“As One Hotdog Sharpens Another”

Proverbs 27:17 wisely observes (it’s a proverb, so you know it’s wise), “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” Visualize that for a moment. The blade of an ax against a file, sparks fly, but the result is a razor edge. The idea is that the friction of opposing ideas, and the challenge of spirited discourse results in both participants becoming better for the experience. My how that has changed! Think for a second. How many people do you know with whom you can have a spirited disagreement on meaningful subjects (no, sports don’t count) and still remain good friends? The irony of it all is that with social media, we are communicating more with a greater number of people, but meaningful discourse appears to be at an all-time low. While that may permit comfortable living with unquestioned ideas about what is true and the way the world is, are we ultimately better off as individuals and as Christ-followers?

Certainly, we all have seen this done wrong, and perhaps that is why our instinct is to avoid disagreement at all cost. In 2 Timothy 2:23-26 Paul cautions Timothy against entering into “foolish, ignorant controversies.” That is a warning that all Christians ought to heed, but many have not to the detriment of the entire church. Contextually, we can identify the object of this passage as those who adopt a conceited, argumentative attitude, who have no desire to know the truth, and who simply want to argue for the sake of arguing. They do not have their own, fellow Christians’, or the church’s best interests in mind. Basically, they are what we might call a “troll” today. No good ever comes from the strife and contention they stir up.

Scripture calls us to unity in Christ, and I believe it is a mistake to think that unity means avoiding all disagreement. True unity is found in love that transcends differences, rather than simply pretending that they aren’t there. Strong relationships use differences to sharpen one another, to the betterment of individuals and the enrichment of our understanding of the truth.

Though our society and our churches pride themselves in valuing diversity, it seems to me that most people surround themselves with like-minded individuals because we much prefer continual affirmation, to facing probing questions about what we say and believe. Consequently, we’ve replaced “iron sharpening iron” with one hotdog sharpening another. We go through the motions, consuming the reciprocal admiration and affirmation from our circle of friends, and never face the challenge of examining our beliefs from different perspectives. Intellectually, we’re just a couple of limp hotdogs flopping against each other.

The natural question then, is what does it matter? Why should we care what our fellow members of the Body of Christ believe as long as they love Jesus? Being heavily influenced by popular culture that tells us to stay off important topics with friends, most of us are tempted to fall to the path of least resistance. I believe that has fostered a prevailing hostility toward worldview thinking in the church. Like a muscle that withers from lack of use, we have gotten to the place where scriptural reasoning has been replaced by simple emotions. It’s so much easier to say “I feel,” than it is to say “I believe, and here is why…” We react with negative emotions when faced with challenges to our own worldview, and we feel the need to glaze over ideological differences with friends out of fear that it will strain relationships. Most of us never learn to have a civil dialog that remains centered on ideas, avoids personal attacks, and remains a positive experience.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a whole lot of talking going on, but in most cases it’s not a true dialog. Modern social media has made it easier than ever to fire off our thoughts and ideas into the ether while the target of these ideological mortars remain ambiguous, and we shield ourselves from rebuttal. It’s not a dialog, it’s just people lobbing shots at each other. This is a problem that predates social media, however. It’s also why we have two gazillion different Christian denominations, because we aren’t all that good at disagreeing agreeably. Growing up in Evangelical Christendom, often all I ever heard about different denominational beliefs were strawmen and caricatures. Mind you, I’m not talking about heresies here, but doctrinal beliefs with a long and healthy tradition of Biblical thought. I still know people that believe that the entirety of Christianity’s problems can be solved by eliminating Calvinism, Arminianism, or Baptists. The opportunity to actually dialog with people of differing beliefs changed my perspective even if it didn’t always change my mind. I have learned to respect those who have come to their beliefs honestly, through much thought and prayer, and from them gained knowledge that enriches my own understanding of God’s truth. Therein lies the problem that many denominationally entrenched people face. They don’t want the discomfort of adjusting their worldviews due to a new perspective. To protect themselves they prefer to go on believing that Baptists are all just a bunch of sinning reprobates or Arminians are all trying to earn their own salvation. In my experience, the more I dialog with Biblically informed, thoughtful Christians from different ideological perspectives, the more common ground I discover that would remain obscured if we just sat in our corners lobbing insults at each other.

Truth comes from God and his Word, and a Christian’s understanding of that truth is shaped by the community of believers. In an ideal world, everyone would read the Bible and come to the exact same conclusions, but that has never been the case. As the church progresses through the decades, there are movements and ideas that take root. Some of these have merit, and some, even when possessed by well-meaning people, are inferior and even harmful. The only way that we have to weed out bad ideas is to compare the alternatives, and with the light of Scripture, choose the better option. The dialog of ideas is part of that process, and without it, worldviews stagnate, and bad ideas fester.

At this point, I wish I could insert the entire text of 1 Corinthians 13, because everything that I have said here is a moot point if it’s not done out of love for one another. Without love it’s just a whole lot of obnoxious noise. Love dictates everything we do, and gives us the discernment to know what is appropriate, when it’s appropriate, how much is appropriate, and if a particular relationship isn’t strong enough for healthy dialog on controversial topics. It takes a high level of maturity to be able to set aside emotions, and to realize that a critique of one’s ideas is not the same as an attack on another’s character or an insult to their intellect. However the power of one friend sharpening another is that there is an implication of familiarity, and a mutual understanding and respect that allows two people to interact, not just two ideologies. When that happens, the end goal is not to win an argument or prove how intelligent we are, but to learn, to be enriched, to find ourselves wiser for the process, and ultimately, better able to live our lives for the Glory of the Risen Lord.

–Thomas Hersman