In group discussions on doctrinal differences, all too often group-think takes hold, and I despise where it usually goes. We’re usually either intrigued, engaged, and contemplative, or we’re defensive and accusatory. When the latter occurs, which is unfortunately often, these discussions become detrimental to the health of our community, and for two primary reasons: First, our language inaccurately reflects our thoughts. Second, our motivations are void of humility.
Let me give you an example: In one camp of Christians (Group A), biblical inspiration and inerrancy are established, indisputable facts. Most Christians are in Group A, so this group holds the most power to accuse and abuse. In one of many other camps (Group B), they accept divine inspiration, but reject inerrancy. Let’s say Group A learns of Group B’s beliefs and is thrown for a loop. In the ensuing discussions, Group A may ask, “How can they believe that?” One person may interpret this question as, “How is it logically possible to believe that?” But another may interpret it as, “How can people who claim to be Christians not trust the word of God?” See the dilemma?
Completely different thoughts expressed in the exact same language is a problem for several reasons: 1) When words don’t accurately reflect ideas, misunderstandings abound; 2) Assumed understanding leads to two simultaneous but completely different discussions, creating a dysfunctional echo chamber; 3) Our ideas carry assumptions we fail to clearly articulate; 4) Implied assumptions also often have attached accusations; and 5) Attached accusations are perceptible and thus stifle conversation by mediating defensiveness and derailing the central focus altogether.
Add all these things together and what do we get? Pointless conversation that further divides, creates notions of the “other”, and reinforces unhelpful, ineffective habits. Basically, it kills our community and undermines the intellectual aspects of faith.
Iron sharpens iron, but perpetually bad dialogue dulls a community’s spiritual, ministerial, relational, and educational potency. So to educate, edify, create unity and understanding, promote the Kingdom of God, and avoid gridlock, we must recognize what we’re asking, why we’re asking it, and what assumptions/accusations are attached to the potential answers.
Using virtually any doctrinal difference as a model (insert women in leadership, creation theories, or pretty much any topic and the point still stands), here’s a rundown of the sorts of implied thoughts often expressed, along with my responses:
- Are they right or wrong? Unproductive to ask (and kinda rude to answer) without first truly trying to thoroughly understand what they believe and why. I also have to wonder why we would ask this question. Are we really trying to discern Truth and become wiser? Or are we just trying to establish superiority? We must be humble and honest about this. One way to test our own motives is to ask ourselves how willing we are to test or change our own beliefs if presented with a counter viewpoint.
- Is it actually possible for someone to believe this? Unnecessary. Clearly the answer is yes. It’s pretty much possible to believe anything.
- Why do they believe this? Now this is a good question if tackled properly. To answer we have to consider differences in upbringing/socialization, cultural and subcultural norms, experiences, education/information, and other factors. All of these considerations help us become more empathetic and insightful. Prayer is important too!
- Does it make logical sense for someone to believe this? Also a good question if tackled properly. It facilitates thoughtful and open-minded dialogue by requiring research, cogitation, and consideration of another’s point of view. These are the keys to life-giving conversation. Unless, of course, you give in to confirmation bias…
- They simply lack understanding. This is arrogant unless we’ve truly explored all the info, points-of-view, and circumstances that led to another’s beliefs. If actually true, it can often be solved through clarification and patience. More importantly, it necessitates gentleness and grace, which we all tend to lack.
- They only believe this because they lack faith. This is a pretty dangerous assumption. First of all, whether or not it’s verbalized, the attitude will show in the direction and tone of the dialogue, which will do nothing but divide and make people defensive. Second of all, it will derail the conversation. Once people are defensive, discussion of the initial topic will cease, and the focus will turn to proving one’s faith, making it nothing more than a divisive, hurtful waste of time. Third of all, it’s contrary to scripture. We’re somewhat instructed to judge others’ (with humility and accountability) based on some scriptural teachings. However, when it comes to appraising another’s faith based on doctrinal differences, this sort of judgement is unnecessary, unhelpful, and does not glorify God or the Kingdom. See Romans 14:1-4. We all must learn to recognize which beliefs are tier 1 issues (issues effecting salvation), and which are not. If the belief being discussed is not a tier 1 belief, we should not use it to question another’s faith. (Hint: there’s only one tier-1 belief.)
- They’re blatantly ignoring scripture/ blaspheming God. Again, this is dangerous. If it’s true, the belief should be rejected, albeit kindly, but let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt. Before making this claim, we should exhaust all other possibilities with as much objectivity and openness as possible. We should thoroughly question our own understandings and motives, which takes discernment and humility. Practically speaking, it also takes time. So, it should take comparable time to come to such a conclusion. Otherwise, it likely isn’t well-founded. Quick/immediate responses are often a red flag. This could actually be said about all of these assumptions.
Now, just because these bad habits and potential problems exist and occur so frequently, that doesn’t mean we should forgo the conversations altogether. These discussions are intellectually and morally challenging tasks I’m inclined to believe are edifying. They fulfill righteous requirements to challenge ourselves, seek Truth, and be accountable to integrity and intentionality. More importantly, these conversations reinforce the purpose and need for community.
So, when taking on this risky task, how should we hold ourselves accountable and focus on what really matters? How can we reconcile the righteousness of this task with its potential to be divisive and distracting? Well, there may be better ways, but I’ve been asking myself the following questions before any further discussion occurs:
- Do I actually know how I came to my own view on this topic?
- Where are the inevitable holes in my own view on this topic?
- Why do I care/want to have this discussion in the first place?
- Does one’s position on this topic have any bearing on his/her salvation?
- Will it in any way determine how one models Christ and/or loves others?
- Are all the parties involved (including myself) likely to be receptive to what every/someone has to say?
- If not, will discussing this topic do more harm than good?
- If so, is this topic presently worth prioritizing in one’s internal monologue, thus risking stress/anxiety/resentment? (Thanks to my friend Dan for this and the above 2 points.)
- Will one’s position significantly affect the direction/dynamics of important relationships? How so?
- If so, what are the potential risks and are they worth taking?
- Will one’s conclusion affect major decisions, such as willingness to work for certain companies, choice of church home, or participation in certain traditions? How so?
- If so, are the parties involved spiritually, psychologically, or, heck, even economically prepared to handle this?
Answering these questions beforehand has a great deal of influence on the ensuing process. It maintains level-headedness, objectivity, and grace to a greater degree. It shifts motivation from establishing superiority and proving someone wrong to extending compassion and consideration. It also trains us to be more Christlike, honest, skilled, and effective in our discussions with/about others and others’ varying viewpoints.
Conversations within the Church can very easily be used to kill. Fortunately, they can just as easily bring forth life. It’s our responsibility to make sure they do. Godspeed, peeps.