An excerpt from my message last Sunday (NB: this is from my manuscript, which doesn’t always perfectly match what I actually said):
“But before I get to our passage tonight, I’d like to do something: I’d like to give you a brief step-by-step guide to how to respond maturely and how to respond immaturely to people you disagree with biblically or theologically. Here or anywhere.
And know that this is coming to you confessionally. This is coming from someone who has both been in his share of biblical and theological cage fights, and has failed to do it well too many times, but is trying to do it better. I’ve responded immaturely to people I disagree with, and I’ve responded maturely to people I disagree with, and I’m trying to move myself entirely toward the “mature” side. So, I’m with you in this. As I give this step-by-step guide, I’m recognizing that I need to hear it myself as well. And I apologize in advance for the sarcasm—it’s just how my sense of humor deals with uncomfortable situations.
So, first, how to respond immaturely to someone you disagree with:
Step 1: Get really angry and offended by what was said. That’s always the best place to start if you’re trying to respond immaturely. Get steamed. Get pissed. The madder, the better.
Step 2: Do not—under any circumstances—consult the biblical text to see whether what a person said actually reflects what the Bible really says. That’s just gonna cause problems. So, just decide that it doesn’t fit with what you’ve always assumed the Bible says, or (even better) decide that it just doesn’t fit with what you feel, and then reject it out of hand because it doesn’t work with how you “feel” about things. Whatever you do, do not be like the Bereans, who searched the Scriptures to see if the things Paul said were so.
Step 3: Label the person with a denominational or theological label. Find a label that typically encompasses some of the things that person said, but also includes all kinds of things he or she didn’t say. If you can slap an “–ism,” an “–ist,” an “–ite,” or an “–an” on them (really any good suffix will do) then you’ve successfully marginalized and discredited them, and you’ve won. You’ve won, and the Kingdom will be better for it.
Step 4: Use that label to make assumptions about what else he or she believes, however wrong you might be. Assume that belief A means that he or she also holds belief B, C, and D. And if you can, also assume that if they hold belief A, B, C, and D, they probably also hold them arrogantly, and you can definitely tell some things about their personality, heart, and motives.
Step 5: Do not—again, under any circumstances—take the initiative to enter into a charitable dialogue with him or her about what the biblical text actually says. Instead, just talk with other people about him or her, and then react on the basis of what you’ve together decided about him or her. That sort of response to someone you disagree with will be very, very successful at being incredibly immature, divisive, and petty.
Okay, do you feel spanked? Beause I do. Let’s do better than this.
Now, the other option is the golden rule. The one where Jesus says, “So whatever you wish that others would do in relation to you, do also to them.” Here’s what it looks like. Here’s how to respond maturely, and in rhythm with the Golden Rule, to someone you disagree with:
Step 1: Don’t get angry—get engaged. Don’t jump to, “I just don’t care.” “I don’t care” is almost as bad an initial response as getting angry, because if the Bible is saying something then it’s because God cares about it. So, get engaged and make a note of your thoughts, reflections, questions, points of agreement, and points of potential disagreement.
Step 2: Do consult the biblical text to see whether what the person said reflects what the Bible really says. If it is what the Bible really says, then change your mind! No matter how you happen to “feel” about it. God’s right, your feelings are wrong. End of discussion. It if doesn’t fit, or if you’re not sure that it fits, move on to steps 3, 4, and 5.
Step 3: Refuse to slap a label on people because you recognize that most of the time labels are very unhelpful and stereotyping and they’re too broad. Pulling out labels is like both sides pulling out nuclear weapons—there aren’t gonna be any winners at that point. Just a big angry mess.
Step 4: Refuse to make assumptions about what else the person believes or what that person is like, if you haven’t talked to them about it. Refuse to assume that belief A necessarily leads to belief B necessarily leads to belief C, and “the people who believe those things are like this.” Instead, talk. Talk with them. That’s one I’ve had to learn from hard, embarrassing, foot-in-my-mouth experience. Just take my word for it.
Step 5 (and this is the best step. I love this step.): Enjoy a charitable, benevolent conversation with the person about what the biblical text really says, refusing to engage in character or theological assassination behind his or her back, but rather enjoying the creative experience of theology and biblical learning done in the context of conversation and community.
That’s why I so enjoyed [last week’s] conversations. Not because everyone in the conversation necessarily ended up agreeing—because not everyone did. And that’s not the point. But those conversations were so enjoyable because we had the conversation in the context of love and community.