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Archives for 122 – Judgment-Free Disagreements

Jesus and PhariseesA few days ago, Matthew Morine published an article in the September issue of the Gospel Advocate about the role of women: “The Feminist Agenda Within the Churches of Christ.” Mike Cope has posted a response in Wineskins: “Judgment Free Disagreements: A Response to Matthew Morine.”

I appreciate Matthew’s and the Advocate‘s willingness to post Matthew’s article on the Internet so that anyone may read the article and consider Matthew’s article for himself. I encourage the reader to read both articles in full.

Now, I have a soft spot in my heart for Matthew, because he was among the earliest readers to regularly comment on my blog One In Jesus back when it was new, and I was just hoping that someone — anyone — would read my writings. I’ve enjoyed exchanging barbs with Matthew about SEC football. I’m an Alabama fan. Matthew pulls for the Volunteers of Tennessee (bless his heart). I actually know Matthew much better than I know Mike.

I’m also quite fond of Greg Tidwell, the editor of the Gospel Advocate. I’ve corresponded with him ever since we worked together on the GraceConversation dialogue. I believe he improved the quality of the Gospel Advocate in many ways.

Nonetheless, I believe Mike has correctly criticized the tone of Matthew’s article. And yet I’m sure many readers have wondered what’s so wrong with calling your opponents “hypocrites” or saying things such as —

– “Instead of following the plain teachings of the Word of God”

– “This disregard for the intent of the word of the Scriptures”

– “The feelings of those promoting women into leadership are fickle”

– “Hidden forces are at work seeking to corrupt your congregation and lead it into an unfaithful direction”

After all, a reader might wonder, Jesus said similarly harsh things about his opponents, and shouldn’t we follow his example?  Read more »

discussionI want to speak into a lot of the hurt that I see going on out there in Christian conversation because I believe there is a better way. It must start with a humble recognition of our own fraility and imperfection and then move toward an attempt to truly understand another person. So here goes…

I am not interested in back biting, point scoring, mud slinging, base frenzying diatribe. I really want to have a discussion. I am not interested in hurting you, downing you, or judging you. I am interested in what you have to say. Yes, I really want a discussion. Let’s talk.

I want to understand where you are coming from. That means I don’t try to guess where you are coming from. I won’t try to read your mind, make things up or say you said things you didn’t say. No. I want to have a respectful conversation where two people are really trying to understand each other. Is that too much to ask? That means I am devoted to listen. I am dedicated to asking questions when I don’t understand something you said or wrote and seek clarity through you explaining your own thoughts and beliefs rather than me telling you what they are as if I know your heart and mind better than you do. I am more interested in understanding you than hearing “amen” from my friends. I am more interested in what you have to say than I am making friends or enemies on this side or that. I am tired of discussing theological topics in worldly ways and with worldly attitudes…yes, I have done that. Repeatedly. I repent of it and promise to do my best to not do that to you either. Let’s talk.

Why do I want this? I don’t want it because I have to be right. I don’t want this to prove my superiority. No. I rebuke those temptations and cast them far away and so should you. I want this because I love you. We listen to those we love. We tear down, destroy and disparage those who hate. There is no room for such things among the children of God…among spiritual siblings. Let’s talk.

Yes, I really want a discussion because I really do care about you…you are precious. You are special to God why wouldn’t you be special to me?

You know what else I care about? I care about the truth. I believe in truth. I believe God’s word is truth…now just because we disagree doesn’t mean you are automatically honest and I am automatically dishonest or the other way around either. Just because we disagree doesn’t mean that you care about scripture and I don’t or the other way around either. The truth is I don’t know your motivation and you don’t know mine so let’s not pretend like we do. The only way we are ever going to engage in a meaningful conversation is if we start with a love for each other. That means we will pray for each other. I am committed to praying for anyone I have a theological discussion with. I am committed to loving them even if they hurt me. I am committed to apologizing to them when I can tell I have hurt them or I have said something I shouldn’t have. Sorry is rare in these discussions and that is a shameful reflection on the state of Christianity. I am committed to you because God is committed to you and because I love you. That also means we must be devoted to actually understanding each other and that takes time and intentional listening…not listening to score a point, build our defense, or find a way to win but truly, respectfully listening to understand another person. Love requires it.

Let’s talk.

PS – The only reason I know this in any way, shape or form is because I have lived it out on both sides and I know the damage we do when we don’t love and respect each other. I do not intend this to be a reflection on anyone in particular except for myself in those things that I have confessed above. Thank you for being patient with me.

photo-1417733403748-83bbc7c05140It has been less than a week since a shooter killed college students at a community college in Oregon. Already I’ve seen not only numerous posts on social media about both gun control and gun rights, but also numerous posts about the inability of social media debates to affect any positive change. The argument is that we should leave such issues off of social media altogether, that we should limit ourselves to in-person conversations about divisive topics, because social media itself won’t allow conversations, only division and diatribe.

We’ve Always been Divided

To assert that somehow the widespread use of the internet has created divisions among us is to be ignorant of the past. Not long after the invention of the printing press, the medium was turned toward salacious gossip and vitriolic attacks. Even in the United States, over three centuries after the invention of the printing press, print was used to defame, attack, and undermine. About the sitting President, John Adams, one paper wrote that he was a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”1 That paper happened to be bankrolled by his opponent one Thomas Jefferson.

Within the tradition of the Churches of Christ, print has treated us no better. The bitter disputes between various parties and factions played out on the public stage of periodicals such as The Gospel Advocate, and The Millennial Harbinger. None of that was caused by the internet, nor social media, but by the people involved in the debates.

However, it would be disingenuous to use two examples to characterize the entirety of print dialog as unhelpful. Despite the attacks, lies, and mischaracterizations that occurred in print, we have been able to sort through the piles of text to move forward, to have a conversation, and to make a difference.

Things are Getting Better

Despite how it might seem — and how the world might be portrayed in the media — things are getting better. Around the world and in the United States there is less poverty, less disease, and less violence that at any time in human history.2

The first president of the United States led nearly 13,000 troops — personally — to put down a rebellion.3 In the post Civil War era (not even mentioning the fact that we fought a war against each other), there were nearly 4,000 African-Americans lynched.4 Today we’re fighting over what amounts to far fewer deaths, far less rebellion, and far less division. We’ve made progress. We’ve reduced violence and poverty, we’ve changed the terrain of race and gender inequality, we’ve done so much (though there is still much more to do).

Within the Churches of Christ we have made additional strides, we are more racially integrated, more gender inclusive, less condemning, and less isolationist.

We didn’t make this progress despite the use of the printing press, but because of it. We learned about other views, other ideas, and other cultures. We argued, we fought, and we discussed. We learned and grew together through letters to the editor, opinion columns, books, and articles that defined the debate and moved us forward. The movement was slow. It took years and decades to make perceptible progress, but that progress has been made. Things got better. Things can continue to get better.

New-ish Technology and Our Brains

Our brains are plastic. No, I don’t mean that the stuff in our heads is made of the material we call plastic, but that the attribute of plasticity — or ability to change — is a part of our neural makeup. You may have heard that things are hard-wired into people’s personalities. That’s just not true.

Our brains don’t work like computers, they work more like paths through a field. The first trail is blazed by someone knocking down the grass and brush. As more people walk down the path it becomes worn in. If enough people walk on it, the grass and plants will die, the earth will pack hard, and, eventually, someone might pave it over. But all it takes to start a new path is someone willing to blaze a new trail and the process can start all over again.

The internet started being used by a significant number of people around twenty years ago. On the scale of human technology that’s an incredibly short amount of time, but we’re already seeing the effects on our brains. As we use technology, we’re walking down a path in a field, and the more we use it, the more defined that path gets. Things like the internet and social media create pathways in our brains that can be reinforced or abandoned based on the amount we use them.

We are responsible for the way that social media affects us, not the other way around. We can choose which neural pathways to reinforce and which to abandon. And, through our examples, we can help others to make similar choices.

A Cowardly New World

It’s easy enough to sit behind a keyboard (yes I get the irony of what I’m writing) and fire off words into the ether. The internet is more responsive and more reactionary than the printing press could ever be. The best we were able to do with print media is to get stories out via a newspaper within a day or so. Today we can get stories within minutes and begin reacting to those stories while the events are still going on. That means our responses are coming from our initial emotional reactions. We’re often not taking time to stop and think through something before we respond. I’ve done this. I’m sure you have too. I’ll see something about something and disagree, angrily. My fingers are moving on the keyboard before my brain has the chance to engage. The other person is… (fill in the blank with whatever attack you normally come up with).

When we don’t have to see someone, when we don’t have to recognize that they are a human being made in the image of God and beloved by him, we can say things that we wouldn’t otherwise say. That’s not the fault of social media, it’s the fault of the people using social media.

I am a coward. I have fired off hateful, hurtful words to the neighbors and enemies that Jesus told me to love. Not because I was, in that moment, intentionally rejecting the command of Jesus to love them, but because I was ignoring the fact that they are my neighbors and enemies, they are people. If I were to stand face to face with someone who thinks differently than I do about gun control or gay marriage or abortion, if I had to look them in the eye and disagree with them in person, I wouldn’t dare say such things. I wouldn’t dare because I would be, quite literally, face-to-face with their humanity.

Neighbors and Enemies

I believe that we cannot abrogate our role in this world by either allowing our debates to devolve into attacks or by disengaging from these vital conversations altogether. Those are the binary options that many people represent. Either we give up on engaging in meaningful dialog through social media, or we will become embroiled in endless arguments with no resolution. Every time Jesus was offered a binary option, he offered another way. We can be engaged in social media, but not enamored by the methods of social media. We can be in the world but not of it.5

When you’re tempted to fight back, stop. Take a moment. Imagine the person to whom you’re responding. Imagine their family, their smile, and their friends. Remember that they are made in God’s image.

When you’re tempted to check out, stop. Take a moment. Imagine a world without the light and love of Jesus. Imagine if Christians had stopped engaging in the debate about slavery or racism. Remember that though change is slow, it is happening.

Remember that we are commanded, as followers of Christ, to love our neighbors and our enemies. That doesn’t mean we stop disagreeing, it doesn’t mean we give up, it means we refuse to stop engaging the important issues and we refuse to stop loving the people on either side of those issues.

A husband and wife come in for marriage counseling. Things are falling apart. They should have come in long ago but here they are and things don’t look good. She never apologizes. He always gets what he wants. She doesn’t feel like he cares about her. He never tells her that he loves her.   That isn’t anything new. He was never big on words from the beginning. He doesn’t feel very respected. She constantly brings up things from the past, expects him to read her mind, and berates him constantly. That’s what they are telling the counselor anyway. They are talking past each other, over each other…no one is listening, except the counselor.

What she hears is that they are hurt. It is a vicious cycle that must be broken but they just don’t know how. If they keep doing what they have been doing things aren’t going to get any better. At first they were too proud to see a marriage counselor but things have gotten so bad that they know if they don’t do something soon they will get a divorce. Where do they go from here?

John Gottman, who is a long time researcher on marital stability has written extensively on marriage and predicting divorce. One of his findings is that by examining the way a couple argues he can predict whether or not they will get a divorce with 91% accuracy. If you want to read a more lengthy summary of his findings you can read it or download it via this pdf. Here are his predictive factors:

1 – A Harsh Startup: “96% of the time the way a discussion begins can predict the way it will end.”

2 – The Four Horsemen: These are criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling (read the article for further description of these four things and things escalate)

3 – Flooding: This is when the negativity hits extreme levels that makes the other person shut down, withdraw or entrench further into their position.

4 – Body Language: This is when your body physically reacts to the emotions you are experiencing, making a productive conversation even more difficult to happen.

5 – Failed Repair attempts: Someone finally tries to reconcile but the other party won’t participate.

6 – Bad Memories: This is an inaccurate memory of the past, assuming things have always been this bad. Once the past can no longer be remembered for what it was (recognizing the good things that happened) things are in real trouble.

This is all about a marriage relationship but I think these same principles apply in how we argue as Christians. The way we talk with each other is important. I see these warning signs flashing all over Christian conversations…it should alarm us. This is not healthy. People are talking past each other, reading each other’s minds, implying motives of each other’s actions where we have no real knowledge it is true.

We need some counseling in order to save the relationships we have in Christ. I don’t claim to be that counselor but I know someone who can guide us into having this discussion well and that is Jesus. There were times Jesus was critical of others. There were times he escalated the conversation. There were times, I am sure, his body language was less than gentle. But, this was not how Jesus was generally speaking and Jesus was always interested in reconciling with people and people with God. Jesus had a way of disarming people, not making them defensive. Those who were defensive around Jesus had other issues going on.

Let us be aware of the warning signs that our conversations and relationships with others are in danger. Pay attention. Be willing not to point these things out in others…that is the temptation is to think he is the problem or she is the problem. No. They may be but you can’t do anything about that. All you can do is recognize these same tendencies, behaviors and attitudes in your own life, ministry, conversations and relationships and do your best to rid yourself of them. So don’t assume it is the “other side” that has the problem. It is rarely the case that the problem rests on only one side of a relationship and that is true in theological discussions as well.

Let us deal with each other believing these relationships are worth saving, maintaining and growing because they are. Let us not allow labels to get in between us and other Christians. Let us not perpetuate stereotypes but deal with real people in real time in Christ-like, God-honoring ways.

So let’s discuss how we discuss things. Until we do that we will keep running in circles in the downward spiral of failed Christian relationships. No one wants that so why do we keep perpetuating it? As with a difficult marriage, someone is going to have to instigate a better approach. I hope we can start that conversation now. Maybe the first words that need to come out of our mouths are, “I am sorry.”

If you have a moment, read the rest of the summary of Gottman’s findings, it will shed a lot more light on how we discuss things and I think you will find it beneficial for this discussion but also for any relationship you have. Here is that link again.

MikeCopeMany years ago, I got to be part of a small group of ministers who spent a few days with one of my ministry heroes, John Stott. During one session, Stott asked people what their current ministry challenges were. Someone began talking about the challenges they were facing in their religious tribe and in his church in particular as they began including women in all roles of ministry.

A megachurch pastor broke in: “I’d like to know why anyone thinks it’s all right to twist the word of God just so they can please culture!”

Stott turned to him and kindly said, “I think what you meant to say is this: ‘I would love to know more about how this brother who loves Jesus and scripture as much as I do could come to such different conclusions on this issue.’”

In the most recent edition of the Gospel Advocate, Matthew Morine has written an article entitled “The Feminist Agenda Within the Churches of Christ.”

Matthew is an effective minister at the Castle Rock Church of Christ in Colorado. He is a gifted, devoted Christ-follower who is passionate about his faith. You can read the full article either in the Gospel Advocate or at this link.

Matthew has expressed dismay that he has received “a lot of hate” from “the progressive side of the church” in response to the article. I hope that isn’t the case. I certainly haven’t seen anything online (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) that was hateful. There were strong reactions, though the strongest seemed to come from people outside Churches of Christ.

However, it isn’t surprising to me that some have felt the need to respond—especially given the tone of the article. Here is how the author characterizes those he writes about:

– “Instead of following the plain teachings of the Word of God”

– “This disregard for the intent of the word of the Scriptures”

– “The feelings of those promoting women into leadership are fickle”

– “Hidden forces are at work seeking to corrupt your congregation and lead it into an unfaithful direction”

Perhaps the most provocative claim is that those wanting change are hypocrites: “The church leaders appealing for unbiblical expansion for women’s roles are being hypocrites.” One piece of evidence he cites is that most of the preachers in the more inclusive churches are male. But does that prove that these leaders are hypocrites? I think perhaps all it proves is that they are not the Popes of their churches. The fact that many are in congregations that are less inclusive than they believe those churches should be isn’t a sign of hypocrisy.

He also cites the hypocrisy of Pepperdine’s “Next Gen Preacher Search.” While this isn’t my project, it does come out of my office at Pepperdine, led by Jeff Walling. “Also, if you noticed the ‘Next Gen Preacher Search,’ a few ladies participated, but none of them made it to the final four contestants. Those who say they believe in women preaching are still holding women back from this role.” It seems that the implication is that Jeff or the vast group of judges intentionally rated the women lower. I hope that isn’t what he’s saying, but I don’t know another way to read this.

I remember now the words of my father: “Don’t dish it out if you can’t take it.” Don’t complain when people push back when you’ve accused them of ignoring the plain teachings of scripture, said they have a disregard for the Word of God, called them fickle, and boldly and baldly called them hypocrites. It isn’t hate that’s coming the author’s way (at least not that I’ve seen — and certainly not what this post is about); rather, it’s people defending themselves from unjustified criticism.

I believe he is wrong on this issue. But I don’t think he has a disregard for scripture; nor do I believe he’s a hypocrite. I just disagree with his understandings.

The people I know who believe in the expanded ministry of women love Jesus and love scripture just as much as he does. Some know scripture less than he does; others know scripture better. What’s different isn’t commitment to scripture or willingness to study scripture but conclusions about scripture. And you can be sure of this: no one can avoid the task of interpreting scripture. There is no one here who is “just reading scripture” without interpretation.

Can we come to different conclusions without calling each other hypocrites?

For me, coming to this new understanding was a painful journey. I changed my opinion on this a long time ago not because I wanted to cave in to culture or because I didn’t care what scripture said but because this is where my long study of scripture led me. (I also know others who know and love scripture as much as I do who disagree with me.)

This sermon is a decade old, but it explains how one devoted to scripture can come to an egalitarian position. Also, for further study you can refer to resources like these:

John Stackhouse, Finally Feminist
Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet
Stanley Grenz, Women in the Church
Alan Johnson, ed., How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership
Craig Keener, Paul, Women, and Wives
Ben Witherington, Women and the Genesis of Christianity
William Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals
Carroll Osburn, Women in the Church, Essays on Women in Earliest Christianity (Volume 1 & Volume 2)

This is not a matter of disregard for scripture; rather it’s an issue of different interpretations and different conclusions.

If you make the kind of bold claims about your opponents that the author makes, you will be overwhelmed with people cheering you on. “Thank you for holding to the word of God!” “Thank you for caring about truth!” “Jesus was attacked, too!”

But that doesn’t mean you were right.

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