Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Theological Triage and Hills to Die On

“It’s hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”
— Johnny Cash

Two recent posts at Stand to Reason nicely illustrate the difficulties that confront Christians in working out which theological “hills” are worth dying on when witnessing to unbelievers.

In fact, both posts use that very expression (“hill to die on”) to describe a non-negotiable; something we absolutely cannot concede in our ongoing dialogue with those outside of Christ.

Maybe we can get a little something out of setting the two posts against each other.

Picking Battles and Nodding Heads

First, there is Tim Barnett’s “Pick Your Battles with Unbelievers”, in which Tim calls for a little “theological triage” because “not all doctrines are equal”. He’s right. Tim recalls engaging in passionate arguments over the age of the earth with an unsaved friend: “I was treating a sprained ankle while ignoring the bullet in his brain.” Well put. There are some issues that can be tabled for the time being when we are trying to encourage someone to consider the question “What do you think of Christ?” After all, their eternal destiny depends on the answer to that one. It does not depend on whether your friend holds a coherent, biblical view of the age of our planet.

When we are trying to save lives, anything that takes us away from the “bullet in the brain” is an unwelcome distraction.

Next, there is Amy Hall’s “Do Not Nod Your Head to Lies”, in which Amy reminds us that if the world can get us to say that biological sex is a fiction and we don’t know how to tell the difference between boys and girls, they can get us to say anything. She finishes by exhorting her fellow believers, “Do not contribute to this lie.” I very much agree with this too.

A Secondary Question to Die For

But you see the problem, right? The existence or non-existence of gender identity independent of biology is a question that is very much secondary in that it is not in the least related to salvation or Christ. Getting the answer right will not get you to heaven and it may not even start you down the road to a relationship with God. And yet, as Colin Wright puts it in Amy’s post, and as Amy herself affirms, “This is the hill to die on.” If you nod along with this particular lie (and maybe a few others currently circulating) in your conversations with the unsaved, you are on the wrong side of what Wright calls “reality’s last stand”. You are ceding the very language of debate without a fight, and will shortly have nothing left to work with when trying to communicate with the world.

There are indeed times when dodging unwelcome distractions is the absolute right way to go. But imagine how your unsaved friend might feel if she has very deliberately raised the topic of gender identity in the process of “feeling out” your beliefs, and has (understandably, I think) taken your silence on the subject as agreement with her own views, only to find down the road that you are vigorously opposed to everything she believes about gender? She may quite reasonably conclude that you have been dishonest with her, and wonder what other crazy, cultic opinions you have been concealing from the general public.

The Tip of the Controversy Iceberg

And gender identity is but the tip of the controversy iceberg. To take a more common example (and one I have actually had to field on the fly in conversation), what if you have artfully dodged the issue of abortion when your unsaved friend raised it, only to later find that she is considering having one, or has one in her past about which she was trying to salve her conscience? Maybe your silence on the subject temporarily did just that. Or what if your co-worker’s question about your views on gay rights is really a plea for tacit validation of his homosexual brother’s lifestyle ... or, for that matter, his own? Your silence may be effectively affirming him in his sin.

When we are dealing with the unsaved, we often find these questions are not the least bit theoretical to them. What we think about some of these hot-button issues matters to our friends and acquaintances. In fact, it may matter enough that they don’t want anything further to do with either us or our God based on what we believe. On the other hand, a firm, loving dose of truth from someone they respect may be a welcome wake-up call, confirming something their conscience had already been troubling them about and showing them an alternative and more coherent viewpoint they didn’t know existed.

Please understand that I’m not knocking Tim Barnett’s “theological triage” concept. I think generally speaking he is very much on the right track with it. If abortion, gay marriage, transgenderism and half a dozen other controversial subjects never come up when we are witnessing, we would be crazy to raise them. Such issues can be barriers to further conversation, and they can end relationships before people ever have a chance to really know us, let alone come to know our God.

Stroking and Poking

Frankly, these are not new problems. The issues are certainly different from generation to generation, but the “hill to die on” dilemma is a familiar one, and scripture addresses it straight up. In fact, the apostle Paul contemplates a dinner date with unbelievers in which just such a hot-button issue is inadvertently raised:
“If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience — I do not mean your conscience, but his.”
Imagine that. Graciously invited to dinner, and you flat out refuse to eat. What an insult. That sort of behavior could really turn somebody off the gospel, don’t you think? Almost as much as if you blurted out that biological sex is an unchangeable reality, that abortion is murder, or that people in “loving homosexual relationships” are hurting themselves, their partners and society, and are in danger of hell.

And yet that is what the apostle plainly instructs — risk the offense and go for the gusto — and all over what is indisputably a secondary or even tertiary issue. Because when the unbeliever raises the issue, well, it’s just become a hill to die on. Or at least to miss a good dinner over.

It reminds us that the unbeliever’s conscience is important enough to compel us to take a stand when we see his soul in danger. We should not be deliberately provocative in our dealings with the unsaved, but we never want to find ourselves in the position of stroking a conscience the Holy Spirit has been poking.

When the Question is Asked

So then, the Christian who is following the apostle’s lead on the issues of our day won’t raise a controversial question himself. He will simply assume the best and concentrate on trying to reveal Christ to a person in need of him. But unbelievers who ask us direct questions about what we believe are entitled to honest, direct answers. Gracious answers where possible, certainly, but always clear and direct.

That much we owe them. That much we should give them. We can never know in advance what the Lord has been doing in that person’s heart. They may well be under conviction about the very matter they are raising, and it may be that the Lord has put us in that rather awkward position to speak on his behalf and to reinforce the point his Holy Spirit has been making to them. It may even be (though we can hardly imagine it) that coming to the point of submission on that specific issue is key to their finding Christ.

If so, we would never want to leave the impression we are equivocating about the truth, let alone find ourselves contradicting the Spirit of God.

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