Christians have to learn to fight fair. Our success as disciples depends on it.
This week, I had a tense meeting with a volunteer at my church. Let’s call him Kevin. Kevin was upset about something our senior pastor said in a sermon. Visibly upset. When he pulled a sheaf of papers from his computer bag — a collection of internet articles to defend his position — I saw his hands shaking. From rage or nervousness, I don’t know, but he was clearly amped up. Sitting across the coffee shop table from him, I realized that Kevin may be representative of evangelicalism at large. And the reason it’s in trouble. There were four things about our encounter that illustrate this.
1. Kevin wanted to have the debate online
This issue started when Kevin sent me a scathing, angry email. Rather than reply, I asked for a sit-down. He balked and sent another volley of vitriol. But I finally convinced him that our discussion would be more helpful if we met in person.
I read a fascinating article recently about abuse on the internet. It’s ruining this generation’s greatest cultural invention. What would pass for verbal abuse in person — the kind of language that starts barroom brawls — is commonplace online. Our relative anonymity emboldens us to sound off without regard for others’ feelings. Or perhaps more accurately, it simply frees us to speak our minds — reveal the things of our hearts. And we’re showing that what’s found there is not at all Christlike.
For all the great ministry potential of the internet, there are also traps to avoid, and this is a big one. The church must learn to tame her digital tongue if she is to represent the God of Peace to a digital world.
2. Kevin wanted to throw stones at someone he had never met
My encounter with Kevin hinged on the topic of sermon source material. Our senior pastor quoted an author who Kevin found offensive. Besides misunderstanding the role of source material (expect a blog about that soon), this posture belies an attitude that has more against grace than against heresy. The charge Kevin repeated most often during our talk had nothing to do with doctrine and everything to do with a people group he is set against.
My friend Mark Matlock recently pointed out that every time Jesus addressed a cultural or doctrinal “issue” there was a person at the center of it. We don’t see Jesus sitting at the city gate discussing crime and punishment; we see him in the dirt with the adulteress. We don’t see Jesus standing on a stage teaching about Sabbath; we see him healing on the Sabbath and demonstrating its place.
Based on our discussion, I would guess that Kevin doesn’t know any people who belong to the group that offends him. Christians like to talk about loving the sinner and hating the sin, but it’s easy to hate both when you don’t have a relationship with any sinners.
3. Kevin was worried about slippery slopes
The problem, Kevin explained to me, was that holding up such an author as an expert on anything might lead listeners to believe that she is an expert on everything. Kevin was worried that quoting a certain author aligned our church with that author’s beliefs. It does not. For goodness sake, our senior pastor has also quoted Mick Jagger! This fear of slippery slopes is the logic that has informed every kind of Phariseeism in church history. Thing is, Jesus lived on slippery slopes. He waxed up his skis and frolicked on them, hooting at the dour-mouthed religious leaders all the way. With regard to sabbath, syncretism, Old Testament hygiene laws, and cultural norms, Jesus was as slippery as they come.
When our unbelieving neighbors watch us fret and fight over our whitewashed tombs, they lose interest in the goal of our devotion. People are inspired to belief when they encounter followers who embody sacrificial love. They are driven to cynicism when we quibble over levels of piety.
4. Kevin’s concerns had nothing to do with the kingdom of God
Not once did Kevin express concern for the souls of those who offend him. Not once did he mention the Holy Spirit’s response to his prayers about this issue. Kevin didn’t seem concerned about the gospel message of the kingdom of heaven. At least he didn’t talk about those things. What he talked about was decorum. Offensive language. And being right. I venture to guess that God is not nearly so offended by the author in question as Kevin is.
This last error is the most tragic of all. With all our ministry offerings, all our modern expressions of church, we can easily abandon the most important posts to defend the most immediate threats. As a preacher of my youth used to say, “The main thing is keeping the main thing the main thing!"
When Christine and I were newlyweds, we took a marriage course at church that taught us to fight fair. This was an intriguing idea to me. I expected the church to tell us not to fight at all. Instead, we were taught that disagreement is part of marriage, but that we had to learn to disagree with one another without sacrificing our own or the other’s dignity. We had to learn to fight fair. If the modern church is to have any hope of displaying Christlike love to the world, she needs to learn this lesson. Sure, we in the church will disagree with one another. And it’s important that we hold firm to sound doctrine. But it is equally important that we value "unity in the spirit through the bond of peace."
We have to learn to fight fair.