In light of my recent posts, I thought it might be good to offer a few principles that I try to apply when engaging issues where sharp disagreement occurs. These are from my forthcoming book, Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians.
First, it is possible that we did not properly understand the other person’s position. We may be jumping the proverbial gun and thus setting up a straw man argument. A great antidote, and one we have noted that is characteristic of humble people, is listening well. We should make certain we are properly tracking on what is communicated. We are told in Scripture to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” (Jas. 1:19 NASB)
Some of you may be familiar with the folks from Westboro Baptist Church. They are the ones that like to show up with signs announcing that some person or group is “going to hell.”
The Christian teaching on hell has occupied most of my adult life. My thesis then first book was on hell.[i]
The people of Westboro Baptist think they are being brave by proclaiming the scandalous message that people who don’t trust Christ are going to hell. A few years back, the following illustration came to mind. I think it illumines the folly of approach among those who align with Westboro Baptist.
Most people have not been to either Yuma, Arizona or Dubrovnik, Croatia. I have. Yuma is a fine place. Some quaint things to see there, but Dubrovnik is absolutely stunning in its beauty. Now let’s say I offer someone an all-expenses paid trip to either Yuma or Dubrovnik. Most would have to guess which one is better because they know nothing about these places beyond perhaps hearing their names. They have no context for what I am offering. The folks at Westboro jump right to the topic of hell, but there are so many important biblical truths to know before one can even begin to appreciate hell. I have found many church-going folks needing more teaching on the character of God, the nature of sin, and so forth, to better understand Scripture’s teaching on hell. If that is true of regular church-attenders, how much more for those who know little of the Christian faith!
Listening well and making sure others understand what is being said is not a strength of the folks at Westboro Baptist Church.
Second, we may not understand our own position as well as we think. The most secure in any debate are those who have taken time for adequate preparation. Our need here is to dig deeper and see if in fact our position holds up. Spiritual growth, as we talked about earlier in this book, is tied directly to our growth in knowledge. And this comes from recognizing when we really don’t know what we are talking about! We can learn something especially important from the ancient philosopher, Socrates. The Oracle of Delphi said he was the wisest man in all of Athens. Socrates thought the pronouncement was over the top and so sought to demonstrate that it was untrue. He assumed, rightly he thought, that there were others wiser than he. Like a good interviewer on radio, he sought to interact with various people. It turned out that everyone acted wise but were in fact plenty foolish. Socrates ended up accepting that the “oracle’s declaration was actually correct, for at least he recognized his own ignorance.”[ii]
It is also interesting to note Augustine’s admiration for a non-Christian teacher by the name of Faustus:
I wanted Faustus to tell me, after comparing the mathematical calculations which I had read in other books, whether the story contained in the Manichee books was correct, or at least whether it had an equal chance of being so. I now did not think him clever enough to explain the matter. Nevertheless I put forward my problems for consideration and discussion. He modestly did not even venture to take up the burden. He knew himself to be uninformed on these matters and was not ashamed to confess it. He was not one of the many loquacious people, whom I have had to endure, who attempted to instruct me and had nothing to say.[iii]
Third, we may properly understand the other person’s position as well as our own but give them more importance than they deserve. We typically do this in one of two ways: by making a secondary (or even tertiary) issue into a primary one, or by failing to remember that there are in fact “grey” issues sincere Christians do disagree over (see I Cor. 8; Ro. 14).
Last, we may properly understand the other position and our own, it may be an important issue, but we still need to communicate with grace and truth. Again, having a gracious spirit does not mean there must be a toning down of one’s convictions. It does mean we proceed cautiously ever aware of our fallen and finite state.[iv]
[i] David George Moore, The Battle for Hell: A Survey and Evaluation of Evangelicals’ Growing Attraction to the Doctrine of Annihilationism (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1995).
[ii] James S. Spiegel, How to Be Good in a World Gone Bad (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004), 176.
[iii] Augustine, Confessions trans. by Henry Chadwick (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 5.7.
[iv] For a terrific reflection of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, especially with respect to our limited perspectives, see David F. Ford, The Drama of Living: Becoming Wise in the Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2014), 56.