Cults don’t foster independent thinking or dialogue. Just agree with the leader, drink the Kool Aid when he tells you and everything will be fine. Christianity, on the other hand, encourages people to engage their minds and ponder truth for themselves.
Jesus’ teachings were characteristically cerebral and logical. He pointed out inconsistencies in the Pharisees’ applications, appealed to the OT as a source of authority, challenged misaligned motives, and dismantled arguments with a flourish (and yes, often punctuated with a miracle).
Because of this liberty, some Christians acquire a taste for theological blood-letting. They get embroiled in extended discussions, which slip into an abyss of disagreements, that implode into a vortex of spiritual paucity.
You’ve all met the seminoid who charges into arenas of theological debate like an eager matador, arrayed in the splendor of his own preparations, and toting a red rag to taunt any equally bovine opponent he can find.
The question is: When is it right to persevere in theological repartee with a goal of convincing someone of your viewpoint, and when is it better that you call the time of death, pull the plug, and move on?
Last week we examined steps to discussing theology amicably. But here are 4 principles for determining whether a discussion has a chance of being profitable or whether its time to shut things down.
Agree to disagree…
1. If your shared authority is not the Scripture.
When a judo practitioner engages a kung-fu fighter, the bout rarely ends well for the judo guy. Why? Because in judo there is no punching or kicking or engaging the face; in kung-fu you’re allowed to use your feet and fists. The opponents aren’t following the same rules.
Paul was able to debate with the Jews at Thessalonica, and prevail, because they both recognized the authority of the Scriptures, which Paul consistently used to “reason with them,” (Acts 17:2).
He commended them for this very virtue in 1 Thess 2:13 ”you accepted it not as the word of man, but the word of God.”
2. If you do not share a common hermeneutic.
When you sniff incompatible hermeneutics, it’s time to hit the eject button on your chat. Hermeneutics is the art and science of interpreting the Scriptures. If one side of the discussion is employing a literal, historical-grammatical set of rules for understanding the Bible, while the other side is relying on experience or tradition as a validation of truth, or perhaps a reader-response system, then both sides will be frustrated and the dialogue will devolve into wrangling about words.
One example in the NT is the Jewish sect of the Sadducees. In Matt 22:29 ”Jesus answered them, ‘You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.’”
Although the Sadducees used the OT Scriptures, they used a liberal approach to interpretation which Jesus bluntly calls ignorance.
3. If the person you’ve engaged doesn’t want to understand.
They might not want to agree with you, but if you can tell that a person is genuinely trying to understand your viewpoint, I reckon the talk is worth continuing. It is understanding that brings change.
This takes wisdom. Often the signal of willingness to learn is if the person asks sincere questions they are grappling to understand. On the other hand, you can usually tell if they are just waiting for you to finish your spiel so that they can launch their rehearsed riposte.
Paul recognized that different folks need different strokes. Sometimes you need a whiteboard, sometimes a stick.
1 Thess 5: 14 ”And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.”
4. If the discussion keeps derailing.
I’d agree to disagree, and gently implement an exit strategy, if the original issue keeps being derailed into irrelevant tangents. If a person doesn’t wait for a topic to be resolved, but keeps bringing up new topics that then spawn even more red herrings, it may be an indication that this discussion is a runaway train, off its tracks, and heading nowhere fast.
Paul warned his buddy Titus 3: 9 “But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.”
I hope these help. If you disagree with me, feel free to say so. But if I cut you short, now you know why!