A scoffer who is rebuked will only hate you; the wise, when rebuked, will love you.
"Is this the room for an argument?" asks Michael Palin's character in a classic Monty Python skit.
"I told you once," John Cleese tells him.
"No, you didn't!"
"I most certainly did."
They continue in this vein to Palin's mounting frustration. Cleese simply contradicts everything Palin says. Back and forth the nonsense goes until finally Palin shouts, "This isn't an argument! An argument is a series of propositions laid out in order to establish a central point. It's not the mere gainsaying of whatever the other person says!"
To which Cleese loftily replies, "Can be."
This is a bad argument, of which there are too many examples in our evangelical world. Still, I don't think the problem we face as a community is that we have too many arguments of poor quality, but that we have too few of any kind.
We need more arguments. We need them in our churches, in our families, in our marriages, in our schools, in our country, in our lives.
Let me rush to say that we don't need more bickering. We all have plenty of that already. We certainly don't need more contention, more backbiting, more disrespect, more pompous pronouncements.
What we do need instead is more proper argument. Proper argument sets out as clearly as possible just why someone has come to the conclusion he or she has. It exposes the evidence for this conclusion to clear view and shows all of the steps by which someone has arrived at this opinion. Proper argument then invites the listener or reader to scrutinize both the warrants and the logic of the argument. Perhaps the warrants are weak at step B: The Bible tells the truth (step A); the Bible says that God helps those who help themselves (step B—a highly questionable claim about the Bible's teaching!); therefore, we should do what we can to help ourselves (step C).
Perhaps the argument leaps from step D to step F with no intermediate step E: … so since God commanded Adam and Eve to eat only green plants (step D), therefore we should be vegetarians (step F—leaving out step E, which would have to demonstrate that what God commanded regarding diet in the Garden of Eden is entirely applicable to Christians today).
Whatever the case, the listener or reader follows the argument and then suggests what he or she can suggest to complement, correct, or replace the argument. From there, the process circles around again. This is teamwork. This is taking each other seriously as thinking human beings. This is speaking the truth in love.
I wonder how the ongoing debate among evangelicals regarding gender would look, for example, if key leaders on various sides of this issue practiced this wisdom better than they seem to do. My overwhelming impression is that most prominent speakers and authors on such matters talk right past their "opponents," rather than gladly welcoming the arguments of those who disagree with them as encounters with the concerns of fellow Christians, encounters that might lead to mutual edification.
Biblical feminists, it seems to me, are right to ask proponents of subordination or "complementarity" just why God would want women to be led by men in the home and the church, always and everywhere. Are men more intelligent or more spiritual, and thus naturally better decision makers? Are men categorically superior leaders in other respects? The habit of subordinationists of simply invoking the "creation order" and other biblical passages, however appropriate this might be on some levels of this debate, does not answer this sensible question. God seems to have good reasons for his instructions to us on other matters; surely subordinationists at least ought to consider what they might be in this case.
Biblical feminists have some arguing to do as well. Just why would God have embedded egalitarianism so deeply in patriarchalism throughout the Bible? If, for example, God has always intended men and women to be equal and undifferentiated partners in home and church, as they are (at least ostensibly) in modern society, then why did God inspire such apparently contradictory and sweeping commands from Paul without qualification from any other New Testament authority—including Jesus? And given that most Christians have understood the Bible in a patriarchal mode for all these centuries, why did God not give the egalitarian key to this puzzle until modern times?
I am wondering when someone, somewhere, will promote the idea that an important conference for evangelicals in North America would center on just this procedure of sincere argument. Perhaps a Christian college or seminary, or an organization like the National Association of Evangelicals or InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, or even Christianity Today, could get the Christians for Biblical Equality and the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood to nominate a handful of their chosen spokespeople. Then a real engagement over several days could ensue in which each of these two groups (and representatives of other positions as well) would simply have to keep listening and responding to each other, rather than preaching easily to their own choirs as they do year after year.
On another front, I wonder why certain theologians of a Reformed or Calvinist bent nowadays seem intent not just on blessing the rest of the evangelical community with the insights of their tradition, but also on castigating their fellow evangelicals on every point in which they differ from Reformed doctrine as interpreted by these theological vigilantes. Do they really think that other Christians disagree with them only because those Christians are either too stupid to see the obvious truth of Reformed theology, or too stubborn to admit to its superiority? They might profitably consider the possibility that God has broken forth truth out of his Word that challenges the established categories of this one mode of Christian thought.
The same goes for advocates of the "Third Wave" of Christian spirituality. How much are they truly listening to the criticism of Christian brothers and sisters who do not want them to fail, but rather succeed in living as abundantly as possible?
To respond to these questions with Christian humility, I wonder when these champions of Reformed doctrine or Third Wave renewal will sponsor meetings to which they invite leading proponents of other points of view to an honest and earnest Christian discussion, rather than sponsor yet more rallies of the already-convinced. And perhaps a private conference, out of the media spotlight, would be a good place to start. Such privacy would minimize the temptation to play to the galleries and maximize the opportunity for true Christian fellowship even in theological disagreement.
We North American evangelicals have not handled the issues of inerrancy or creation science very well. Typically, we have been alarmed by the emergence of other points of view. We have not paused to investigate the issues thoroughly or to consider mediating positions. Instead, we have followed self-appointed leaders on crusades against all who disagree with us. We have mounted political campaigns of total war: removing dissidents from their jobs, taking over institutions that formerly housed more than one point of view and enforcing our own, and damning those who resist our holy cause.
We have not stopped to listen, to consider, and to engage in mutually respectful argument. Our passionate commitments (to pro-life policies, to doctrinal truths, to spiritual vitality, to the family, to race and gender equality) tend to make us see everything as right or wrong, as "us" or "them."
We are rightly afraid of a relativism that forbids anyone to claim possession of truth, but we overcompensate by allowing no room for self-doubt. We don't even pause for the self-examination that would result if we actually took the trouble to set our arguments in order. Instead, we have taken our convictions for granted as gospel truth.
And when confronted by those who differ with us, we have just reached for the stick, confident that we already knew the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so all that remained was conquest of the enemy. Contrary to the biblical injunction (James 1:19), we think that we don't need to hear; we love to speak; and boy, are we quick to get angry.
Yet only a fool resists good argument. Only a proud, self-satisfied person (or organization) resists a better idea when presented with one. The Proverbs of the Bible repeat over and over again that the wise person delights in correction and positively seeks it out: "A scoffer who is rebuked will only hate you; the wise, when rebuked, will love you. Give instruction to the wise, and they will become wiser still; teach the righteous and they will gain in learning" (Prov. 9:8-9, NRSV).
When we argue with each other in a biblical way—rather than simply to shout at each other or insult each other or ignore each other or scheme against each other—we honor each other as wise ones who desire to grow in wisdom.
Contrary to the biblical injunction, we
think that we don't need to hear; we love
to speak; and boy, are we quick to get angry.
These exhortations, furthermore, are applicable well beyond theological controversies. Sermons should not just tell us what the Bible says or refer to the Bible or have some vague connection with the Bible: they should show us that the Bible does say what the preacher thinks it says. Verse-by-verse exposition is only one method of doing so. Every preacher, whatever his or her preaching style, ought to be demonstrating to the congregation at every key point just how those points arise naturally from a fair-minded and obedient reading of Scripture. Otherwise, the congregation can have no clear idea that it is encountering the word of God in a sermon, rather than some concern or advice or fancy of the preacher's own. I wonder about any preacher, frankly, whose sermons don't inspire and require an audience to listen with Bibles open.
Congregational leaders should not just tell us that such-and-such an action is a good idea: they should show us that such-and-such is a good idea, and then welcome improvements. How often in your church do the leaders (whether elders, deacons, or vestry) inform the congregation regularly of the issues that they are discussing or are going to discuss and invite ideas and opinions? (They could do so in church bulletins, newsletters, and other announcements without much trouble.) How often do they call a church forum to solicit help from the collective wisdom of the gathered church?
Parents should not just tell children to do this or that: they should show their children that the parental instruction is right—as circumstances and the children's ages permit, of course. As a parent of three boys myself, I have found sometimes that when I explain why I want something done, sometimes my sons can suggest a better way of proceeding. I might then be embarrassed, but we all win when such exchanges bear such good fruit. And if I am proven correct in the end, then perhaps my sons will see that they are going ahead with my request not just because of sheer parental authority but because it is, after all, a good idea.
Public activism should not just tell our fellow citizens what we think about something: we should show them why we think so. We should do so not by hurling the Bible at them (which usually has the same effect as a Mormon or Muslim preaching at you from his own scriptures), but by coming alongside them and showing them according even to their own principles how problematic are their views and how much better might be ours. Cal Thomas, Richard John Neuhaus, Cornel West, and Bill Bennett are various Christian "arguers" who speak to the public in terms a wide audience can appreciate. We must speak, that is, the language of those we are trying to persuade—at least, we must do so as far as we can without compromising our Christian faith, as Paul did on the Areopagus.
Frankly, our failure to do this well may point to a lack in our empathy or our reasoning. Furthermore, perhaps we ourselves might learn something valuable in the process, including something of the common humanity of our political opponents.
Our families, our churches, and our society are fragmenting into sullen individuals and militant factions. One of the attitudes that is tearing us apart is the insistence that everyone else better just agree with me when I give my opinion—and if some refuse to do so, then I'll write them off and associate exclusively with those who will. As the T-shirts read when Nelson Mandela first visited New York City, "It's a black thing. You wouldn't understand." Buzz off: it's a female thing/it's a Baptist thing/it's a homosexual thing/ it's a conservative thing—you wouldn't understand.
We badly need instead an attitude of Christian humility that affirms that we don't know it all and that we'd like to know more. We badly need an attitude of Christian appreciation, one that recognizes that other people can give us what we do not have ourselves. We badly need an attitude of Christian obedience to the truth and a sacrifice of the ego so that the question is always what's right, not who's right—to the glory of God.
And so, as a seeker of gracious, edifying discourse in our friendships, families, churches, and workplaces, I invoke the magisterial Pythons once again and cry, "I'd like to have an argument, please."
John G. Stackhouse, Jr., is professor of religion at the University of Manitoba and the author of Can God Be Trusted? The Challenge of Evil (forthcoming from Oxford).
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