Partisan Spirituality

debate

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.

Lessons from Daniel Tiger: What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel?

DanielTigerWe all get made at times. Daniel and his friends have a hard time dealing with anger in an episode at the music store. They don’t always get a turn right when they want it, and the adults (who are always wonderfully on the same page with each other) advise the kids to “take a deep breath, and count to four.” At no point do the grown-ups invalidate the kids’ feelings. They don’t tell Daniel and friends to just get over it. They acknowledge and respect their kids’ feelings and give them a coping mechanism to help. It’s reminiscent of the old Mr. Rogers song What Do You Do WIth the Mad That You Feel? where he suggests positive outlets for negative feelings.

I’ve noticed that we Christians have a hard time with anger. On the one hand, I’ve known many Christians who just seem angry at the world in general. They harbor negative attitudes and will then lash out at seemingly small things. A songleader pitched a song too high. There are some wrappers in a pew. Someone took a verse out of context. Whatever it is, that becomes the target, and whoever is responsible for the misstep had better watch out. In this situation, it’s wise to remember Proverbs 19:11: “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.” Also James 1:19-20: “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” We cannot let anger define us, and we have to put away angry attitudes, so we can focus on the hope before us.

On the other hand, it’s just as important that we don’t completely repress our angry feelings. It’s possible to be angry without sinning. Otherwise how could Paul write, “Be angry and do not sin,” in Ephesians 4:26? It’s not that we feel angry at times that defines us; it’s how we deal with those emotions. In Mark 3:4-5, Jesus is angry at a group in a synagogue, upset that they will not answer a serious question of His about doing good on the Sabbath. He does not rail at them however. He does not degrade them or put them down. Instead, He makes His point by healing a man with a withered hand. He teaches His lesson through an act of mercy that I’m sure left the others feeling slightly abashed, and it was a more effective lesson than had Jesus berated them or vented His frustrations.

Another time, Jesus does show His anger when He finds that people are profiteering in God’s temple. The key here is wisdom. In Jesus’ entire ministry, we only have one recorded instance of Jesus “losing His temper”. Three years, one outburst. I’m not inclined to believe that the one recorded instance was a result of Jesus losing control either. I’m sure His display of anger was was very intentional and all the more effective because of the peace and calm He wore the vast majority of the time. His anger was effective because its evidence was rare. With Jesus, wisdom comes before anger. Can I say the same about me? Do I let Christian conduct and wisdom help me manage, overcome, or express my anger in healthy ways?

In Mr. Rogers’ song, he sings about how we cope with anger in terms of maturity.

I can stop when I want to

Can stop when I wish.

I can stop, stop, stop any time.

And what a good feeling to feel like this

And know that the feeling is really mine.

Know that there’s something deep inside

That helps us become what we can.

For a girl can be someday a woman

And a boy can be someday a man.

How we deal with angry feelings speaks as much to our spiritual maturity. It’s not inherently wrong to feel anger, and we should never discount those feelings in ourselves and others. (Although it is worth asking myself, at times, if I am getting angry over something that really matters, or if I am letting worldly priorities inform my emotions.) It’s what we do with the anger. Is my response constructive or destructive? Am I furthering Christ’s work with the way I respond to anger, of am I placing stumbling blocks before myself and others? We have a Savior who is slow to anger and quick to love. We have a Savior who chooses grace and mercy over vindictiveness and retribution. Let’s be quick to follow His example, and always remember what Daniel Tiger says – “If you feel so mad that you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four.”

Lessons from Daniel Tiger: Find a Way to Play Together

DanielTiger

In another episode of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, the kids are playing house at preschool when Prince Wednesday storms in roaring. He wants to pretend to be a dinosaur, but the others are worried his roaring will wake the pretend baby. Katarina doesn’t want Wednesday to play with them at all, but Teacher Harriet encourages them to find a way to play together. Prince Wednesday decides to be a quiet dinosaur, and all is right with the world in the Land of Make Believe.

Solutions may not be so easy in the real world, but I sometimes worry that we Christians are too quick to throw up walls when disagreements arise. Whether they are differences over the correct distribution of the Lord’s Supper, times of worship, the number of times we gather on Sundays, which benevolent opportunities to pursue, or even secular issues like politics – we often find it easier to disfellowship than work things out together or simply drop or concede a point of contention. Instead of finding a way to play together, we’re guilty of gathering up our toys and going someplace else. The result is congregations that shrink and swell based largely on whoever is refusing to worship with whom at any given time.

Jesus’ apostles were a diverse group, and they were prone to disagreements. When these arose, however, Jesus did not separate them into different groups. He didn’t cater to the arguments. Instead, He refocused their minds away from their contentions and onto things above. Even when Paul and Barnabas separate ways over a disagreement regarding John Mark, they all eventually end up reunited as a Christian family. Disagreements arise. Some are more legitimate than others, but we cannot view each other as disposable in these times. You are vital to my salvation, and I hope you see me as vital to yours.

You and I may have a lot of differences. We may have different opinions about the age of our world, about environmentalism and humane treatment of animals, on gun control, on immigration, on taxation, on head coverings, on hymns versus praise songs, on any number of things – but those differences cannot and must not define our relationship in Christ. If we’re going to get to Heaven together, then we have to find a way to set our differences aside and get along in this world. We have to find a way to play together.

The Dangerous Assumption

I was reading a church bulletin lately that contained one of those stereotypical articles about a contentious point of doctrine, and it ended with a declaration: “Those who love the Lord will honor His Word!” And it’s one of those phrases that always leaves me a bit uncomfortable. It contains the same dangerous assumption as the oft repeated refrain: “If someone really loves God, then they’ll…” fill in the blank.

Indirect Self-Praise

It boils down to this: “The struggles you have are different or more obvious than mine. Therefore you can’t possibly love God as much as me.” It’s a way we collectively pat ourselves on the back. When we say things like this, the unspoken part is, “I’m doing the right thing, so I’m showing love for God better than this other person.” We aren’t admitting it, but we’re practicing comparative spirituality. I may not be perfect, but at least I’m not worshipping with a piano like some folks I could mention. Isn’t God lucky to have someone like me on His side?

Isn’t this the error Jesus was addressing in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector? Two go up to pray, and the Pharisee prays to himself like this:

God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.

Isn’t the Pharisee comparing the evidences of love between himself and this tax collector he has probably never met before? “I evidently love you because I do these things…unlike some tax collectors I could mention.” We think we’re making the point about God, but it’s not. We’re putting ourselves up front. We’re placing ourselves on a pedestal.

The Conversation Ender

In my head, what comes out of my mouth (or gets typed by my fingers) is measured by this one metric: how would someone outside of Christ respond? If someone who does not believe as I do sits in on a Bible class I’m facilitating or in which I’m participating, what will the words said in that class do to and for them? Will they be brought closer to Christ or driven farther away? Condescending comments divide, and they serve to end a conversation before any meaningful dialogue can occur.

Seriously, try a similar approach with your husband or wife: “You know, if you really loved our children, you’d do the laundry more often.” “You’d get that garage clean if you’re really dedicated to being a good spouse.” How do you think that would go? What about other settings? “If you respect your boss, you will put in more overtime.” “If you love your country, you’ll vote the way I want you to.” In none of these cases do I see the conversation ending well. How can we then think the “If you really love God” line of reasoning will go any better?

Equal Footing

Now, do I believe God has a definite plan laid out for us? Yes. Do I believe that, to be truly pleasing to God, we must follow His blueprint? Of course. Do I believe godly love leads to obedience? Absolutely. But I’m not going to judge your heart based on our disagreements. In your daily life, your love for God may even shine more brightly than mine. I’d ask my fellow Christians to consider doing the same: drop the dangerous assumption that, because someone views God’s will differently than you or me, their love is inferior. That’s one of the mistakes made by the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, and I’d rather us not be guilty of the same fault.

If we see error, yes we should correct, but we should do so with the love and patience we see in the Scriptures. Critical assumptions get in the way of love. They get in the way of patience. We are less forgiving of those upon whom we look down, and we are looking down when we say things like, “If they really loved God,” even if we aren’t admitting it. We’ve all fallen short of God’s expectations. We all need His love. We all need His mercy. We’re all on equal footing before Him. Let’s be sure to treat each other equitably as a result.