Arguing like Christians
These are hard times in our nation, and the church is not exempt.
Tumult and turmoil encompass us. Some are taking to the streets, while others talk of taking to the hills. Every visit to the world of social media is like a trip to the garbage dump. Regardless of how you feel about the state of our society, you can’t help but be unsettled by the state of our civil discourse.
I don’t intend to settle such arguments (as if I could, anyway). Rather, I want to ask how we can carry on these discussions, debates, and—yes—arguments not only civilly, but Christianly. In such anxious times, how can we as Christians hold our peace? With important and controversial issues calling for conversation, how can we in the church discuss them fruitfully and faithfully?
St. Paul gives us the key in his letter to the Philippians.
“Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2.3-4)
Paul’s answer, in short, is empathy. One author has defined empathy as “the ability to identify with and understand someone different than one’s self.” In Paul’s words, it’s considering the needs of others and counting them more significant than your own.
In the Small Catechism Luther shows how to practice such empathy in his explanation of the 8th Commandment (“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor”):
We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.
Within the Body of Christ we bring a variety of perspectives and experiences. Our shared faith in Christ and baptism into his Body unites us, even as we confront these challenging topics—on which, in many cases, Christians of goodwill may differ. In order for us “to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4.3), it is imperative that we strive to “explain everything in the kindest way.”
Our motive and model is finally the compassion of Christ.
He bridged the chasm between heaven and earth, between God and humankind. “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,” says the book of Hebrews, “but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (4.15). Christ has identified himself with us, assumed our mortal frame, in order that he might lift us up. His love is our true north.
We as Christians are not going to agree with one another about everything—whether it be politics, theology, or what color carpet to choose. The question is how we’ll act when we do disagree. What theologian Ephraim Radner has written in another context holds true:
One can, and indeed one should, argue about theological truths. But it is how we Christians argue with one another that may well determine the future of Christianity.
These are trying times, and the hard questions are not going away. As sisters and brothers in the family of God, then, let us follow the pattern of our elder brother Jesus and empathetically share with one another, bear with one another, and “pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14.19).