We do not always handle theological conflict fairly. Have you heard—or used—any of these arguments?
Since the days of the O.J. Simpson trial, the phrase “playing the race card” has become commonplace. Accusing someone of arbitrarily “playing the race card” usually means they have bypassed the true merits of either position and trumped the validity of everything else with an accusation of racism, whether legitimate or not.
To be certain, racism still exists and sometimes it’s fair to display the “race card,” but other times it is unfairly used to silence an exploration of the real issues or discourage investigation of difficult realities.
In religious circles, similar tactics are also enlisted. We do not always handle theological conflict fairly. Instead, we deal from the bottom of the deck. Believers are muzzled and discussion is silenced with spiritual “trump cards” brandished every bit as effectively as the “race cards.” Here are a few of the most obvious plays.
The “slippery slope” card—If you don’t have one of these in your hand you lack an extremely powerful and effective weapon. Any new methodology, practice, suggestion for growth, or positive innovation can be shot down with the “slippery slope” card.
“If we do this, it could lead to that, and the next thing you know we’ll be doing this.” Bypass any hard discussion or decision with this convenient protest.
It’s true that a “foot in the door” mind-set may be an appropriate cautionary approach on some occasions, but too often it is simply a fear-based strategy to avoid legitimate debate or change.
The “lost world” card—“I’m not going to waste my precious time or energy fighting about this issue because there are lost people going to Hell and we’ve got a world to win.”
This noble-sounding declaration is not without some validity. But when it is routinely used to dismissively avoid substantive theological discussion and minimize correct ecclesiastical practice, it simply becomes another cheap trump card that can demonstrate spiritual laziness or even cowardice. Any great scriptural doctrine can be sidestepped with this convenient claim.
The “starving kids” card—This is a powerful and effective trump card. In fact, it is now used with more regularity and passion than the “lost world” card. This card was played multiple times during the Duck Dynasty brouhaha. A sample mantra I saw on Twitter went like this: “We shouldn’t be concerned with middle-aged rich white men with dirty beards and camouflage when wells need to be dug and hunger needs are present.”
Never mind the potential implications that the uproar over Phil Robertson’s politically incorrect comments had on marriage in general, free speech, and marginalized traditional voices in the public square.
According to this reasoning, world hunger is the primary tragedy of our age. All else pales in comparison.
The “guilt by association” card—This is a classic tactic. If you happen to publicly agree with a statement from an unfamiliar teacher or quote the wrong author or admire a flawed leader or befriend an unapproved colleague, you can be sure this card will eventually be played. It will be assumed that you have accepted all of their positions, not just the ones you intended to embrace.
This strategy is designed to discourage learning anything from outside our own immediate circles of fellowship and truth, and to cast aspersion on anyone who does so.
The “founding fathers” card—Church history experts know the thought patterns and the tendencies of our ecclesiastical predecessors and heroes. But the experts aren’t usually the ones who use this strategy. Ordinary people on either side of an issue selectively scan the writings of the greats in our movement’s history until they find a comment they can lift, regardless of its context, to buttress their position.
It might be something the writer said while still in his formative, transitional years of thinking through an issue, or it might be in response to an entirely different situation. Doesn’t matter. It takes the trick.
What’s intriguing about “founding fathers” cards is that they seem to be distributed evenly in the deck. Anybody can find a usable passage if they look in the right places. Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone all agree with me and that settles the issue.
The “legalist” card—What accusation can kill the quest for truth more quickly than this one? Brand your conservative opponent with this inflammatory moniker and it discredits everything else he believes.
Biblical conviction, scriptural obedience, and conscientious devotion are ridiculed and written off as vestiges of legalism. Conjure up the image of the Pharisees with their broad phylacteries and extended fringes, and then rest your case.
To be sure, there is a time to play this card, but not nearly as often as some think.
The “liberal” card—Perhaps this is the counterplay of the “legalist” card—and both cards are way overplayed. Any distinction from traditional thinking and the party line is easily dismissed with this designation.
Fresh thoughts, honest questions, sincere differences, and progressive ideas are immediately shot down as departures from the faith. Shibboleths are dutifully pronounced. Heretics are identified and further discussion or dialogue is prohibited while detractors are branded with the dreaded designation of liberal.
The “cultural relevance” card—Do not underestimate the effectiveness of this one. It takes several forms. Most of the statements contain an element of truth and they are generally well played. See if any of these dismissive quotes sound familiar.
“The world doesn’t care about what we think about (fill in the blank).”
“People aren’t really interested in that.”
“That just won’t fly in today’s world.”
“We need to be known by what we’re for, not what we’re against.”
This approach is commonly accompanied by a misunderstanding, or misuse, or even hyperapplication of those wonderful and recognizable statements from Scripture, such as Paul’s reference to pagan poets on Mars Hill, his famous “all things to all men” statement to the Corinthians, and the “friend of sinners” label given to Jesus. Knowing glances of superior knowledge are exchanged among the players as they condescendingly pity the rest of us who “just don’t get it.” No further discussion is necessary, because we do “whatever it takes” regardless of the implications.
The “salvation issue” card—This one is an immediate dialogue killer. Theological conversations come to an immediate standstill when such discussions are deemed to be centered on nonsalvation issues. Who cares about church polity, gender roles, millennial philosophies, and scriptural language and vocabulary once we identify them as “nonessentials”?
Never mind that God has spoken. He probably doesn’t care as much about some of this stuff. Since his grace can extend to our doctrinal failings, even as it does to our moral lapses, why overexert ourselves with matters of lesser consequence. Play the card and silence the controversies.
The “unity” card—Selectively quoting Jesus’ beautiful plea for unity in John 17 without his call for truth in the same passage. Invoking Psalm 133 without acknowledging Psalm 119. Jettisoning biblical doctrine and scriptural integrity under the generously inclusive banner of unity.
To protest is considered divisive, un-Christlike, and dissentious. Even seasoned and confident believers have been known to cower in response when this card is thrown down.
The “Jesus” card—Appealing to the supremacy of Jesus should be an all-encompassing approach, but when this play is made it’s often a reductionist approach. Since all that really matters is Jesus (and who can argue with that?), all else is inconsequential, even things that were important to Jesus, including the teachings of the apostles whom Jesus empowered and endorsed. Important truths and doctrines are reduced to peripheral trivialities because, after all, “It’s all about Jesus.” The deck is usually loaded with plenty of these trump cards.
Unfortunately, when it comes to spiritual trump cards there are plenty more than the ones mentioned here. And, admittedly, there are times when all of these arguments have some merit. But I think we all know they are played way too often—because they work.
Problem is, they all represent the most common of logical fallacies, and if we resort to the easy road of unfairly and inappropriately wielding these sometimes-legitimate arguments, we can reasonably expect them to be used against us as well.
No fair-minded debate or discussion will take place, and truth will be minimized. Detractors will be silenced and discernment will cease.
But we will eventually run out of trump cards and all of us will stand before the one whose truth trumps all.
Jeff Faull serves as minister with Mount Gilead Church, Mooresville, Indiana, and also as a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor.