By far the most frustrating thing about having conversations on controversial issues is when people don’t know when to stop fighting.
It’s like going to play paintball with your friends, and then after the game is over, finding that someone won’t stop shooting.
“Whew! Well that was fun. Okay, let’s get this gear off and go get some coffee. There’s this great place over on— Ow!! Haha, okay, you got me one last time. Now let’s—Ow!! Hey! That hurts! Cut it out, man. OW! Dude! The game is over! OW!!! What the heck?! OW! STOP! OW!”
That person will not be invited to any future games.
There’s a time and a place in the world for debate. There are times to stand up and shout through a megaphone. But then there are times to put the debate aside, sit quietly together, and have a real conversation. It’s frustrating to try to have a conversation with someone who only seems interested in the former.
It irritates me the most when Christians do this, because it gives all of us a bad name. It’s especially damaging, because so many Christians cloak their attacks in loving language, when their approach is anything but loving.
“Sister, have you read First Corinthians 11:5?”
“Because I just saw you bow your head in prayer. Were you just bowing your head in prayer?”
“Well, yes, but—”
“So let me ask you this, sister, and I’m only asking because I love you and care about your immortal soul. What name do you pray in? Because I want to tell you about Jesus and save you from your reprobate ways and the fires of eternal damnation.”
“Um, I know Jesus. I’m a Christian. I was just—”
“Well then, sister, I must tell you that the Jesus you think you know is not the real, eternal King I know. Because the real Jesus commands that his disciples abide by his Word. Why do you think Jesus wouldn’t want you to abide by his Word? Where in the Bible do you see that it’s okay to not abide by his Word?”
“I never said that. I think—”
“The Bible clearly says in First Corinthians 11:15 that women must not pray with their heads uncovered, and your head is not covered, sister. So I’m asking you, why do you think you get a special pass to disregard the Scriptures and the rest of us still have to follow them? Or do you just think that the Bible doesn’t matter anymore?”
“Well, I’m not sure I agree with you on what that pass—”
“Sister, it’s not about agreeing with me or not agreeing with me. It’s about whether or not you agree with the Lord. And if you decide to continue turning your back on the Word of God, He will turn His back on you, and you will burn for all eternity. I’m just telling you this in all love, not an ounce of hate in my heart, sister, because God commanded me to share the truth, even if you don’t want to hear it. You need to get right with God, sister, before it’s too late.”
“Um… I’m sorry, what was your name again?”
If you’ve never been on the receiving end of a conversation like this, you’ll probably read this as a comic exaggeration to make a point. If you have, though, then you know that this doesn’t even scratch the surface of how real and painfully frustrating these conversations can be.
See, it’s complicated. As Christians, we are called to hold one another accountable. That means that if my pastor or best friend or child is doing something immoral or preaching something heretical, I do need to address it. As uncomfortable as it is, I need to be able to talk to the pastor about something he’s preached that I believe is in conflict with the Scriptures, or urge my best friend to stop cheating on his wife. All of us need people in our lives who can hold us accountable, and we need to be that person for other people.
That doesn’t give me the right to try to hold the whole world, or even the whole church, accountable to what I believe. I have to earn the right to speak into people’s lives by being their friend first, and even then, it needs to be a conversation, not a lecture.
When we Christians fall into the trap of lecturing strangers on the internet or casual acquaintances about their sins, we may think we’re standing for the truth, but we’re actually acting out of pride—pride that says not only that I believe in the Bible, but that I believe in my own ability to perfectly understand and interpret the Bible and to always have the right answer for every situation. I’m failing to acknowledge that I might have made a mistake at any point along the way. I’m failing to show humility. I’m also failing to heed Jesus’ warning about judging the speck in my brother’s eye before I remove the plank from my own. (Of course, we all like to think that our neighbor’s speck is really a plank, and that our own planks are really specks, so we think we’re justified.)
Incidentally, Christians aren’t the only ones who do this. I have some nonreligious gay friends who are just as adept at beating people over the head with a pride flag as my Christian friends are at beating people over the head with their hardcover Bibles. We ALL do it. And we all notice it more when the other side does it.
Admit it, right now, you’re thinking more about times you’ve seen people on the other side do this than you are about times you’ve done it yourself. Are you reading this, thinking you’ve never made this mistake? We all have, and we all need to watch ourselves. Speck, plank.
Even when it is the right time to hold someone accountable or try to change someone’s mind, we need to know when it’s time to listen. I’m going to write another post on this soon, but in general, I think that listening to other people’s stories is a much more powerful way to get them to care what we think than lecturing them ever will be. People resist lectures. They tend to push back when lectured. But give them a chance to tell us their stories, and not only will they be more interested in hearing our perspective afterwards, but we’ll better understand their situation and be able to advise them.
I’m a guy who spends my life talking about some very controversial issues in the church. I have spent many years studying these issues, and I have strong opinions about them. I feel confident that I’m right. But I also know that I’m human and fallible, and I might have gotten some things wrong. That’s why I’m always eager to talk to people who disagree with me. I like being challenged, and I like being forced to defend or rethink my position. I don’t even mind a debate now and then, as long as it’s the right time and place. I learn new things all the time from people who challenge me.
But even though I like being challenged, I still hate it when people—on the internet or in person—come out swinging, with their talking points or Bible passages ready to use as weapons, asking me leading questions before they even know the first thing about me, what I actually believe, or how I came to those conclusions. Sure, they might even ask something like, “How did you come to this conclusion?” but it’s usually pretty obvious when they’re only asking me so that they can tell me why I’m wrong, not because they really have an interest in understanding me.
Here on this blog, I am happy to talk to people who disagree with me. Let’s engage. Let’s have a conversation. But first, let’s put down the paintball guns and grab a cup of virtual coffee. You tell me your stories, and I’ll tell you mine. There will be plenty of time later for us to talk about why we disagree.
So… cream and sugar?