We now live in a world where it seems that differing opinions are no longer something than can be peacefully and genuinely discussed and toiled with. Anymore, a difference of opinion, view, or thought is grounds for division, ridicule, and often anger. This is not necessary. I have a good friend named Richard who differs from me a great deal on some theological ideas. Richard and I read the same Bible yet we often times have differing views on doctrine and theology, sometimes minor and sometimes more significant. We met many years ago in high school, and as is often the case in life, our paths in life diverged. We each went our own way and only in the last few years, through the miracle that is social media, we have reconnected.
Richard and I have very similar views on certain aspects of life and theology while still holding very different views in other areas. We have had dozens and dozens of conversations on so many different areas of our faith journeys and yet I do not recall us ever having any type of fight or name calling session; we have not begun hating each other or tried to book talk show interview times to disparage each other in public. Quite the contrary has happened. We have grown closer as friends, and we talk, nearly daily, on so many different topics that it is quite surprising to me. Parenting, computers, theology, family life, political issues, current events….. Virtually no topic is off limits. In direct contrast to the fact that the modern media and culture would tell us that these vast differences of opinion should make us mortal enemies, our mutual respect for the other only seems to grow.
After a few discussions on the state of discourse in the modern church and in society, Richard approached me about the possibility of us each authoring posts about the truth that believers can disagree on certain aspects of our faith while still maintaining relationships and continuing to glorify God in our actions. I quickly agreed to this as it is such an important and timely topic, in my opinion. The modern church needs to be reminded that it is through these types of interactions that our faith can grow, our knowledge increase, and our unity as a body of believers can be strengthened.
Some of the first things that people might ask are what we agree and disagree on.
Honestly, I don’t keep any type of running tally sheet of theology to track this kind of thing. Probably one of the easiest ways to “explain” the nature of some of our differences would be to sum it up in a generality (one that I do not believe perfectly expresses either of our viewpoints, but it is a start). Richard would likely be identified in a general manner as a Calvinist/Reformed viewpoint whereas my viewpoint is more along the lines of an Arminian perspective. We carry on many conversations in regards to different aspects of theology. Yet, despite what society tells us should happen, we never get angry at each other, we don’t blow up or pitch fits, and we always leave our conversations respecting each other as much or more than when we began. So how does this work? Why are we so counter-societal in regards to this? Based on what I see on TV and in other forms of Media, we should hate each other because we have different views on things.
I am going to run down some of the factors that I think contribute to the ability for Richard and I to have these conversations without falling into the societal norms on discussion and disagreement, and then I will give a couple of points on how I think you can carry on these types of conversations with others.
I respect Richard. I know that his personal beliefs and views are the result of many hundreds of hours of study. He wrestles with the scriptures as well as many reference texts to arrive at his decisions. These are not just a punch list of things that someone told him to recite or believe. These are truths that have become real and active to him based on his time digging into the scriptures. Because of this respect I enter our conversations with a different tone than many people would. I do not enter the conversation with a chip on my shoulder, believing my perspective to be the superior and only option, with a goal of making him see it my way. I am reminded of a quote that goes along with this point pretty well:
“As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things (ideas) and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down you cannot see something that is above you.” – C.S. Lewis
I am not trying to win. I am not arguing from the perspective of having to win an argument. I enter these conversations fully willing to find a nugget of truth that Richard has uncovered in his digging that I may have missed during mine. I am not so rigid in my personal beliefs, that I am not able or willing to incorporate more truth into my perspective; God owns truth, so any truth that I am presented with that also lines up with Scripture must be a part of my perspective on God if I am to continue growing in my faith and my trust in Him. Likewise, I may on occasion present to Richard a better apologetic on a particular topic than he has discovered that may shed new light onto his perspective and open up a new vein of truth to Him. We are not arguing to win, we are discussing to grow. Iron sharpens iron.
“Discussion is an exchange of knowledge; an argument an exchange of ignorance.” – Robert Quillen
I never enter these conversations with a desire to be right. Seriously, for some who know me this may seem impossible, but in recent months I feel like I have grown a lot in this area. I don’t have to know it all; I don’t have to always be right. About three years ago I had a moment of realization where I feel like God revealed something to me. The Bible is God’s inspired word, penned by man through God’s prompting and revelation to the authors/scribes. That does not mean that the Bible contains all there is to know about God. God is unfathomable. The Bible is all we as humans need to be able to have enough truth and revelation to believe in Him. But God is not constrained by those 66 books; His power and greatness is not limited by the vocabulary of humanity. (Isaiah 55:8-9)
Let me put it this way, if I showed one hundred people this inspiring picture and asked them to describe it in 250 words, do you think everyone is going to write the same thing? Do you think 250 words are really enough to describe this? The colors, the variations, the depth and breadth of what this represents, the tens of thousands of stars and planetoids, the asteroids hurling through space, the cosmic gases reflecting light, and on top of all that, the brilliant Creator who placed it there to remind us how big He is and how small we are?
No, of course that is not enough words to describe it. Tens of thousands of words would barely scratch the surface of fully describing even one of the dots of light on this image and what it truly represents, much less the whole image and everything it truly represents. To do so in that many words, the authors might use big descriptive words to try and sum up something that is beyond description. They would use the most illustrative and descriptive statements they could, and it might give a broad overview that would make me desire passionately to know more about it, to study it, to dig in and try and get all I can from it. The more I would come to know, the more I would realize I can never know it all.
This is what I believe that God revealed to me. The Bible is not all there is to know about Him, it is all we can handle. It is more than we can handle. The words in those pages are descriptive truth that reveals to us the briefest and smallest flashes of how big, mighty, awesome, and overwhelming God really is. The greatest men of God I have ever met all had one thing in common: they were painfully aware that in spite of all the study, all the digging and searching and learning they did in their life in regards to God, they still knew so little of Him. He was so beyond comprehension that the deeper they went, the bigger He got.
That is how I approach the scriptures now. They are my litmus test for truth. Nothing that someone brings forward and declares as truth can contradict the scriptures. That being said, if it does not contradict the scriptures, I can study and wrestle with it until I decide whether or not to include it in my theology of God. It is possible that as big as God is, this person may have been wrestling with and studying an aspect of God that I had not yet approached. It is possible for them to bring to me truth I had not even been looking for. In the analogy in about the picture above, this person may have been studying and trying to describe the bright orange star in the upper right corner and I may have been spending my 250 words talking about the blue gasses.
God is bigger than what is in the scriptures. That is the abbreviated and abridged view of Him; that is all we can handle and more than we will ever know. I cannot, in light of that knowledge, approach the study of Him and His word, with anything less than overwhelming humility and respect. If my humility is real, then I can also entertain the possibility that someone else has found some truth as well, and I should be excited rather than angry about the potential of digging into that as well.
Richard and I both respect each other. We respect ourselves as well. The root of all of our discussions is growth, deeper understanding, and a pursuit of the Holy. I have dug in and studied different aspects of my faith and deepened my belief and passion based on discussions I have had with Richard and I pray that the same is true for him.
So what are my tips for you on how you to can engage in healthy debate with others without losing friends and failing to influence people? Here you go:
1. Respect the other party. – I did not say you had to agree with everything they say. I did not say you had to roll over and agree with them in the end. I said respect them. Respect that they hold the view that they do for a reason other than they are out to get you. They may hold the view they do because they were raised a certain way, studied in a certain place or school, had their life experiences alter their perspective or for many other reasons. Respect the fact that they have arrived where they are based on some level or form of reasoning**. Don’t discount their ideas because they don’t match yours. Be respectful. For many people you will discuss or debate with, this simple fact alone will likely alter how they handle themselves in the conversation. It is so rare in our culture to have your views, even if they differ from the other parties, be respected sadly. Being genuinely respectful of the other person will change the overall tone of the conversation dramatically, and you very well may find yourself in a good old fashioned discussion with another human.
**If you can’t honestly agree that they may have a good reason aside from a societal checklist of reasons they are right to feel the way they do, you should NOT try to have this type of discussion with them. You may want to ask a few probing questions at the beginning of the discussion to figure out WHY they feel the way they do, and if the answers don’t seem to support a well thought out perspective, you should respectfully and gently discontinue the discussion in the hopes of reengaging in the future.
2. STOP TRYING TO WIN, seriously. – Discussion is just that, a discussion. It is an exchange of ideas on varying topics that allows all parties to elaborate on a view. This gives everyone involved the opportunity to hear the ideas and the supporting apologetics so as to weigh the topics and study on their own on the ideas. You are not involved in these discussions to win, nor should you enter them with a strong desire to “convert” the other parties to your perspective. If your perspective carries with it the weight of truth, then those in the group who study and seek out truth will understand and likely incorporate your perspective into their theology. As I pointed out before, we are all looking at a massive tapestry far too large for any of us to fully understand or comprehend. Don’t be so arrogant as to assume that someone else might not see something you missed. Rather, celebrate that God brought you together so you could share these truths and then pass them on to others.
3. You don’t have to always be right and neither do they. “Wow that is an interesting and thought provoking idea. I will have to do some careful study before I am ready to discuss that topic further.” This would be a completely acceptable sentence to say/type in a conversation for Richard and I. It should be for you as well. You don’t have to always be right, you don’t have to know it all, and in actuality, you can’t because God has not revealed all of Himself to us. That should be a very freeing and calming statement because it truly means you don’t have to always be right and knowledgeable, because you can’t be. Instead, look at all of these interactions and conversations as opportunities to grow deeper in your faith and walk with God. The scriptures say that iron sharpens iron. (Proverbs 27:17) We can take a few things from that. First, iron requires another item to be sharpened. Second, iron requires another metal just as hard and strong, if not stronger, to sharpen it. In other words, you need to seek out people smarter and more knowledgeable than you to help strengthen you and grow your faith. Because as the rest of that verse points out, that is how one man sharpens another. We are commanded to be sharpened, so these conversations are a holy pursuit… an act of obedience.
4. The end goal should be growth in our faith and understanding of God. If you are entering into these conversations to win or influence others, you are doing it for the wrong reasons and please stop, as you are likely doing more harm than good.
DO NOT try to force these same guidelines into evangelism or other types of human interactions. These guidelines are very specific and limited in their application. This is specifically written to offer guidance into how to have faith and theology discussions with others in a manner that is God-honoring and respectful. They may apply to many other types of conversation as well and be very effective there, but the express purpose was for me to quantify how it is that we can carry on these types of discussions in our lives with people that have differing views from our own. If more believers were willing to have these conversations with each other, we would all grow from it and the Body would be stronger and more effective as a result. The first step in getting there is knowing what you believe and why you believe it, and then being willing to discuss with others where they are at presently and why they believe what they do. Don’t be afraid to talk to people of other denominations. And when you do, try some of these tips on how to handle the conversation.