Christians disagree about things. There, now that I’ve made the understatement of the century, I want to explore how Christians disagree about things. These usually aren’t just “things” but are rather doctrines–teachings that we believe and confess as the truth about reality itself. Not only that, but we believe that these are the things which God taught us in God’s very word revealed to us. That is not a recipe for thinking kindly of others when disagreement occurs. After all, they aren’t just wrong, they are in violation of God’s own word!
Some Personal Examples
Too often, the tenor we have in disagreement is something that reflects an extraordinarily un-Christlike manner. Several personal experiences have led me to writing this post.
I was once accosted by someone who had been directed my way by a mutual acquaintance. After summarily consigning me to hell and taunting me for being unwilling to engage in a debate with him, he asked me to direct him to some exegetical case for my position. I mentioned a book. His response was that he’d read the book and knew it was all wrong. Later in that same conversation he admitted that he’d lied about reading the book. I said I forgave him, but asked him to consider the fact that he was willing to lie about reading a book just because he was so convinced it would be so utterly worthless to him that he could just dismiss it without even having heard of it before. When I continued to refuse to respond to his insults (including his attacks on my wife) and his accusations of blasphemy, he finally stated that he was convinced that the reason I wouldn’t respond was because the Holy Spirit had shut my mouth and wouldn’t let me type responses to him because I was so blatantly wrong.
Was there any acknowledgement of how he was verbally abusing me and my wife on social media? No. Instead, his self-righteous assumption was that God had deigned to prevent me from typing responses to an angry man made blind by hatred.
Another time, I received a comment (not approved) on a post about engaging culture from a Christian perspective. The interlocutor suggested that I was a pagan promoting evil to fellow Christians. When I noted that this person had never even met or talked to me before, he responded, “I have spent a ton of time in cult and street ministry… If you’ve talked to one, you’ve talked to em all. Same lingo same, same pagan book reviews, same plastic cordiality, on and on on. Just switch the faces around. I have read and heard EVERY conceivable argument that will ever be possible regarding what you say… I am thoroughly versed in that unbiblical, antichristian garbage they taught you at Biola. Your fellow drones are roaming about the online countryside in hordes.”
These are extreme examples, yes, but they are just a few among the many, many examples that I and I’m sure countless others could cite of Christians acting without any semblance of charity or obedience to Christ to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I’m not here throwing a pity party–though I admit sometimes that would be nice!–nor am I attempting to promote my own views which were being criticized in these and other comments. After all, I’m sad to say that I’m convinced people who hold my view act the same way towards those with whom I disagree. The point is that this is completely unacceptable in any context, let alone one in which Christians are interacting with fellow Christians, who are going to inherit the earth.
I’ve already hinted at an approach, which is to remember Christ’s commandment to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It is easy to say that, but how often do we actually think about what that means? I am fairly confident the hate-filled man who insulted my wife and I on social media while telling us to repent or go to hell didn’t much consider how he would have felt if someone did the same thing to he and his wife. Nor, I suspect, would the writer of the other example have been pleased to see me assuming that I had already conceived of every possible argument that would “ever be possible regarding” what he had to say… and dismissed them.
But again, these are extreme examples. I’m using them to highlight something, however, which is that we do this kind of thing all the time, just not on the same level. Any time we come along and refuse to listen to one with whom we’re disagreeing, or even simply wait for them to stop talking so we can jump in to show them how wrong they are–any of these times, we have disobeyed our calling to be Christ to others. Recently, I had a discussion with a fellow Christian with whom I had disagreement and they said they’d look into a source I showed them. But they followed that comment up by saying, effectively, “and I know that source is completely wrong.” This kind of theological hubris demands a cure.
A Way Forward
First, we need to note it is perfectly okay to think you’re right about something. That’s not what is at issue here. What is our concern is how we express disagreement. Second, I think it is important to not only focus on what I’d like others to change about their attitude, but also on how I might change to understand others better.
One thing I have found helpful is to try to remember the spectrum of theological humility and theological unity. Theological humility is an approach which we can take to admit that we may be wrong. I am a fallible human, so my interpretation of God’s words could be mistaken. Theological unity is an emphasis on the importance of agreement. People will fall along a spectrum of positions between extreme humility (I might or even probably am wrong about most things) and extreme unity (if you disagree with me about anything you must be an idiot). When in dialogue, we should try to explore where the other person falls along this spectrum. It is likely that if they fall on either extreme, a dialogue will be difficult to move forward. Sometimes it is best to stop a dialogue before it becomes heated.
Another thing to think about is our own need to be at least somewhat humble theologically. Yes, I believe I have rightly discerned what God has taught in the Bible, but it is possible that I am mistaken. That is because, shock of all shocks, I am not God. Thus, it is always possible for me to be wrong. We ought to reflect on the fact that we are all sinners who have fallen short of God’s glory, and sin impacts our mind, among other things. This does not mean we aren’t allowed to believe we are correct. What it does mean is that we should never be so certain that we are right that we won’t even give ear to someone who disagrees. Why? Well, apart from the fact that we would like them to listen to us (going back to Jesus’ words about doing to others…), we should also remember that our attitude towards others will likely determine how willing they are to hear what we have to say. Moreover, it is true that we could always be possibly mistaken, no matter what the one commentator quoted above said. We may think we’ve run into every possible permutation of arguments for the other side, but we are limited beings with finite imagination.
I think it is a good exercise to once in a while re-examine my beliefs about various doctrines. Why? Because I want to make sure I am always in pursuit of truth. This re-examination means not just reading sources which agree with me, but also sources on the other side.
Christians should be open to being wrong. We remain sinners, though we have been justified by faith in Christ. That doesn’t mean we will always be right about everything. We need to remember to be humble, that we are finite beings, and that God has called us to listen to others and respond to them with the same respect and dignity we would like to receive.
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Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging and commented:
Thought provoking piece
Thanks for sharing!
Sometimes it takes a while for it to occur to fellow Christians to consign you to hell over a secondary doctrinal difference. You know, except when the topic is already hell…
I take it this is from experience?
The combined, sustained experience over at Rethinking Hell, yes.
Not always, though. But way too often.
It doesn’t surprise me.
J.W., I have no problem saying that there are some areas in which you and I disagree. Yet, have you ever read where I came onto your blog and got into some hateful, name-calling debate? NO! And that’s the way we all SHOULD go about it. Unfortunately, as with the folks you mentioned above, the opposite is often true.
My philosophy is that I write on my blog what I believe to be true based on my own study, then let others take it for what it’s worth, hopefully adding flavor to a discussion I hope they’re having. I never – NEVER – troll around the blogosphere looking for places to start a fight or accuse another believer of heresy. Even when I do find the occasional pagan in Christian clothing I don’t go on the attack; I just cringe, maybe leave a polite comment, then leave. I mean, why would anyone want to visit my own blog if I came across as a jerk?
Two weeks ago I took down from my library shelf the Moody Handbook of Theology and began reading through it with one purpose in mind – to determine where I agree and where I disagree with certain positions. I guess you could say I am trying to find a proper label for myself. In the process of doing this I had to review the different positions and reconsider a few. Thank God I am able to do that! It wasn’t that many years ago I would have been too narrow-minded to even consider anything I believe just MIGHT have been wrong.
I appreciate your interactions here and I think we have great interactions even when we disagree. I think you have a really good philosophy regarding interacting with others. I think it’s also very important to re-examine our own beliefs frequently.
As I read your personal experience I thought of my encounter of weirdos…