Friday, May 31, 2024

Too Hot to Handle: Rules of Combat

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Okay, I’ve got one for you, Tom.

I was having a discussion with a Christian academic over Calvinism. He leans toward it, though in a rather unorthodox way, and I … don’t. Here’s his perspective on the fact that doctrinal disagreements exist:

“I’ve been blessed by teaching and worshiping in schools and churches which take no stand on the [controversial] divide, all my life. I have become convinced that agreement on this will never be reached. As a Calvinist, I posit that this is the way God wants it. It is apparently best for the church and the world that there be both [sides], but that we find ways to love one another and to work together, without suppressing our different biblical understandings.”

Immanuel Can: Is it like that, Tom? Is an I’m-okay-you’re-okay attitude the way to deal with major doctrinal controversies in the local church?


Tom: Ugh. Lob me a grenade, why don’t you?

Okay, on one level, yes, I agree with him. To a point. I don’t cease to recognize your friend as a Christian. I don’t argue that he’s condemned to hell. I don’t think of him as “on the other side”.

But his outlook is terribly fatalistic and not particularly Christian in this respect: that it presumes individuals with wrong ideas cannot / should not / will not change, and that therefore their continued lack of light in one or more particular areas of their Christian lives is somehow to be construed as “the way God wants it”. I will never buy that. Not about Calvinism. Not about anything.

Too hokey?

A Bit of a Circus

IC: No, no … I was just thinking of all the different beliefs that have, from time to time, become causes of division in the church. Some people say we should just get over them and get along. Others seem to be unable to reconcile with people of different denominational backgrounds, but don’t perhaps have a clear idea of why they can’t. And I suppose a few people today genuinely see value in particular controversies that separate Christendom into factions; while others maintain that unity is an absolute imperative to be bought at any price … It seems to me it’s all a bit of a circus, actually. But I’m trying to distill some wisdom out of it and describe the attitude really required of a Christian.

Tom: Okay, I’ll bite. I see a certain value of controversy in some respects, I must admit.

IC: Let’s go with this question, Tom: What sorts of things should Christians be able to disagree about agreeably, and what sorts of things ought to be deal-breakers so far as getting along goes … and are there any “borderline” cases with which you struggle?

Non-Negotiable Faith

Tom: Hmm. That’s awfully broad. Well, anything to do with the deity, character and saving work of Christ is non-negotiable. When someone goes there they are in the Holy of Holies, and unless we’re talking about an immature Christian who has been sucked in by false teaching, I’m happy to part ways over controversies about any of those three.

IC: Okay, and I’m happy to add that the basis and procedures of salvation would be non-negotiable as well. But now, how about some issues that people have fought over that perhaps they should not have?

Tom: The King James Bible. Hymnbooks. Whether or not Christians should (take your pick) drink alcohol, homeschool, have any contact with popular culture, etc.

The Way We Argue

But honestly, there’s more to the issue of controversy than any particular subject about which we may be arguing. I think far more often controversies hit critical mass because of the way we argue with one another rather than what we’re actually disagreeing about.

IC: “The way we argue” — that’s interesting. Can you elaborate?

Tom: Sure. Let’s take the internet for an example, because so many Christian differences are being aired there, although the difficulties of internet discourse are simply exaggerated versions of the same problems we have arguing in real life.

Problem One is that we react before we have fully heard what the other side is actually saying, so we are often arguing past each other. Problem Two is that we argue systematic theology that we rarely understand well rather than working through the actual related scriptures. Problem Three is that we often argue unkindly, illogically or dishonestly. Problem Four is a loss of perspective: once committed to a particular viewpoint, we may start to think the current debate is more important in the grand scheme of things than it actually is.

The Model for Confrontation

IC: Sure. Good. Now, is there a “right way” to argue?

Tom: Well, the Lord would be our model so grace and truth come to mind. The psalmist says, “Grace is poured upon your lips” and John says, “Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” So these are the defining features of his ministry.

Now for how that looks in practice we really need to get into the gospels. We never find him engaged in sophistry, being clever for the sake of cleverness, mincing words or flattering his audience. He was difficult but never illogical or incoherent. He was unflinchingly honest, even when it put his safety at risk. He was never afraid to say, “You have no clue!” to his audience. And he always kept the big issues front and center. The Pharisees want to carp about the technical details of Mosaic divorce law; the Lord starts talking about the original will of God.

That would be my starting point.

IC: Plain, truthful speech. An excellent starting point. And though people marveled constantly at “the gracious words that were falling from his lips”, I also note that the Lord’s style was never politic. He was not a diplomat, not a taker of the temperature of his times, not a strategist, and not a manipulator. He did not cater to an audience, soft-peddle a message or put spin on anything. And yet even his enemies had to admit, “never did a man speak like this man”. There are a lot of good lessons in oratory available from his example, are there not?

The Drawbacks of Discourse

But can this not also help us understand how to speak to each other when we are disagreeing?

Tom: I think so, but we have to recognize that: (i) it was the things he said that made people want to stone him, as opposed (for the most part) to the things he did; and (ii) speaking truthfully about the human condition is not any more popular today that it was in the first century.

Today, for instance, we are — especially some of the ladies among us — quite intolerant of the style of argument that frames truth in such a way as to confront people and give them no way out. We hate not having options. We like our positions qualified with caveats like “I think” and “it would seem to me” so that if there’s any resistance we can start backpedaling.

This was not the Lord’s style of discourse. Now, whether we should follow his example when discussing, say, Premillennialism, with a fellow believer is another question. Is that what you’re asking?

Whether and How

IC: Well, yes … and more than that. There’s a question of what kinds of issues ought to be allowed to generate controversy, and then there’s the question of how legitimate controversies should be handled. So, if we take Premillennialism, we might ask if a) it’s the kind of issue over which we should produce a debate or just agree not to talk about it, and b) how that debate should be handled, if we decide to have one.

Tom: Christians who might be disinclined to talk about Premillennialism? Well, I certainly wouldn’t want to shove the subject down anyone’s throat. It’s the kind of subject I’m always prepared to get into if there are interested people to engage with. I think a Premillennial view dignifies the Old Testament by taking the prophets at their word, among other things. So it certainly helps me. But there’s little value in lecturing people who don’t want to hear about it and I wouldn’t want to see churches split over it, though your view of prophecy impacts much more than most people might think.

As for how to handle such a debate, it very much depends on the participants.

The Ideal Argument

IC: Granted. Let’s talk ideal. Let’s suppose that you and I have a serious disagreement about something … say not quite a Heaven-or-Hell question, but something which might stand to damage my ability to read scripture accurately and might incline me to misunderstand something important. But let’s suppose you and I are also Christians, with a good attitude to each other. How should our conversation proceed?

Tom: I probably mentioned listening. My inclination these days (though it wasn’t always) is to let the other guy start. You may find you’re closer to agreement than you think, but even if you aren’t, listening carefully enables you to eliminate the non-issues and concentrate on the real differences. It also helps you hear what your friend is actually saying rather than hearing all the standard, stock arguments usually raised by the other side of any spiritual divide.

The second thing is to keep the debate grounded in the word of God. Arguing about our theoretical notions of things divine is lots of fun, but gets us nowhere fast. To that end, always, ALWAYS avoid hypotheticals. The Lord did, and with good reason. He kept bringing his audience back to the Word. Hypotheticals are quicksand, and they’re essentially meaningless no matter how you answer.

I’m sure you have a few thoughts …

Gentleness, Reverence and Time

IC: That’s good. Yes. I would say also that gentleness and reverence are in order. It’s easy to think that every issue has to be a fight; but there’s a fine line between standing for the word of God and taking a hard stand on your own present grasp of it. They’re not the same. Humility is in order. And prayer. Two brothers in Christ praying diligently together for wisdom to come to a common understanding of the truth and to arrive at a peaceful resolution is a different scenario from two proud leaders or aspiring theologians banging each other around with arguments. The former has the support of the Spirit of God; the latter … not so much.

And time is necessary. Give each other time. Not everybody is at the same stage of growth or insight. It takes time for people to process new information, and to figure out what they want to do with it. We must be patient with those who differ, while they figure things out. If they are led by the Spirit, they will sort things out right. Meanwhile, keep praying that you do too.

After all, ain’t none of us perfect, right?


  1. Re: Purgatory [comment not posted]

    Qman ... an interesting topic in its own right, but one we've already responded to at some length, and not one we choose to go back to right now, especially in the comments to an unrelated post.

    I'll keep the comment on file for the next time we deal with the issue. Comments on the post's topic are most welcome, if you have any.

  2. Sounds good. But what was your avenue for suggesting topics again, msg to editor? I forgot.

    1. Topic suggestions can be sent to or (both currently redirect to yours truly).