Conversation is one of the most sacred and important experiences of Christian life. Most of us learn through conversation and debate—bouncing ideas off of one another and receiving challenging questions or pushback.
In the age of social media, chances are high that you will encounter heated theological debates on Facebook, Twitter, or in the comment section of an article such as this. For those of us who enjoy engaging in the battle of the minds, particularly in hot-button spiritual and ethical debates, here are a few tactics to avoid:
1. The “H” Word
Prominent Christians have been slinging this 7-letter word around for centuries. Defining someone as a “heretic” is now something of a sport. Luckily, burning them at the stake is no longer acceptable.
Usually, the “H Word” is little more than an attempt to discredit another person rather than their actual belief. Many modern “heresies” have been promoted by some of our most beloved theologians (for instance, these 6 fellows). The few people aware of our theological heroes’ heresies can agree to disagree; “heresy” only matters if it is espoused by easy targets.
Technically, heresy is any belief contrary to the teaching of the Church. Here’s where things get sticky: which church? If by “church” we mean the largest and most historical group of Christians, that would be the Roman Catholic Church. So, every Protestant is a heretic. If we mean “Orthodox Protestantism,” then the term becomes even more confusing. Protestantism has no collective doctrinal agreement. Between creedal and non-creedal denominations, very few things can be described as “generally accepted doctrines.” Even the things on which everyone agrees have a wide variety of different interpretations, all of which are held by people committed to following Christ.
Since pinning down the definition of “heresy” is so difficult, throwing that term into a conversation is extremely disruptive both to the conversation as well as our relationships to the people with whom we converse (which should be more important).
We like to label others and separate them into neatly organized categories. However, defining people by categories is dehumanizing (and usually inaccurate). It’s easier to attack a category than a person. If we want real conversations, then we have to view our conversation partners as people. This means greatly limiting our use of contentious categories such as “Liberal” and “Fundamentalist.”
The word “Liberal” is not a catchall term for anyone who rejects traditional beliefs. Likewise, a “Fundamentalist” is not just a person with a strict view of sin. Fundamentalism also has a real, historical meaning and should not be used as a knife to jab into theological opponents.
3. Insulting in the Name of Love
It is not uncommon during a debate about theology to hear from well-meaning people, “I say this out of love…” or “I am concerned for you…” or “I just pray that you’ll see the truth…” followed by a thinly veiled insult to the other person’s faith—a passionate plea for the person to stop thinking differently so they can escape the fires of Hell.
Such appeals to “love” are deeply manipulative since they attempt to make people feel guilty for disagreeing.
According to Jesus, truth is freeing, not suppressive. Declaring our own opinion or interpretation as “truth,” then using that to guilt others into submission is a sure way to kill a conversation.
True love leads us to see that our loved ones are usually not “rebelling,” but are doing the rarely performed task of asking tough questions and searching for truth. Even where our loved ones are wrong we should cheer them on in their quest, challenging and provoking them to dig deeper. Where correction is needed, true love leads us to do it with humility and grace. After all, we are all unknowingly wrong about something.
4. “The Bible Clearly Says…”
Appealing to the clarity of the Bible is perhaps the most passive-aggressive and condescending ways to shut down a conversation.
The whole point of theological debate is that one side believes a subject is either not clear, or that it clearly means something else. For some, the Bible clearly prohibits women from ministry. For others, the Bible clearly allows it. The actual clarity of the Bible is irrelevant since it is filtered through each of our interpretive lenses.
Asserting that something is “clear” in the face of a conversation partner is belittling because it implies that she or he is either too stupid to understand or is not holy enough to follow the Spirit’s guidance.
“Fear-mongering” describes those attempts to scare opponents or rally supporters. An all-too-common example is the “slippery slope” fallacy, in which the Gospel is declared to be “at stake” over non-essential issues.
It goes something like this: If evolution is true, God is a liar. If God is a liar, we can’t trust the Bible. If we can’t trust the Bible, we can’t believe in the resurrection. If Jesus wasn’t resurrected, we are all wasting our time and might as well be atheists! Some Christian schools even teach that belief in evolution leads to school shootings, AIDS, and the holocaust!
Of course, this is an extreme example. Often, however, conversations get shut down because one’s belief is considered to be an “attack on the Gospel” because it might lead to something else.
If we have to instill fear in people in order to make them toe the theological line, then we are not doing so out of love. Perfect love casts out fear.
Not every instance of these tactics is meant to shut down conversation. We should, however, be careful with our words. We should seek to build up and not tear down, to live—and converse—peaceably with all people, even those with whom we disagree.
Perhaps this article is best summed up in that cliché admonition we heard so often as children: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”