I get something of my tendency to debate from my grandfather, name a time and place and I’m usually there arguing for one side or the other. We even had to make a rule to cut off all debates at ten, lest the debate went on well past midnight as it had on one occasion.
To a degree, debates are about winning the respect of others or at the very least, not losing any respect. It’s very much an honor/shame dynamic to it when you consider how it relates to examples from Scripture, including every interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees and teachers of the law who were always trying to win debates against him.
But there’s something patently annoying about getting into Christian debates where somebody wanders into the discussion and shuts down the debate. They might even quote Titus 3:9, “but avoid foolish controversies and … arguments and quarrels … because these are unprofitable and useless” or Romans 14:1, “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.”
“Let’s agree to disagree and leave it at that.” Some might say.
I get it – there are theological positions that don’t ever get resolved. We can take sides and argue about them indefinitely. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t debate each other anyway. Take slavery, for example. Christianity could have ‘agreed to disagree’ – it could have let every denomination divide itself into for-slavery churches and against-slavery churches. Every time the topic came up in a conversation, somebody could quote from scripture – “we ought to avoid controversies, arguments, and quarrels” and then just go back to talking about God’s grace and mercy and justice and forgiveness – the sorts of things everyone can agree on. If we did that, we might still be a few decades behind the times.
The trick is to figure out which debates are debates worth debating. For me, the question is this: “Does this teaching have the potential to do harm?” I don’t believe that we should just “agree to disagree” when a teaching opens the door for people to act in ways that harm others and even themselves.
Sometimes it feels like this – after a hard day at work, I take a seat at my usual place at the bar. I pull out a twenty, expecting a couple of shots. “Just keep them coming.” I say. But the barkeep cuts me off – at one. So many comments I see are just like that: “Hi. Thanks for commenting. You’re wrong. Let’s agree to disagree. Bye.” Leaving another comment tends to get this response: “Um, hi. I’m pretty sure I made my position clear. Goodbye.” A third can provoke a frustrated reply like: “I don’t know why you’re still here. I don’t want to talk to you about this anymore. When I said ‘bye’ I meant it. Please stop speaking to me.”
Look – if you want to discuss the merits of your favorite kind of dessert being superior to all other forms of dessert, that’s fine – I’m not the sort to debate that (though you really should try gluten-free chocolate chip brownies if you haven’t yet as it’s unbeatable). But if you’re talking about a Christian teaching that harms my brothers and sisters so much so that they flee Christianity in droves then what you say needs to be debated particularly when your comments justify or are the very same attitudes that people are fleeing from when they are acted upon or carried out literally. If you’re going to talk about certain subjects, then you should expect to get caught up in a debate or two. You should have to defend your freedom to marginalize others in the name of your teaching. I guess it’s possible you might not know that your teaching does that – perhaps it’s something that’s exceedingly wonderful for you because it’s written to match who you are. Can you step outside of your own context for a moment and consider the implications of your teaching on people who aren’t just like you?
I don’t think I can ‘agree to disagree’ when this topic of conversation has so much on the line – the well-being of pretty much everyone. Christianity’s teachings are that powerful. Our collective effort can move mountains of toys at Christmas-time … it happens every year. But our collective effort can be twisted into and unrecognizable monster … it happened when Hitler tried to co-opt Christianity to further solidify his power. It happens whenever politics take root in Christian belief and divert it’s resources from the gospel mission to the candidate’s platform.
Bad teachings can have unexpected results when they are carried out to their logical conclusion. I’ve seen it happen to me – like the umpteen times I thought I had missed the Rapture when I was home alone or when I justify not helping people in need because that’s entitlement and it’ll just encourage them to keep on showing up for handouts.
Sometimes it’s an image thing. We don’t want to make Christianity look bad – as if we’re all at each others’ throats. The thing is – I’m pretty sure the whole world and the internet already knows that we can’t agree on anything, ever. From the very beginning we’ve been taking sides and debating what we believe. It would be more dishonest to try to hide the fact that arguing is our favorite past time. How odd it would be for a new believer to see our united front as long as it takes to get him or her to agree to baptism to drop the pretense at that moment – to demand that they choose sides here on out for everything.
These days, technology both helps us and hurts us in this way. It can be used to selectively control the conversation – who can comment and who cannot. Which comments are displayed and which ones won’t be. Which comments are unedited and which ones are altered. Sometimes this power is misused to keep the conversation from going out of control. Like the moderator of a debate – only far more selective and much less fair about what they do. The power to quell dissent can often be difficult to resist. Still, the more the younger generation exists online – the less they’ll be impressed by bloggers who automatically label people with different opinions as trolls and the more skeptical they will become of Christianity’s message if it’s so fragile it can’t take a few questions and won’t stand up to debate. If we refuse to take questions seriously, how can we claim to have all the answers?