The legacy of Donald Trump’s term as President of the United States will not be measured in terms of legislation passed, appointments made, or diplomatic accords achieved. It will not be counted by any advancements of the Republican party’s agenda, by any conservative causes that were championed, or by any national or international crises that were averted. No, the lasting influence of the 45th President will only be measured by the bitter division and caustic animosity that has absolutely engulfed our country. It is an insidious sickness that has pervaded every sphere of our public discourse, and sadly, the church is no exception. We are a people divided, perhaps more than ever, and this is much to our shame.
Nowhere has this mood been more evident than in the Christian blogosphere. Interactions between Christians on social media, whether via Twitter, Facebook, blogs, podcasts, etc., have become more and more antagonistic over the past several months. Whether the question has to do with CRT/Intersectionality, COVID restrictions, or with issues related to the role of women in the ministry of the church, Christians on both sides of these issues have been quick to vilify and condemn those with whom they are not in perfect agreement. This trend has resulted in an atmosphere online that is hateful, ugly, and disheartening.
Now, what we must affirm is that discussion, debate, and even disagreement are essential to the theological enterprise. The Scriptures affirm that “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27.17) It is through the fires of irenic debate that clarity is achieved, understanding is sharpened, and unity is hammered out. We can see this on vivid display in the Bible in the Book of Acts. In chapter 15, at the Jerusalem Council, the early church leaders met to consider the question of the Gentiles’ inclusion into the people of God. After hearing both sides of the discussion and airing out differences in reasoning and perspective, truth won the day and a foundation for unity was forged. It is a beautiful picture of the way that theological discussion and debate are beneficial to the church. However, in light of the current climate of anger and animosity, what we need most are clear Biblical principles for theological discourse, and in the space remaining I would like to recommend a few possibilities.
Of course, the Scriptures are replete with principles for how Christians should and should not speak to one another, and while an exhaustive examination of these principles would be beyond the scope of this medium, there is one that it is particularly helpful in the current discussion. In the Letter from James, we find an explicit warning about the power and danger of the tongue (and by extension our typing fingers).
Quote: And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among our members. It stains the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. … It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in God’s likeness. Blessing and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, these things should not be this way. James 3.6-10
We must agree with James, “These things should not be this way.” Luckily, James has also provided us with a clear prescription for how these things should be, as he writes in chapter 1, verse 19, “My dear brothers and sisters, understand this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness.” Quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger. If we would merely apply these three principles to our theological discourse, I believe that we could go a long way in helping to stem the tidal wave of anger and bitterness that has absolutely overwhelmed our theological conversations.
Quick to listen. Being quick to listen means listening to our theological opponents first and foremost for the purpose of clarity and understanding. Listening while only thinking of how to counter the point is not listening at all. This also means listening to the whole sermon, or even more than one sermon, reading the whole book or the entire article, not merely responding to one sentence or one segment. It means giving priority to the context in which statements are given, and giving those statements the benefit of the doubt, assuming that the speaker is genuinely trying to be biblically faithful, Gospel affirming, and Christ-honoring. Quick to listen also means seeking out the best proponents of a given position, reading the best scholarship on the issue, interacting with the best evidence and the most robust arguments.
Slow to speak. Being slow to speak means thinking carefully about our response, discerning whether our motive is to build up our opponent or to tear them down. It means refusing to label our opponents with identities meant to disparage rather than clarify. It means being careful not to caricature, misconstrue, or misrepresent the position of our opponents, not bearing false witness by assigning to them motives and agendas that they do not in fact support. Slow to speak also means humbly admitting our ignorance on some issues, acknowledging that we are not all-knowing on every theological issue or question that is raised. It means that we engage each other always out of a position of love, respect, and unity rather than out of anger and animosity.
Slow to anger. Being slow to anger means being slow to outrage, slow to alarm. It means understanding that every theological disagreement does not rise to the level of heresy or false teaching, that our opponents have not departed from the truth once for all delivered to the saints just because they do not see the issue the way that we do. It means discerning the relative importance of the issue at hand, understanding whether a disagreement is a first-tier, second-tier, or third-tier question. It means refusing to malign the sincerity of our opponents’ faith over issues that are not orthodoxy defining. Slow to anger means refusing to hold our opponents in contempt, refusing to criticize, refusing to castigate, refusing to condemn.
Of course, I am already anticipating the pushback. You are probably thinking, “Wait a pretty little minute! We are instructed to call out error, to rebuke false teaching, to stand boldly for the truth.” And, at this juncture, I would say in response, “yes, the Scriptures call us to this,” but the manner in which we address our theological disagreements speaks volumes about the Gospel that we profess. When we treat each other as adversaries to be defeated rather than brothers and sisters to be loved, then we betray the very faith we argue so adamantly for. And when the watching world sees nothing but a reflection of itself in us, then we sacrifice all our credibility in calling them to repent and believe in the Savior that we love. As the Apostle Paul would say, “May it never be!”