By Joe LaGuardia
In a sermon on Genesis, the Reverend Lillian Daniel told of an Israeli program that required rabbis to study the Torah in groups and learn how to debate its meaning. Debate was not something to avoid, but significant because, as the theory goes, sacred scripture is too sacred not to debate. Like weighty family matters that require push-and-pull negotiation, these rabbis are forced to negotiate a text that is often more dangerous than delicate.
We American Christians seem to do the opposite and avoid debate at all costs. We do not want to seem pushy, mean, or antagonizing. We do not want to offend, and we tend to spend more time with people that agree with us than those who cause discomfort because we can’t get along.
Our churches tend to instill this in us, and debates are few and far between in congregations for several reasons:
- We have the mistaken view that the pastor has all of the answers. We do not want to confront or contradict our spiritual leaders–they’ve been trained in this stuff, after all–and we do not want to offend their sensibilities or insult their intelligence. Its easier to go along with the crowd, keep quite, or do what most Christians do, simply migrate from church to church.
- We do not want to sow a “seed of discord,” and people confuse differences of opinion or theological beliefs with disunity. If we all agree that scripture is sacred, regardless of some conclusions we draw about the text, then our debates are not the same as discord. It is our scheming, disrespect, and distrust of one another that are the real culprits behind church splits.
- We make debates synonymous with hostility. Given what we see in politics and on television, this is no surprise. We believe that if there is a debate to be had, then we better dig in our heals and make it personal. We do not know how to have a civil conversation in which disagreements occur because we think that differences of opinion lead to sundered friendships.
- We think we are right, so debates are a waste of time. If you think you know it all and God is on your side, and you see every debate as a competition to win, then, yeah, you will not be very fun to debate. I have met many people who think this, and they often confuse being right with being a jerk, and no one likes a jerk.
- We believe that it is somehow a sin to change our minds. From the time of Adam and Eve, we humans have been trying to play God. Since much of our Christian theology rests on the belief that God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, then we assume that we have to be unchanging too. What if you read something that goes against your knowledge, and you change your mind about something? We have made transformation and conversion into weakness and lack of conviction. If we refuse to change our minds, then why even study the Bible at all?
As a minister that has served Christ’s Church for over two decades, I believe that a little bit of healthy debate would go a long way. The most significant issue, however, is that–even given the opportunity–we do not know how to debate. We do not know how to draw boundaries, de-escalate rifts, untangle theological convictions from threats of excommunication. We mistreat God’s Word by either sanitizing our conversation or avoiding deeply held beliefs and issues that we may actually need to revise or jettison altogether.
We’d rather stick with our tribes, relegate ourselves to like-minded niches, go to churches that preach and pray according to our preferences. We stop growing as disciples and merely become echo chambers of our own making. We don’t seek each other for new information, we watch the nightly news, which ends up shaping our theology more than the Good News of Jesus shapes our theology.
Here are a few tips that might bring back the spiritual discipline of debate. If anyone has any testimonies about any of these, I encourage you to comment below:
- Make space for conversation about the Sunday sermon in a well-facilitated environment. Some churches no longer meet on Sunday evenings, but this would actually be a good time for pastors to meet with parishioners in a study group to go deeper, build off of the sermon, and invite conversation in which differences are examined and even celebrated.
- Set boundaries in Sunday School classes or Bible study groups that help people present alternative arguments or opinions about the scriptures being studied, while learning how to hear opposing viewpoints. Getting to a place where people do not feel the need to have the final word might be a healthy goal!
- Set a goal for debates. Agree that when you reach a certain time or achieve a certain goal, you and your friend(s) will cease and desist in talking about the Bible. Go get some coffee and share something else in common. Go bowling, complain about your spouses, go for a hike, go birding. The sum of our belief in Christ is more than our ability to have an opinion about the Bible–we need to get out of the church and do things together, to learn what makes us who we are as individuals.
Take it from the rabbis: In a polarized world, we cannot afford to talk past each other or avoid each other. We need to strike a balance–the Bible is too valuable to avoid debate. Let’s get into it, let’s discover where we stand, and let’s move–together–closer to the God who exists above and beyond all our opinions, arguments, and beliefs. We are to be conformed to Christ, not the notions married to our limited knowledge.