Is This Debate Pointless?

In case you’ve been living under a rock, people argue a lot. Our changing culture has pitted conservatives against liberals, Republicans against Democrats, originalists against revisionists, secularists against the religious, traditional against contemporary, and of course Starbucks against Dunkin Donuts.

Most Christians have first-hand knowledge of the potential for these debates to polarize and shatter unity. In 2 Timothy 2:23, Paul cautions Timothy to “reject foolish and ignorant disputes” because of the quarrels they breed. Some Christians use this verse as a subjective “can’t we all just get along” principle, intended to shut down any discussion that they feel is unimportant, or even personally uninteresting. Yet, we all should understand that there are some hills worth defending even at the cost of excluding those who choose the wrong side. The question is, how do we know when an argument or debate is worth having, and when we ought to simply agree to disagree?

Scripture doesn’t list each specific instance where presenting an argument to counter a false idea is worth the cost in peace and unity. However, we have several clear passages that identify for us what a good and bad disagreement looks like. Four passages that I would like to highlight are: 2 Timothy 2:14-26, Titus 3:1-11, 1 Timothy 6:3-5, 20-21, and the always relevant James 1:19-20. From these (and many others), we can develop a litmus test for deciding if we are disagreeing the right way and for the right reasons.

Truth is the measure, not your feelings. This should go without saying, and yet it’s a necessary reminder for us all. If you are arguing a position for which you have no supporting objective (i.e., not your own opinion) principles, your argument is quite literally pointless. It’s like debating which smells better, the color green or the color purple. Truth is the guiding principle of the believer, and it must be the measure of all. If that is not the case – or if you don’t have enough knowledge of the subject at hand to make that determination, you have no business pressing an issue that risks causing dissention among believers.

We never tolerate gross immorality or theological heresy within the body of believers. Paul commands the Corinthians to “Purge the evil person from among you!” (1 Cor. 5:13) The church cannot allow gross immorality to persist, nor can it tolerate ideologies that seek to reinterpret or amend the fundamental moral standards that this passage (and many others) clearly defines. Similarly, Christians hold certain essential (i.e., they define us) truth claims that cannot be compromised. These include (but aren’t limited to) the characteristics of God and Christ, and the way of Salvation. Such principles aren’t up for debate or revision within the church. We must rigorously defend them, and exclude those who spread counterfeits.

Destructive disputes (and disputers) often look a certain way. Destructive disputes often make a big deal over minor issues, Titus 3:9 speaks of debates over genealogies and the OT (presumably) law, and 2 Timothy 2:14 condemns arguing over words (semantics). Verse 16 condemns “irreverent babble.” 2 Timothy 2:22 decries “foolish” (silly, childish, without serious merit, not worthy of consideration), and “ignorant” (based upon lack of knowledge and understanding) controversies. We can also know destructive disputes because of what they produce. Not godliness, or benefit for Believers, but: envyI want what you have enough to sin to get it; dissentionI don’t want resolution, I want to be disagreeable; slanderI’m going to paint you in the worst possible light; evil suspicionI’m always going to assume the worst about your motives; constant frictionI’m always peeved about something someone said or did. The people causing this dissention are not merely confused about what to believe, they are full of pride and self-serving ambitions, desiring not the good of fellow-believers but some sort of personal gain, be it power, prestige, or even monetary benefits. (I Tim. 6:3-5) Scripture makes it clear that the source of their error is an unrepentant heart, not simply ignorance. (2 Tim. 2:25-26)

On debatable issues, we must consider the cost vs. the benefit. What we believe determines how we act, but that doesn’t mean that every small issue of belief and practice is worthy of a full-on crusade. Scripture often appeals to the standard of what is beneficial to the body of Christ. (Titus 3:9) We should ask the question, “What is at stake if the Church fails on this issue? Is it eternal? Will it have a measurable impact in our readiness to fulfill the Great Commission?” Or, if I’m being honest, is it of little consequence? Situation and context are an important part of this consideration. For example, debating predestination and free will might be appropriate and even beneficial for a couple of mature Christian friends meeting for coffee, but that discussion could be a source of needless dissention and distraction in a Bible study full of new believers.

Unwarranted dogmatism wastes time and resources on silliness that could have been ignored. If the issues that Paul discusses were mere foolishness, why does he bother addressing them at all? I’m guessing that it’s because some contentious person forced him to. There are so many great examples of this in our culture, whether it be the KJV-Only controversy, or those that are convinced that Christ is coming back on September 23rd. By themselves, these might be mostly harmless matters of personal preference, except that many who teach them imply that they are a measure of a Christian’s spiritual health (or by implication, Salvation.) When that happens, leaders who wouldn’t have normally given the controversy serious thought must step in and refute the silly claims to keep weaker Christians from being sucked in. It’s important to understand that it’s not just what you believe, but also how you present those beliefs that might make them destructive to the church.

There is so much more to be said on this topic, but I will finish with the simple observation that the difference between a good discussion and a quarrel is often the role of emotions. For whatever reason, we tend to be over-taken by emotions (the “fight or flight” rush of adrenaline) when someone challenges our deeply held beliefs. When that happens, it’s time to stop, reign in our emotions and take stock. If a discussion is worth having, then we should keep James 1:19 in mind, seeking to understand before we try to be understood. 2 Timothy 2:22-25 gives a beautiful description of what it means to argue in a Christlike way: not quarrelsome, kind, careful teacher, patient endurance of personal insults, with gentle correction of those who are in the wrong.

We must not shy away from speaking the truth, even when it’s hard to hear, and even when it’s unpopular. There are principles worth vigorously defending, especially when the church is plagued with a never-ending stream of wolves spreading false doctrine. However, as mature, and thoughtful Christ-followers, we must choose these battles carefully, with love for others, and the best interests of the church in mind.

–Thomas Hersman

Letter to my children

My Dear Children,

You are growing up before my eyes, and time, indifferent to the sentiments of a father, sees you moment by moment closer to the unavoidable day when you walk out of my arms and into the world. Until that time comes, it is my deepest joy, and most consuming challenge to help you become thinkers, believers, and earth-shaking Christ-followers.

I’m making more than my fair share of mistakes. Sometimes I will discipline when grace would have been more appropriate. Other times I will give grace when I should have been stricter. (Though I suspect you’ll be okay with that one) Sometimes I just won’t have a clue what to do or say, though I may pretend otherwise. Though I want to be the steadfast example for you to follow, I will fall short of that many times. I am after all human: stubborn, selfish, and sinful.

Our culture will do its best to turn you against me. Or, at least to get you to reject what I have taught you as outdated, disagreeable, and even immoral to your generation’s palate. Your tendency will be to fixate on the mistakes that I make, while resolving not to make the same ones in your own life or with your own children some day. That’s fine. I would rather you learn from my mistakes, than to repeat them. Just remember, as I have learned, while you are focused on mine, you’ll have your own to make.

I will do my best to blaze out a path for you through the wilderness of confusion that our culture has created, but fortunately, I offer you something more reliable than myself to build your life upon – a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, and a worldview built upon the timeless truth of His Word. He will never let you down, but I’m going to be honest, opposing opinions will seem rather convincing at times as they play your emotions and sinful nature against you. Enter here the first bit of Dad advice: Usually in life, the best choices aren’t all that appealing at first glance.

Godless culture says follow your heart, but God tells us (as does our own experience, if we are being honest) that our hearts are corrupted by sin, rebellion, and selfishness. In reality “Follow your heart” is among the dumbest bits of advice anyone could give. Follow Christ. He will remake your heart, and guide you in wisdom.

They say that the key to happiness is to discover and live out who you are deep inside. In truth, we are all experts at self-deception, and when we look inside, we usually see what we want to see. We need an objective observer, and the only one qualified is our Creator. True happiness comes from finding the identity, purpose, and destiny for which He designed us.

Culture tells us that we deserve to have instant gratification of our physical desires. In reality, instant gratification leaves us less satisfied, adding to our dissatisfaction a whole new set of troubles. It’s like giving salt water to a someone dying of thirst. In Christ, we find the deeper, more enriched life that we truly need. Our desires are fulfilled at a time and occasion when we can enjoy them in the fullest and richest way. That is the good life.

They say that resisting temptation is a sin against your authentic self. God says you are more than your temptations, and that He will give you the strength to overcome them. Yes, it’s a hard, seemingly endless struggle; we expect nothing less as fallen humans. Anyone who says a lifetime of saying “No,” to temptation is easy is doing it wrong.

They say that love is an emotion that ebbs and flows, God says that love is a self-sacrificing choice that is tenacious and gritty, hanging on despite difficult circumstances, and compelling us to honor our commitments even when it ceases to be enjoyable. True love has the audacity to love richer and deeper than even the person that we love wants us to – much like God’s love for us.

They say that making bad decisions is part of growing up. If that is others’ experience, it doesn’t have to be yours. Wise people take instruction to heart, and realize that there are some mistakes that are simply too costly to make. You can learn from both the good and bad choices of others, and from the wisdom of God’s Word.

I say all this knowing that, whether by misjudgment, or a skirmish lost with sin, you are going to have failures. The measure of your character won’t be found in your perfection, but in your resolve to keep getting up after you fallen more times than you can count. God will give you the strength. You must surrender the will, with a humble heart. When you find yourself drowning in the results of a sin or mistake, remember that while some choices do have lasting consequences, it’s never too late to start making wise choices from this point forward. And remember, there is no circumstance so bad that you can’t make it worse. So get up, dust yourself off, and keep moving. (in the right direction)

If I could sum this all up, it would be to say this: Whenever in doubt, cling to what you know, not what you feel. Contrary to what movies and TV show, feelings are as unstable as the ocean in a storm, and letting them dictate your choices is every bit as insane as trying to lay bricks on top of seawater. Emotions deceive. Truth is your harbor in the storm.

I must confess that I was scared to death at the very thought of being a father. (Sometimes I still am) That’s because the way that I lead you has eternal impact, both good and bad. Now that you are here, I can’t imagine life any different. “Daddy” is the most honored title I have or will ever will hold, and I will do my best to give you everything I have. I will one day send you out as a lamb among wolves, and with the same advice as Christ gave his Disciples: “Be as clever as a snake, and as innocent as a dove.”

–Thomas Hersman

Empathy or Truth?

Have you noticed the number of advertisements that rely on sappiness to sell ordinary products like air fresheners, razors, soft drinks, and soap? Creating an emotional connection between a product and a customer is a powerful sales technique. The same is true of ideas. Humans seem to be hard-wired to respond to emotion over sound reason, and so emotional appeals often hide serious error. With few exceptions, the greatest theological blunders of modern Christianity are emotion driven. That is especially true as the church struggles to maintain Biblical moral standards in a society in open rebellion against God. And, once again, new philosophies on gender, sex, and morality aren’t usually furthered by convincing argument and evidence, but by emotions. Often these emotional tactics are disguised to look very reasonable, and it’s our job to call them out.

My case study for emotional manipulation disguised as reason is this video about empathy from the Lifehacker website. On its face, it seems like a bit of good, commonsense advice for self-improvement. After all, who but a social brute would have a problem with empathy? But this short video has some very big problems. It begins with the declaration that “we all live in our own realities” which are the only ones that we can “truly know.” In that small statement are hidden some very big worldview assumptions, and it appears that perhaps they’ve confused the perception of reality with reality itself. Not a fantastic start. Much of the video, in truth, contains solid practical advice for engaging with people of differing points of view. I could even get on board with the end goal of “challeng[ing] prejudice” – if I know what they mean by prejudice. However, the sure sign that something is amiss is the idea that we ought to be “expand[ing] our moral universe,” so that we won’t “draw lines in the sand that prevent us from growing.” Now we realize that there is something more going on here than simply an attempt to get people to behave humanely to each other. The video is trying to use empathy as a method of shifting its audience’s perception of what constitutes truth. It makes an epistemic (having to do with the nature of knowledge) claim, inside an emotional wrapper.

Empathy is an important trait for each one of us to embrace, but it’s a very poor method for discovering truth. Consider for example the shooting of Trayvon Martin, and the trial of George Zimmerman, back in 2012. Both the prosecution and the defense attempted to paint each man in turn as an ordinary person caught up in tragic circumstances outside his control. And, it worked. Most people picked their side based upon the man with which they most empathized. But you would need something more had you been on the jury. You might have felt genuine empathy for both, but the only thing that mattered is what really happened. How did the defendant’s actions measure up to the law?

Secular culture appeals to empathy and inclusivity as a principle for pushing Christians to abandon objective morality, because while it requires no rational defense, it taps into a whole host of powerful emotions such as the desire to be kind, the desire to believe the best about loved ones, or the simple desire to be perceived as progressive. However, as truth-determining principles, empathy and inclusivity are rationally absurd. First, they commit the fallacy of the golden mean, which incorrectly assumes that within a plurality of perspectives, the truth must be a compromise between them all. However, reality isn’t determined by democratic means. It is very much possible (indeed likely) that the vast majority of opinions aren’t even a little true. Second, the principle is self-defeating. If I believe that the correct view is one that doesn’t exclude anyone, then I am being exclusive of those who aren’t inclusive. Therefore, I’ve become exclusive myself, and must therefore be excluded… Dizzy yet? Finally, no one actually believes that every other person’s opinions, experiences, and ideas deserve to be counted. This principle is only applied when convenient. If you doubt me, watch the empathy video again and imagine that the person you are speaking to is Jeffrey Dahmer.

The appeal to empathy has been a powerful tool in the effort to get Christians to abandon Biblical morality, because it mixes a great deal of truth with just enough falsehood to be destructive. When we struggle with watching our loved-ones choose sinful lifestyles, we want them to be “okay.” I have lost track of the number of stories I’ve heard that go something like, “I used to think homosexuality was wrong, but then my brother came out and I realized that he’s just an ordinary guy.” Or, “I used to think that transgenderism was wrong, but then I got to know my cousin and saw the struggle that she has, and realized that there is no way that God could want her to be anything but what she is on the inside.” These are conclusions drawn from empathy, not truth, and they represent a very nice, but terribly mistaken individual!

Empathy is a virtue that all believers ought to embrace in the example of Christ, but we should never allow it to compete with God’s Word when deciding moral standards. Christ provided the greatest example of empathy when He came to earth to experience life from a human perspective, but He came to proclaim truth to the enslaved, not to bend moral law because He felt sorry for us. Empathy allows us to relate others’ struggles to our own, and encourages patience. Understanding another person’s beliefs from their own perspective keeps us from making incorrect assumptions about them, and that insight is important to understanding how best to reach them with Christ’s love. But it doesn’t change what is true. We don’t live in our own “moral universe” to be molded by a plurality of opinions. While our perspectives of reality may be altered by our biases, we must never forget that truth (reality) is the final measure. Objective morality draws its own lines in the sand, and we all get to decide which side we end up on. It is the opposite of love to attempt to obscure those lines because we don’t want a person drowning in sin to feel bad about themselves.

Our culture thrives on the new, the inclusive, and the pluralistic. As believers, we constantly risk being painted as outdated heartless bigots that don’t care about others. We should do everything we can through God’s grace to make sure that isn’t true, while understanding that true love never encourages another person to destroy her life and eternal soul for immediate pleasure. The true reflection of Christ’s example is that we don’t condemn, but we come alongside those who are in bondage to sin and show them that there is a new and better life in Jesus Christ.

–Thomas Hersman