Have you ever been part of a congregation that began to internally debate a matter of scripture? I’m not talking about a few people discussing a small disagreement. I mean speakers representing different sides of an issue actually standing before the congregation having a moderated debate. I’m talking about the type of setting where supporters of each idea will sit on the opposite sides of the auditorium.
It’s been years now, but I have. And it’s not pretty. Worse, it’s not productive.
I recently touched on this topic in a sermon I gave at my congregation about doctrinal integrity (which reminds me that I should be better about posting my sermons here):
When dealing with doctrinal matters, we have to avoid partisan mindsets like the plague. By this, I mean we must avoid drawing lines, taking sides, and forming teams. The only side any of us should be on is that of the truth. Remember Paul’s first letter to Corinth where he accuses them of this very thing — lining up behind the teachings of specific individuals and being more loyal to that person than to God? We can’t let our congregation become a debate club. Debates change no one’s mind, for the participants and their supporters have come armored up and oppositional, with their minds already convinced the other side is wrong.
Once we begin treating our spiritual differences like a presidential debate or the Ham/Nye debate, we create an environment where reconciliation is all but impossible. How often have you watched a political debate that convinced you to vote for the other party’s candidate? Never? Me too. Instead, we observe the debate through a filter that automatically casts a more favorable light on our side while being more likely to fact-check, criticize, and otherwise marginalize the other. The very setting inhibits objectivity and fairness.
So how do we prevent disagreements from rolling out of control?
- Keep it small. The more people get involved, the more heel-digging will occur. How do you think the conversation between Aquila, Priscilla, and Apollos would have gone if teams had been involved in Acts 18?
- Keep it Personal. Make sure you both know this is an issue between yourselves. Think of how Matthew 18:15 begins with addressing an offense. “Some people” don’t have to be brought into the discussion. (As in: “Some people would disagree with…”)
- Assume Sincerity. Assume the person with whom you have a disagreement wants to do God’s work. Assume they want to be with you in Heaven. Christian love is supposed to “hope all things'” and that applies to brothers and sister with whom we disagree as well.
- Escalate wisely. If the disagreement does affect salvation, and if it cannot be resolved personally, then involve the shepherds or minister in the discussion. Again, keep things small. A personal discussion does not need to become a congregational circus.
In all of this, we should be keeping Proverbs 3:30 in mind: “Do not contend with a man for no reason, when he has done you no harm.” Are you really disagreeing over a matter of doctrine, or did the other person just step on an opinion? Will the issue at hand affect anyone’s salvation, or are we just splitting hairs? Yes, there are a few examples of doctrinal issues escalating to the congregation in the New Testament, but that should not be our first course of action.
Our exclusive motivators should be to do God’s work and to care for each others souls. It should not be our goal to feel vindicated on an issue. It should not be our goal to score a victory. Our goal is to be more like Christ and to help the world see His love in us — in our conduct, in our attitudes, in our generosity, in our relationships. If that love comes first, there is no room for partisanship.