RESPECTING THE WRONG ARGUMENT
I, like many of my Reformed brethren, have a lot of experience in the art of disagreement. The old adage proposes that when two people come to a standstill in a debate, they should “Agree to disagree.” I don’t believe this to be helpful, at all. In fact, the reverse is true. We should disagree to agree. This is how we grow. Theological truth is not relative and, as in all arguments of this nature, either one or both of the parties are wrong. We shouldn’t settle for theological error, but should strive to grow in our understanding. Conviction is a great thing, but we should ensure that our convictions rest upon the correct foundations.
If you have been acquainted with me for any period of time, you have probably picked up on my tendency to be very forward with my convictions. I don’t apologize for this, because the proclamation of God’s Word is more important than popularity. I’d rather you dislike me for telling you the truth than like me for tickling your ears. Though I stand behind this assertion, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have an apology to make. I have displayed a tendency to withhold respect when it was due. I’m not talking about disrespect for the people I’ve engaged (though I have made this mistake), but for their argument.
Not every wrong argument deserves respect. For instance, Mormons promote a false gospel that has left nothing but devastation in its path. I do not respect their gospel. It does not proclaim the way of salvation, but of anathema (Gal. 1:6-8). I am not promoting that every proclaimer of gospel perversions should gather around the camp fire and feel proud that we’ve promoted unity above truth. Unity in a lie is pointless. What I am suggesting, though, is that disagreements between Christ followers should take a different tone. How are we to learn from one another if we do not understand each other’s assertions?
There are several hot button topics within the Reformed world which are backed with strong conviction on both sides of the aisle. This is a good thing. What isn’t beneficial is when we dismiss arguments without listening to or considering them. When we feel like we’ve heard it all before and that there is no new perspective to be gained, we are soaring at the height of arrogance. It is an acknowledgement that we believe the person with whom we disagree to be ignorant and absurd. I used to dismiss every argument made for the Majority Text because I was certain that the Critical Text was a more accurate rendering of Scripture. I made jokes about those who preferred the KJV and lumped every one of its proponents into the same category. I was attacking an argument that I thought I understood, but didn’t. Then, something strange happened. I actually started paying attention to the people who supported this view. The people I engaged on this topic weren’t ignorant at all. In fact, their arguments were good. Really good. So good, in fact, that I now hold a similar position. Through taking the time to understand the view I opposed, I came to accept it. It’s funny how that works. There are other topics I have studied that ended with the opposite result. It’s not because I dismissed them from the start, but because I did my best to see where they were coming from and decided that the logic behind my current position is more consistent. That doesn’t mean that I hold no respect for these arguments, but only that I disagree. I disagree with Christians sending their children to public school when other options are available. I feel very strongly about this subject. Others, including some of the contributors to this blog, hold to a different perspective on the issue. They aren’t ignorant or absurd. They are brothers in Christ with whom I disagree. And that’s okay. I don’t agree with their assertions, but I respect them. I haven’t come to my conclusions overnight and neither have they. What I refuse to do is dismiss their points without hearing them out.
So, how should we proceed when these types of disagreements take place? Here are a few suggestions:
I. Understand That There Might Be Things You Don’t Understand.
Don’t assume that being familiar with an argument makes you an expert on it. There are many different aspects of all theological positions and there is a great chance that you haven’t taken the time to learn them all. Be open to correction and listen to what the person you are debating has to say. Try to understand how they drew their conclusions from the evidence provided and swallow your pride long enough to accept that they might be able to teach you something. Be a lifelong learner.
II. Engage The Argument As Presented Without Building A Straw Man.
Anyone can win a debate when there is no one fighting back. How many times have you heard Calvinism “refuted” because Calvinists “don’t believe in missions”? If you’re anything like me, those types of statements just make you roll your eyes. I don’t know any Calvinists who oppose missions and, if I did, I would attempt to correct them from the Scriptures. Likewise, don’t misconstrue people’s arguments in order to attack their credibility and get an easy “win.” Not only is that lazy, it’s unethical. Pay attention to the information that is being presented and engage it. Make sure that, if someone reads your refutation of their position, they walk away acknowledging that you represented their position well.
III. Ask questions. Lots of them.
This is beneficial for a number of reasons. First, it helps you to understand the position you are engaging. Second, it acts a safeguard against building straw men. And finally, it will expose logical inconsistencies. By asking the right questions, you will help the person you are debating to discover the faults in their own argument without ever even having to make an accusation. Also, be ready to answer these types of questions in defense of your own position. If your argument is sound, it will hold up to reasonable questions.
IV. Don’t be a jerk.
I think this one speaks for itself. Victory dances are unnecessary and nobody wants to see them. It is both disgraceful and sinful. If you can’t check your pride at the door, then don’t bother coming in.
V. Love your neighbor.
Love people enough to tell them the truth, but do so in a loving and respectful manner. Many times, love entails proclaiming things that people don’t want to hear. That’s okay, but make sure your motives are to glorify Christ and edify his church. If your end goal isn’t to strengthen your brothers in Christ, you’re doing it wrong.
In sum, we should make certain that Christ is honored in our disagreements. Hold to your convictions firmly, but don’t use them as an excuse to be a theological tyrant. Learn, teach, and be patient. You didn’t form your particular views overnight and neither did the person you are debating. Don’t die on every hill, but don’t go tumbling down them either. Stand your ground, but do so in love.