We’ve all been there. You’re scrolling through Facebook. You’re not looking to start anything. But then you see a provocative post aimed squarely at your theological convictions. “Pro-lifers don’t really care about babies.” “The Bible is written by misogynists.” “The real Jesus would carry a rainbow flag and march to affirm LGBTQ practice.” “Faith deconstruction is a good thing.” Oh. You did not just go there…
Before you realize what’s happening, you look down and your fingers have started typing. Fast. You get done, check what you’ve written, and it looks good. You’ve made solid points, everything’s clear, and you’ve even managed to squeeze a little hope-you-are-doing-well niceness into the post. Enter.
And it doesn’t go great. The other person doubles down with their own points. It’s back and forth with no apparent progress. You hope at least someone is spectating with an open mind. Waaay more time goes into the debate than you actually have. Hopefully it’s doing some good.
Nobody wants to get into a fruitless debate, but it happens. So, how do you get into a theology conversation which generates “light, not heat”?
“How do you get into a theology conversation which generates ‘light, not heat’?”
I’d like to suggest three points of focus which will help you frame the conversation so that it doesn’t waste anybody’s time. I believe that if you keep these three things in mind throughout the conversation (and keep bringing the conversation back to these three things), you’ll walk away having had a conversation characterized by clarity, empathy, and even sometimes agreement and persuasion.
Before we get into the three points of focus, let’s not forget the most important thing of all: prayer. Pray for guidance. Pray for discernment. Pray for pure motives. Pray for the other person. If you really want the conversation not to be a waste of everybody’s time, pray.
Now, here the three points of focus which will help you bring clarity and empathy into the conversation:
#1 – 1 Faith
If you’re conversing with a fellow Christian, it’ll be good to keep one thing front and center: the faith. By that, I’m referring to what Jude called “the faith once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
“I’m referring to what Jude called ‘the faith once for all entrusted to the saints.'”
Whatever you’re arguing about, you want the understood assumption to be that you (and hopefully the other person too) are making the faith your true north. That’s what you’re aiming for. So, if either of you have drifted into prioritizing your own preferences or political positions over what God has revealed, then let the conversation keep steering you back to God’s priorities. Having the faith be your goal encourages you to be humble and convictional, as you’re acknowledging that you’re not aiming to win somebody over to your side; you’re both aiming to align with God’s truth.
But there’s a potential problem here: Sometimes, there are people who deny that there is a “historic Christianity” that we should try to align with. Some people exaggerate the fractured nature of Christianity, making it seem like there’s no version of Christianity which can honestly claim to be the faith.
“Sometimes, there are people who deny that there is a ‘historic Christianity’ that we should try to align with.”
But there is a historic consensus within Christianity, shared by Catholics, Orthodox, and evangelical Protestants alike (just check out the ancient creeds). And there are core teachings in the Bible which any open-minded reader can see, such as God’s existence, the importance of holy living, Jesus’ resurrection, salvation through Jesus, and the final judgment. Try to keep these clear, core teachings of the Bible as the faith for which you aim.
#2 – 2 Questions
There are a lot of theological disagreements for which the Bible gives us clear answers. Take the issue of faith deconstruction. If faith deconstruction means someone is leaving behind important and essential beliefs of historic Christianity, then that’s very clearly a bad thing.
However, let’s say the question being asked about faith deconstruction is more nuanced. Let’s say you have two people who both believe that leaving behind historic Christianity is a bad thing, but they’re not aligned on whether “deconstruction” can be a positive thing. One person says, “A lot of people are deconstructing their faith. This is bad. We must not encourage people to jump on the deconstruction bandwagon. So let’s not try to use the word ‘deconstruction’ as a potentially good thing. It’s best just to encourage people to stay completely away from it.”
“Let’s say you have two people who both believe that leaving behind historic Christianity is a bad thing, but they’re not aligned on whether ‘deconstruction’ can be a positive thing.”
The other person responds, “It’s true that a lot of people are deconstructing their faith, and you’re right that it’s a bad thing. But I suggest that, since people are already deconstructing, we can try to use the word ‘deconstruction’ in a constructive light. Since they’re already on a deconstruction journey, we can try to encourage them to deconstruct what in their faith journey has been unhealthy—so that we can encourage them to reconstruct their faith in a way that’s even more consistent with historic Christianity.”
What’s the best way for both of these Christians to have a fruitful conversation? I suggest that it’s by asking two questions. If you consider both of these questions when you’re having a theological debate, it’ll help you have a lot more empathy and clarity.
Question #1: Where is this person coming from?
Have you stopped to consider what hurtful experiences this person is speaking from? What unfortunate church interactions they might be reacting against? Perhaps the person who wants to stay completely away from using the word “deconstruction” in a positive light has had dangerous experiences with deconstruction, and they want to keep other Christians from getting too cozy with what could be very dangerous to their soul.
“Have you stopped to consider what hurtful experiences this person is speaking from?”
On the other hand, perhaps the person who wants to redeem the word “deconstruction” as a positive thing is reacting against a Christian upbringing that was always quick to call out things as evil and sinful—when perhaps they weren’t.
It’s incredibly humbling and helpful to ask where the other person is coming from and what hurtful experiences they’re speaking from.
Question #2: Whom is this person trying to reach?
Are you debating with a Christian in an urban environment trying to reach more progressive-leaning people for Jesus? Or are you arguing with a Christian trying to reach a more rural community in a red state? Perhaps your friend is trying to reach people in the LGBTQ community with Jesus, and that’s why she reacts against posts which could be taken as disparaging toward that community. Perhaps your friend has a heart to reach people of the Muslim faith, and that’s why he takes a critical stance toward a post which uses a broad brush to imply that all Muslims are jihadists.
If you want fruitful conversations fueled by empathy and clarity, it’ll be good to ask, “Where is this person coming from?” and, “Whom is this person trying to reach?”
#3 – 3 Levels
Not every hill is worth dying on! Even within the Bible, not every truth taught is equally important. At RENEW.org, we like to refer to three levels of faith elements. These are “essential,” “important,” and “personal” elements. Bobby Harrington’s descriptions of the three levels are helpful here:
- Essential – There are essential elements (or teachings) in the Bible that are essential to your eternal destiny and standing with God.
- Important – There are secondary elements in the Bible that are important for your ongoing faithfulness to God and for living as God intended.
- Personal – There are third-level elements that God leaves for us to decide as personal preferences or truths about which there is a lack of decisive evidence one way or the other.
If it would be helpful to see these categories fleshed out, I’d encourage you to check out Chad Ragsdale’s excellent book Christian Convictions.
If you can keep these three elements in mind, it’ll be helpful in clarifying (in your own mind as well as in the conversation) what’s worth taking a serious stand for. The more essential the topic, the more is at stake.
“The more essential the topic, the more is at stake.”
When it comes to serious error, this no-nonsense statement from James reminds us to stay full of grace and truth in these interactions, again, because the stakes are high:
“My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20).