Do that God Doesn’t Do

It’s bad enough that I want to do what only God does. It’s maybe worse that, though I claim to be God’s person, I do things that God simply doesn’t do.

Specifically, God doesn’t play favorites (Acts 10:34, 35). Regardless of a person’s connection with any group or any of the ideologies around which groups form, God applies his mercy and justice with impartiality and grace. I’m counting on that, big time.

I prefer, however, to judge by association: “She quoted a controversial figure with approval. Tsk tsk!” “He belongs to an organization with which I disagree. How awful!” I’m quite sure that these people are wrong, and their associations prove it.

I refuse to associate with people of whose associations I disapprove. After all, I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I approve of the wrong those wrong people are wrongly doing. I will imitate Jesus, who never, ever associated with anyone who . . . uh . . .

Never mind.

But I still don’t have the time or energy for graceful impartiality. I need labels to sort things out, fast and easy. Words ending in “-ist” are awesome for this task: legalist, antinomianist, racist, sexist, feminist, chauvinist, socialist, capitalist, fascist, anarchist, modernist, postmodernist, nativist, globalist, absolutist, relativist, atheist, deist, guitarist. Dictionaries list more than a thousand of these words, and as far as I can tell, you don’t even need to know what they mean to apply them to people with whom you disagree. Generous naming of the “-ists” and their “-isms” is the elite, sophisticated way to crush people rhetorically. Let God deal with individuals. My labels will do the work in wholesale lots.

At the cost of my even pretending I care the least bit about godliness, I suppose.

 

Things God Does and Calls Me to Do

If I care about godliness, I guess I should aspire to do the things that God and his Son do and that they call me to do: serve others at the cost of my own life. I seriously believe that thinking deeply and expressing those thoughts clearly constitute a way a person can serve. But I’ve got to do it as a lowly servant, not as someone who needs to win, and surely not as a passive-aggressive, obsequious, falsely “humble” charlatan who tries to win by acting like a loser. If I let it, Jesus’ cross has a keen enough edge to scrape the fraud off my outside and the pride off my inside..

With a measure of cruciform humility, I may recognize my limits better. Just because the other guy is wrong doesn’t mean I am right. We may both be wrong. I can feel the tempering of my enthusiasm for my point of view already.

I should likewise do that “fruit” thing that the divine Spirit of God empowers me to do: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22, 23). Those don’t seem of much use in my quest to attain overwhelming personal victory. But they do seem rather consistent with who God is. And every one of them is intensely relevant to the way I disagree with my sisters and brothers. When practiced, they seem to get me doing for others what I’d like others to do for me (Matthew 7:12), like assuming their goodwill.

I should likewise function as a member of the body of the divine Christ, and not as the head of the body. That means listening to and respecting other members of the body, even if I still conclude that they are wrong. That means not acting in a way that is the equivalent of Christ’s body punching itself repeatedly.

This also means listening to the global Christian community. If I begin to think that white, middle-class, American Christians are the only ones with a right to an opinion in the body of Christ, I’m leaving out Christians of color in my part of the world, not to mention the burgeoning millions of Christians in the global South and East. They may have an understanding that can challenge mine. Or they may not even understand the argument that’s going on, which ought to make me wonder whether my being right about this dispute even matters.

If I’m listening only to my narrow circle of like-me Christians in my part of the world, I’m also leaving out a lot of the body’s members who are dead in the flesh but alive in the spirit. The historical witness of the church ought to matter to me. It should matter enough that if I find myself diverging from the historic position of the church, I will do so with fear and trepidation, punctuated with loud admissions that I may well be the one who’s wrong, not the church universal for a couple of millennia. Tradition is neither always bad nor always good, but settled conclusions are generally settled for significant reasons that I should consider.

As a follower of the Son of God empowered by the Spirit of God and so a member of Christ’s body, I will certainly attend to the written Word of God. But let me do so aware of the Bible’s own limitations. It’s likely that the Bible simply doesn’t address everything I want it to, and it’s certain that it doesn’t address things in the way I want. So “What does the Bible teach about this new, hot topic?” can be a gravely misleading question. Generally better is, “In the great arc of its story, from creation to corruption to call to covenant to Christ to church to consummation, what does the Bible teach?”

If that sounds like I’m denying the sufficiency of Scripture, I ask that you listen with patience and gentleness. The sufficiency of Scripture is that Scripture tells us all we need to live as God’s people, not that it tells us what we need to settle every dispute. We haven’t done as well as we’d like in settling every dispute with the Bible. Perhaps we’d do better in living graciously with our disagreement, as the Bible seems to instruct, if we respect what the Bible doesn’t address. The Bible’s limits are a feature, not a bug. They keep us focused on the important things.

Of course, the important thing is salvation. For a couple of hundred years we’ve tried to treat things that don’t pertain to salvation as unimportant. But let’s remember that in the Bible salvation is bigger than we often allow. It isn’t just receiving eternal blessing in the future when eternal punishment is deserved. It’s also life restored to God’s blessed wholeness in the present. So some of our opinions, especially those about what constitutes right or wrong actions, can deeply impact the whole of salvation, even though our gracious God can forgive our errors.

But disputatious arguments can also impact that blessed wholeness. With a holistic view of salvation, I’d still better be careful how I argue.

So where does that leave us? I need to be humble and self-aware. I need to develop real love for those with whom I disagree, assuming the best about them and listening sincerely to them, as I want them to do for me. I should treat my adversaries respectfully, as individuals. I should save apocalyptic language for the actual apocalypse, and judgment for the true Judge.

If I do, maybe I will have more conversations and fewer arguments. I generally learn more from conversations than from arguments.

Maybe learning is better than winning.

One last thing: Go easy on the sarcasm.

Jon Weatherly serves as professor of New Testament and vice president for academic affairs/provost at Johnson University.

________

WEB EXTRA: Best Next Steps

1. Examine your motives. Do you want to win, or do you want to understand?

2. Consider your limits. Do you know enough to have a strong opinion on this matter?

3. Put your faith into action. Do you believe that God can take care of the problems you can’t solve and the people you can’t persuade?

4. Put your love into action. Since the Lord commands love for our neighbors and our enemies, do you express that love clearly in the way you disagree?

 

Recommended Resources

Brian Jennings, Dancing in No Man’s Land: Moving with Peace and Truth in a Hostile World (NavPress, 2018). Thoughtful discussion of how to live as an ambassador of Christ in a world of hostile disagreement.

The Arbinger Institute, Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box (2nd edition; Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015). Classic discussion of how we attempt to compensate for our own weaknesses by fueling conflict with others.

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5 Comments

  1. Todd
    August 21, 2018 at 3:49 pm

    Guitarist. Lol

  2. Nate Wheeler
    August 21, 2018 at 5:01 pm

    I enjoyed reading this. Very powerful and polite with a good dose of humility. Thanks for reminding me of what’s important when arguing or, um, disagreeing.

  3. Lynda Stohler
    August 21, 2018 at 9:35 pm

    Jon, thank you for sharing this article. Great recommendations that I will attempt to practice next time I get into a discussion!

  4. Victor Knowles
    August 22, 2018 at 5:40 pm

    Great point on including the historical witness of the church in debatable matters. We’ll all be dead debaters someday too.

  5. Roy Miller
    August 27, 2018 at 9:39 pm

    I’m happy that Jon is a colleague, brother, and my provost.

    Roy Miller
    Johnson University

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