I have an opinion about opinions!
In the Army we use the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP). One of the steps is to separate facts from assumptions. It isn’t always as easy to differentiate the two as one might imagine. But the reason it is critical to identify assumptions is because of the great risks hidden within them. We put it this way: “The greater the assumption, the greater the risk.” Leaders have to determine how much risk they are willing to assume with any action.
It seems to me that opinions in the life of the body of Christ function similarly to assumptions. When we treat assumptions as if they are facts, we maximize the risks and threaten our well-being. When we treat opinions as if they are facts, we put the spiritual well being of Christ’s body at risk, especially when we make such conclusions binding on others.
Lessons from Paul
I’ve learned a few things while reflecting on Romans 14 and 15. The Scripture says, “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak” (Romans 15:1). And I have never heard anyone say he or she was the weak person! We always hear the text and identify with the strong (or the right) person!
Paul was shrewd here. If we all see ourselves as the strong one, then the burden to be strong, to treat others with deference, falls on everyone. And if everyone treats everyone else with deference and respect, then opinions stay in their proper place.
What’s Most Important
In examining the context for that passage, I was surprised by another text I had never heard preached in my 50-plus years. Romans 14:22 says, “So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.” Silence! What a concept! We aren’t very quiet. We don’t keep opinions to ourselves very well. We more often speak as though we have a “word from the Lord,” when all we have is tradition.
The body of Christ is more important than my opinion. I don’t anticipate much disagreement on that. But I do think it is difficult distinguishing fact from opinion.
Is there any help in determining what is binding for the life of the church? If you polled your Sunday school class, would you discover that opinions are generally preached as fact? A guiding principle for Stone-Campbell people is, “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where Scripture is silent, we are silent.” But are we ever really silent? The way some people toss around proof texts, one might wonder!
I get it, though. Our beliefs matter to each of us. They provide the lens through which we make sense of our experiences. Seeing things from another person’s point of view takes great emotional energy, especially if we have weighted our opinion with an eternal consequence.
I always began my class on military ethics by stating, “Of course you believe what you believe is right, or else you wouldn’t believe it. But so does the person sitting next to you. Your job is to find a way to understand how it is that they could hold such a belief and what impact it has on how they make decisions.”
A lot of opinions out there are being passed off as “tests of fellowship.” Things like the right way to worship, the role of women in the church, which political party a real Christian would be a part of, how God makes himself known, and you can add your own favorite.
Our Fear and Their Freedom
Fear is at the heart of elevating our strong opinions to requirements (at least that’s my opinion)—fear that we will do wrong or be wrong before God. Grace, as nice a word as it is—as much as we need it and want it—is scarier than law. The Law feels so much more secure. It is clear about the boundaries—what you can do and what you can’t.
Grace, on the other hand, is so terrifyingly free. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” Paul wrote to the Galatians (5:1). Yet, so many of us react to free choices with self-imposed limits. “Setting down the law”—letting folks know just what you think and feel, and why it is RIGHT—is understandable. It’s more concrete and thus more comfortable than grace.
Grace can feel a bit too fuzzy, too loose. It’s no wonder opinions soon become elevated to essentials. It’s no wonder we get entrenched in our own opinions that provide our own sense of security in a grace-scary place. But arguments over opinions will grind you to a halt, rob you of your energy, and distract you from your primary mission.
I suspect many of us want other people to get into the same constraints we have placed on ourselves. After all, who wants to be told “no” when the rest of those around us are being told “yes”? So, if I can’t have it or do it, then neither should you! But that is exactly the opposite of Paul’s guidance in Romans 14. His concern was that we not make our opinions stumbling blocks to others’ lives of faith. Is my opinion more important than their soul? I doubt it.
Agree to Disagree
Some of the silliest, pettiest arguments occur in church. They sap the minister’s energy and ability to lead. To be honest, he doesn’t have time for such stuff . . . and neither do you. It doesn’t matter whether the argument/opinion is theological or practical. It isn’t a Burger King world, and you can’t always have it your way. Now that doesn’t mean your opinion shouldn’t be heard or count; it just means whining doesn’t double your vote.
My first church taught me something invaluable when I was young and green. The church taught me that adults could be adults and they could have differing opinions. It isn’t always about getting it right; it is about being in right relationships no matter what the issue. If we relate to another from a “one-up” position, we already are in disunity. It won’t take long for it to come to light. After all, it takes way too much energy to fake being equal when you just know you are superior!
Opinions elevated to essentials will entrench you, immobilize you, divide you, and distract you from what’s primary . . . AND it will all seem quite right. Opinions are powerful. Spoken often enough, they will be presumed as truth. The media has figured this out. News talk shows know it. Just say it often enough, loud enough, and firm enough; it won’t be long before people forget it was just one person’s opinion.
So, in a column reserved for a discussion about opinions, I pray we can entertain dialogue that allows us to see different perspectives, even to agree to disagree. In the end, whatever we think, do, or say belongs to God.
I leave you with Paul’s benediction on the subject in Romans 15:5, 6: “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Karen J. Diefendorf, a chaplain in the United States Army, is chief of U.S. Army Chaplain Center & School’s training division at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.