While re-reading The Pilgrim Church by E.H. Broadbent, I was frankly appalled by the vicious cruelty meted out to Christians by other Christians. All throughout history believers have acted like the world, or worse, when confronted by those that do not believe exactly as they do. The result? A horrible, bloody stain on the testimony of Christ in the world.
And while we may not still be burning one another at the stake, or sending armies in to wipe out towns and villages of simple believers, my personal experience is that there can still be a spirit of fearful animosity and vindictiveness working slightly below the surface of our strained civility.
Past failures among brethren are not forgiven, creating rifts of unhealed wounds. Attention gets focused on the minutia of personal shortcomings and weaknesses that will justify shaming and blaming. Being 'right' supercedes loving one another, as we rally supporters to our cause. And when it comes to doctrine and interpretation of scripture, we take refuge behind the walls of the familiar and comfortable while casting stones at the different point of view.
The consequences are illuminated by a quote from Anthony Norris Groves when he wrote to J. N. Darby about Darby's devastatingly divisive teaching and influence regarding the grounds for accepting believers into fellowship. Groves wrote, "...you will be known more by what you witness against than what you witness for, and practically this will prove that you witness against all but yourselves..." (Emphasis mine.)
So the question becomes, "What is our default response to being confronted by the unfamiliar, different or even blatant error? Are we inclined to duel, debate or discuss?"
If we are duelers, one thing's for sure -- only one of us is coming out alive! In a duel, we chose our weapons with the intent to inflict a mortal wound. We are so threatened or humiliated by what the other has done or said, that conciliation, accommodation or acceptance is unthinkable. We cannot conceive of any other way of regaining our "dignity" than to exterminate the offender. And in this day of social media, the potential to fire round after deadly round at each other is unprecedented. The result of someone being "dead right" is that someone else ends up dead!
An alternative to a duel is a debate. According to one definition, "Debate is, above all, a way for those who hold opposing views to discuss controversial issues without descending to insult, emotional appeals or personal bias. A key trademark of debate is that it rarely ends in agreement, but rather allows for a robust analysis of the question at hand. In debates, the tone may be more civil and the exchanges more content-rich, but the emphasis is on winning, rather than understanding."
Debate sounds much more "christian", doesn't it? But the fact remains that while we may be more restrained and civil with one another in our tone and/or actions, the goal is still to "win." We are not interested in listening, understanding and contributing to the conversation on the subject in question. Rather, we want to get our point(s) across as forcefully and effectually as possible with the aim of overwhelming and subduing our opponent.
While we may "win" the argument, how many times does this result in winning the person? What is the possibility that they will ever want to engage with us again on any topic of significance? How has this approached furthered a "kingdom conversation" between us?
A final option is discussion. To me, there are far too few real discussions among brethren. Mostly we have veiled duels or debates, primarily driven by the way we naturally deal with uncertainty, 'opposition' or challenge. Generally speaking when we are challenged we either get aggressive, seek to flee or we freeze. I know I have been guilty of all three responses. There have been the times when I have lashed out in an effort to 'protect' myself. Other times I have beaten a hasty retreat from painful or challenging situations. And then there are the times I have stood there in tongue-tied silence, unable to put two coherent thoughts together.
None of my natural responses have resulted in an increase in understanding, love or unity. And they have certainly not resulted in a discussion!
Discussion, is based on an entirely different set of values than duels or debates. For me discussion involves:
Esteeming you as more excellent than myself. In a duel or debate it is possible, and sometimes needful, to have a feeling of disdain or contempt for your opponent. After all, since all you are looking for is to win, what does it matter how it affects the relationship in the future. If however, we engage one another on the foundation of mutual respect, love and care in Christ, it is difficult to be satisfied with a broken relationship as the price for being 'right'. My esteem (respect, admiration,regard) for you opens my ears, heart and mind to what you have to say. And at the end of the day, I am much more committed to maintaining a relationship with you then changing your mind or convincing you of my point of view. After all, if I esteem you highly in the Lord, there is little reason to be threatened by what we may not agree on. I know that our discussion is not a personal assault, it is a genuine inquiry and exchange of thoughts and ideas.
Using questions to open doors that statements slam shut. How many times have you been discussing something with someone and begin to realize that they are not at all interested in what you are saying. They are just waiting for you to pause long enough to make a statement. Doesn't it make you feel like you just crossed over from a discussion into a debate? Very often statements, especially when they are layered one upon another, are discussion killers. They shut the door to further inquiry because they often represent, or try to represent, the last word on the subject. In contrast, questions open doors of inquiry, discovery and understanding. Coupling a statement with a question keeps the discussion moving on -- it helps me express my thoughts on the topic while soliciting your thoughts as well.
Being an active listener and learner. This goes back to the idea of esteeming one another in the Lord and having a genuine interest in what the other persons thinks and believes. And it also involves being humble enough to learn from one another. If I am really interested in your thoughts and perspectives, than I am not going to be rejecting what you have to say out of hand. I'm going to be an engaged and attentive listener, carefully considering what you have to say and opening my heart and mind to what I can learn from the discussion. I think this is one of the really important aspects about discussion -- (in contrast to duels and debates) -- it is more about what I can learn than what I can teach!
Learning to be comfortable with the tension that comes from the unresolved. Sometimes we can't come to a conclusion or consensus about what we are discussing. Sometimes we just have to agree to disagree for the moment, with the expectation that we might continue the discussion in the future. If we let it, this lack of resolution can lead to a very uncomfortable tension in our relationship. If we go away questioning how we are perceived by that other person, of wondering if they are going repeat the conversation to others in an unflattering or derogatory way, it can cause a major breach in our relationship. Learning that tension does not have to equal division is a key to continuing a discussion.
Doing everything I can to maintain unity. What can prevent the possibility of a discussion damaging our relationships with one another? First and foremost, don't say goodbye without affirming your genuine love and respect for one another. And if suspicions and divisive thoughts start to intrude later? Get together and make sure things are good between you. And by good, I mean there is no hidden friction, resentment or bitterness toward one another. This involves a willingness to be open, honest and vulnerable with each other. I need to be able to say to you that I am concerned about how you might have been affected by what I said or how I said it. I need you to be willing to say to me that my continuous torrent of statements made you feel like you were standing under a waterfall, getting pounded. And we need to be able to confess our faults to one another, forgive one another and grow together as a result of it. In other words, we need to continue to build relationships of love and trust on the foundation of our oneness in Christ. If we do that, every discussion we have becomes an opportunity to grow up into Christ and to move forward together in our journey as Jesus followers -- even if we may disagree on something!
We will inevitably be confronted by differences and the different in our journey with Christ. Hopefully we will learn the art of discussing these things with one another rather than dueling or debating.