From time to time, I have posted on this blog about gracious speech. Christians are called upon by God to use speech that is filled with grace and ministers edification to the hearer. I would like to take that thought a little further and apply the principles of grace to methods that we sometimes see employed in theological debates, particularly on the internet.
Let me say up front that I am exploring these ideas as a learner, not a master. I have been tempted, at times, to use every underhanded tactic that I am about to describe. I am ashamed to say that there have been times when I have stooped to using some of them in one form or another. I have been doing a lot of praying and thinking about this topic, though, and am trying to set a higher standard for myself. I want to share it with you. In this post, I want to point out some of the unsavory methods that I have seen used in theological debates. In the next in this series, I will propose some positive methods to which I am going to try to hold myself to following.
I titled this post, “The Art of Christian Statesmanship,” because of the implications of the phrase, “Christian statesmanship”. Statesmanship is the art of diplomacy. I would like for us, for the sake of this conversation, to view debate as a diplomatic endeavor.
Debate can be a very healthy thing. Debate can cause us to re-examine our theology, thus giving us opportunity to see where we may be wrong, or further solidifying our grasp on truth. Debate can broaden our understanding of the way others think. We can be exposed to ideas, concepts, and tenets that we previously were not aware of. Debate can clear up misconceptions that one may have about another’s position.
Debate can be a healthy thing, it can also turn ugly.
What I am about to share is hardly earth-shattering news. If you have been involved with, or simply observed many theological debates in bloggyland, you have more than likely seen some of the things I am about to describe.
In its simplest and purest form, debate should be a dialogue between opposing points of view. It should consist of one side presenting its own perspective, allowing the other side to present their perspective, and then perhaps each side responding with further information about their own position or questioning the validity of the opponent’s position (not the opponent’s intelligence, etc.). I call this “statesmanship” because it should be an exercise in diplomacy. I call it “Christian statesmanship” because above all it should be carried out in a manner that reflects the grace of Christ.
Here are some tactics that I feel have no place in Christian debate:
- Allowing debates to devolve into a series of personal attacks. Name-calling and character assassination do not minister grace to the hearer.
- The use of “straw men.” This is a deliberate attempt to misrepresent an opponents position for the purpose of making their position look ridiculous.
- Attempting to align an opponent’s view with another view that is heretical without a clear line of connection. It is not unusual for various theological camps to share some common ground and even common terminology. The fact that they do so does not mean that they are in line with each other. Those who resort to this tactic should be careful, it is likely that their own position could be connected in this manner to a doctrine that they find revolting.
- Ridicule, sarcasm and generally rude behavior. Making fun of someone who holds a differing point of view does not minister grace. I have heard it argued that men of God (including Jesus) used sarcasm at times to make their point. I would say that there is a significant difference between Elijah using sarcasm against the prophets of Baal, Jesus using sarcasm against the Pharisees, and us using it against a brother or sister in Christ who has an opinion (or even a conviction) that differs from our own. I have yet to see any of these tactics used in a positive way in contemporary debates.
- Using a difference of opinion as a basis for judging.This is perhaps the most reprehensible of all tactics. When we allow our distaste for someone’s pet doctrine to cause us to question their love for God or their salvation, we should immediately step back and examine our own heart. I am not speaking about differences in religions, I am speaking about brothers and sisters in Christ who may interpret a particular Scripture text differently than we do.
This list is not exhaustive, but it certainly covers many areas which Christians should avoid in our debates. Hopefully, in the next post we will take a look at some positive methods of discussion.
Until then, be filled with the grace and peace of God.