Debating the Bible is Good for the Soul

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:

  1.  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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.

 

Civility in the Public Square

trumpBy Joe LaGuardia

Now that another presidential election season is upon us, we need to remember the importance of civility in the public square.  No matter where we stand on a political, social, or cultural issue, God calls us to be kind and respectful.

Civility is a rare commodity during an election year.  We who engage in and listen to political debates are not surprised at all of the mudslinging, vitriol, cliches, platitudes, exaggeration, fear-mongering, hate-speech, haughty speech, ignorance, arrogance, and (as always) proverbial bologna our politicians wield at their disposal.

Christians need not follow their example.  While politicians use polls and consultants to craft words, we must craft our words based on the Bible, the revelation of God’s Word.

There are several lessons in the Bible that relate to civility in the public square.

The first comes from the book of James.  Writing to a community of persecuted Christians, James instructed Christians to value perseverance in the face of hardship and watch their language.  He wasn’t referring to bad words or slang, but speech that was disrespectful and divisive.

A close reading of James posits that a Christian’s manner of speech can shape his or her character.  Like a bridle that guides a horse, a tongue can direct one’s walk with the Lord.  This echoes Jesus, who said that it is not what goes into a person, but what comes out of a person that defiles.

This had something to do with the ancient understanding of biology: The “quality” of what emanates from one’s eyes, mouth, and even ears reflected the condition of one’s soul.  Why else would James start with the tongue in his diatribe on the importance of character in faith formation (see James 3:1-4:12), or Jesus’ references in the Sermon on the Mount to our speech and the affect that eyes have on the entire body  (Matthew 5:22; 6:22)?

For Christians who long to follow in Christ’s footsteps, words indeed matter.

Another lesson can be found in Proverbs:

Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those love it will eat its fruit” Proverbs 18:21.

We can bless or curse others depending on how we say something or express our opinions; but those who use tact and mercy not only bless others but receive a blessing of kindness in return.  Words can be as nourishing as fruit that is shared within community.

When we engage in politics in the public square, we speak as ambassadors of Christ and citizens of the Kingdom of God.  Let us not try to keep one foot in God’s Kingdom and another foot in the world or we, as one theologian put it, will only stumble as a result.

Based on these lessons, here are a few tips to keep in mind this election season:

Keep your speech objective but compassionate.  I have had my share of political debates over the years, and there is nothing more frustrating than when a debate turns personal.  This is one way that the tongue can get out of hand.

Stay focused on issues.  If you find that you are talking about politics with someone, make sure that you speak fairly about issues that matter.  Do not simplify issues into absolutes.

Most, of not all, issues are complex and not as black and white as broadcast media makes them out to be.

Avoid speaking about serious topics on social media.  My general rule is to refrain from expressing divisive opinions on social media because it is hard to discern tone and intent over the internet.  Also, tit-for-tat harangues in status updates, Facebook posts, tweets, and “comment replies” can strain and, in some cases, damage friendships.

If you save your debates for when you are with someone in person, then there will be a greater chance of understanding, compromise, and a clear line of communication between the two of you.

Lastly, remember that you don’t need to express your opinion about everything.  Momma was right: “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Another adage says, “Better for people to think you a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”  Sometimes expressing an opinion is not worth it.

During this election season, allow the Bible’s truths rather than the latest politician’s speech to guide your speech.  It may save a friendship or two, and keep you from the fires of conflict and judgment.

Sowing the Seed of Discord can Hamper the Good News of Christ

I am convinced that debates over Bible interpretation and theological arguments are the most destructive trends in church life.  I would even venture to say that a majority of conflicts throughout Christian history started over differing Bible interpretations.

Take a recent Baptist conflict for example.  It was just last year that the Georgia Baptist Convention withdrew fellowship (in other words, kick out) Druid Hills Baptist Church because Druid Hills has a female pastor.   The year before, the GBC did the same with First Baptist of Decatur, rupturing a relationship 148 years old.

Both communities debated the validity of their biblical call to faithful adherence to scripture.  People were hurt, lives were trampled, denominational relationships were ruptured.

The same can be said about other issues in church history ranging from slavery to homosexuality, alcohol use to infant baptism.  When a debate escalates over who is more “biblical” or “Christian,” then a conversation between friends can quickly devolve into a war among enemies.  It’s what late theologian Letty Russel calls “textual harassment.”

Does this advance the Gospel?  I doubt it; in fact, as a pastor, I hear so many people say that they don’t attend church any longer because they despise how Christians abuse each other with the Bible.   Organized religion, so the thought goes, only leads to violence and conflict.  (A closer look shows that organized religion isn’t so organized after all.)

“There are six things that the Lord hates,” wrote the author of Proverbs, “…A lying witness who testifies falsely, and one who sows discord in a family.”  Perhaps our focus on this text might bring about a conviction that bears testimony to the importance of unity in the Body of Christ.

I once heard of a deacon who was looking to oust his pastor because the deacon believed that the pastor was preaching against, you guessed it, the Bible.

He met with other deacons and Sunday school teachers.  He arranged to have a large group of allies attend the next business meeting to confront the pastor.  In the meeting, he gave a long speech about preaching “according to the Bible.”

Two factions grew out of the conflict, one for and one against the pastor.  People started back-biting and name-calling.  Attendance dwindled, finances became scarce.  The church eventually closed.  Both groups lost their home of worship.

When I heard this heart-wrenching story, all too common in many churches, I was reminded of the parable of the sower.  In the parable, Jesus states that the Word of God is like seed that spreads in all kinds of places, like rocky crags or rich soil.

Some well-intentioned churchgoers, like the deacon mentioned above, believe that when they advocate for what they believe is “biblical,” they are simply spreading seed where it belongs.

It is easy to confuse what we sow, for we may be sowing discord rather than Good News.  And, perhaps we are not the ones sowing seed.

According to Jesus, one of the places that the seed fails to grow is in the midst of a thorny, weed-infested patch of garden.  The seed takes root and grows, Jesus said, but then thorns choke out that plant until it sees better days.

Are we sowing what we beleive to be “God’s Word” when we are so adament about our interpretation, or are we merely the very thorns that choke out healthy, mature plants because we place our ideologies above relationships?

It was Arun Gandhi who once said, “People of the Book risk putting the book above the people.”

And Barbara Brown Taylor writes in Leaving Church, “The whole purpose of the Bible is to convince people to set the written word down in order to become the living words in the world for God’s sake.”*

In a world in which less and less people are willing to visit our churches, hear the Gospel, or even consider Jesus as their personal Savior, we need to get past our inter-church squibbles and put relationships ahead of division, ideology aside for unity.

To read more, see Bill Leonard, “The Bible Tells Me. So?” on http://www.abpnews.com.

Sources:
Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith (San Francisco: Harper, 2006), p. 107.