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What Are We Arguing About?

On the latest Life and Books and Everything podcast, I talked at some length about what we are really arguing about when it comes to some of our current cultural flashpoints. I won’t repeat everything I said on the podcast (you should subscribe!), but I thought it might be worthwhile to give the basic outline of my monologue.

My overarching point is this: we need to be clearer as Christians about where our disagreements lie.

That is to say, we often talk as if we are disagreeing about significant elements of the Christian faith—whether that has to do with God’s sovereignty or worship or justice or racism or abortion—when actually we are disagreeing about a host of issues surrounding those issues. By drilling down to our actual disagreements, we may not find a new consensus or a mythical third way, but perhaps we will be able to talk to each other with more charity and humility.

Let’s look at three of the most contentious issues dividing churches (or about to divide churches) at the moment.

Presidential Election

Christians disagree about all sorts of things related to the election. I don’t want to talk about Trump vs. Biden. Instead, I want us to think about voting itself. How should Christians in America think about their vote for president? I see at least four approaches.

1. Vote for the best candidate of all the candidates. Pretty simple. Look on the ballot (or write someone in) and vote for the person you think best represents Christian values and will effectively carry out the responsibilities of the presidency.

2. Vote for the best (or least bad) candidate of the two major parties. It is almost assuredly the case that the Republican or Democratic nominee will be president, so, this argument insists, we ought to vote for whichever of the two candidates is better. And what do we mean by better? That is open for debate as well. For most people “better” means some combination of policies, platform, appointments, personal integrity, and the political party you would be putting in power. You may or may not be excited about the person at the top of the ticket, but you figure you are voting for a network of policies and influencers, not just one person.

3. Vote for the best candidate—of all the candidates, or of the two leading parties—so long as the candidate meets a certain threshold for character and ideology. This is like 1 and 2, but instead of saying, “I will always vote for the lesser of two evils,” it says, “I won’t cast a vote for someone I think is actually evil.” You think to yourself, I could never cast a vote for someone who advocates the killing of all puppies. He may be better than the person who supports the killing of puppies and grown dogs, but I simply can’t vote for someone who doesn’t pass a basic test of moral decency.

4. Vote in a way that you believe best advances the long-term interests of your policy goals and convictions. You may reason that Candidate A is less bad than Candidate B in the short run, but you are going to vote for Candidate C because you want to signal that you hope your party will select better candidates in the future. Or you may reason that even though you agree with Candidate B on more issues, that candidate’s style or character makes those positions less palatable and actually hurts the goals and policies you care about most. Instead of viewing the election as a matter of immediate national life or death, you think it best to play the long game and vote accordingly.

I’m not telling you how to look at your vote. Maybe one of these approaches makes more sense in our given context than another. But then we should be clear that we are arguing about a philosophy of voting—something not nailed down in Scripture—rather than about issues of first-order importance. I don’t think all of the approaches above are equally compelling, but I do think they are all reasonable ways to approach the act of voting.

Police Shootings

Let’s take another controversial issue. Many churches are divided over how to think about police shootings. Too often, we throw around accusations of racism or cultural Marxism or not caring about the Bible or not caring about people of color, when we are actually disagreeing about the facts of a given situation. It’s easy to jump to conclusions, and then jump to counter-conclusions, when slowing down to ask certain questions can isolate what we are really talking about and (likely) disagreeing about.

When it comes to the specific issue of a specific police shooting—not all race issues in general—we would do well to ask four questions.

  1. What happened?
  2. How often does it happen?
  3. To whom does it happen?
  4. Why did it/does it happen?

Of course, it’s possible that we ask questions in a way that only serves to obfuscate the issues. We’ve all heard people say, “I’m only asking questions,” when they are really just trying to gum up the discussion. But highlighting the four questions above—even if we don’t agree on the answers—can at least highlight that our disagreements may not be about a lack of concern for justice or an affinity for Critical Race Theory.

Instead, our disagreements may focus on: whether the shooting was justified or not, whether police shootings happen a lot or little, whether they happen disproportionately to some people over others, and whether the shooting was because of race, poor training, poor judgment, or some other factor. In other words, we may think we are arguing about social justice, when actually we are arguing about shooting data and police unions. Or, we may not, in fact, be arguing about remotely the same thing at all but have reached an impasse because one person is looking for empathy and a recognition of historical wrongs while another person is parsing out the nuances of proper compliance and policing procedure.

Covid-19

One more issue, and this may be the most difficult. It’s no secret that Christians don’t agree on when and whether to open church, on when or whether to wear masks, and on when or whether to disobey the government. Again, the arguments are often pitched as fundamentally about the Bible, theology, and personal devotion to Christ. And they may be. But more often in my experience, the hottest part of the argument is about other issues not spelled out clearly in Scripture.

  1. Is the virus a very serious health concern, or has the threat been greatly exaggerated?
  2. Is the government exercising its authority in consistent ways, or does it seem to be singling out churches for worse treatment than other establishments?
  3. Is the government trying to achieve its public health goals in the least burdensome way, or are its rules arbitrary and unreasonably heavy-handed?
  4. Is the government generally to be trusted as looking out for the best interests of its citizens, or is the government ramping up oppressive measures that it will be slow to relinquish?

These are all important questions. I’m not suggesting we don’t try to answer them. But in answering them, let’s be clear that we are making decisions about epidemiology, mathematical modeling, and government bureaucracies. One church may say, “Don’t you love Christ? Why won’t you meet for worship?” Another church may say, “Don’t you love your neighbor? How dare you open for worship?” Of course, every church ought to be absolutely committed to public worship and loving our neighbors. The reason two churches like this are criticizing the other has much more to do with their epidemiological views than their theological views. Being clear about the disagreement is a step in the right direction.

Four Final Thoughts

Where does this leave us? Quickly, four thoughts.

1. Let’s be clear what we are arguing about (and what we are not arguing about). Drill down to the issue really causing separation.

2. Let’s be less dogmatic about our approach to voting, and our reading of police data, and our take on the severity of the virus than we are about fundamental articles of the Christian faith. By all means, we can try to persuade about all those other matters, but let’s realize we are outside the realm of inerrant, or often even uniquely Christian, conclusions.

3. Let’s humbly acknowledge our position when disagreeing with others in the church. Instead of raising every disagreement to the highest rhetorical level, we might say, “I’m not questioning your commitment to Christ, but I don’t think the virus is the threat you think it is. Here’s why.”

4. Let’s understand that most pastors are trying to find a way to hold their congregation together in divisive times. It may be that your pastor is cowardly trying to make everyone happy. That won’t work. But it may be that he is trying to wisely shepherd a diverse flock in a way that helps the sheep to focus on Christ and him crucified. If the disagreement has become public in your church, then the pastor is usually wise to deal with it publicly. That takes courage. But don’t expect that he is going to take a definitive side when he is not an expert in the contentious matter, and reasonable Christians can come to different conclusions. The loving pastor should show that he understands both sides and is sympathetic to the good things people want on both sides. He should not pretend he has found the third way that everyone will agree on or that piety alone will transcend all our disagreements.

Make no mistake, these are difficult times and leaders will have to make difficult decisions. But the fallout from these decisions can be made less difficult if we know what we are disagreeing about, can state clearly why we think the way we do, and are willing to allow that others may reasonably think differently.

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