Lillian Daniel, in a recent sermon on Genesis, told of an Israeli program that required rabbis to study the Torah in groups and learn how to debate its meaning.
Debate was not something to avoid, but significant because, as the theory goes, sacred Scripture is too sacred not to debate.
Like weighty family matters that require push-and-pull negotiation, these rabbis are forced to negotiate a text that is often more dangerous than delicate.
U.S. Christians seem to do the opposite and avoid debate at all costs. We do not want to seem pushy, mean or antagonizing.
We do not want to offend; we tend to spend more time with people who agree with us than those who cause discomfort because we can’t get along.
Our churches tend to instill this in us, and debates are rare in congregations for several reasons:
1. We have the mistaken view that the pastor has all of the answers.
We do not want to confront or contradict our spiritual leaders, and we do not want to offend their sensibilities or insult their intelligence. It’s easier to go along with the crowd, keep quiet or do what most Christians do: simply migrate from church to church.
2. We do not want to sow a “seed of discord,” and we confuse differences of opinion or theological beliefs with disunity.
If we all agree that Scripture is sacred, regardless of some conclusions we draw about the text, then our debates are not the same as discord. It is our scheming, disrespect and distrust of one another that are the real culprits behind church splits.
3. We make debates synonymous with hostility.
Given what we see in politics and on television, this is no surprise. We believe that if there is a debate to be had, we better dig in our heels and make it personal.
We do not know how to have a civil conversation in which disagreements occur because we think that differences of opinion lead to sundered friendships.
4. We think we are right, so debates are a waste of time.
If you think you know it all and God is on your side, and you see every debate as a competition to win, then, yeah, you will not be very fun to debate. I have met many people who think this, and they often confuse being right with being a jerk.
5. We believe that it is somehow a sin to change our minds.
Because much of our Christian theology rests on the belief that God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, we assume that we have to be unchanging too.
What if you read something that goes against your knowledge, and you change your mind about something?
We have made transformation and conversion into weakness and lack of conviction. If we refuse to change our minds, why even study the Bible at all?
As a minister that has served Christ’s church for more than two decades, I believe that a little bit of healthy debate would go a long way.
The most significant issue, however, is that – even given the opportunity – we do not know how to debate. We do not know how to draw boundaries, de-escalate rifts and untangle theological convictions from threats of excommunication.
We mistreat the Bible by either sanitizing our conversation or avoiding deeply held beliefs and issues that we may actually need to revise or jettison altogether.
We’d rather stick with our tribes, relegate ourselves to like-minded niches and attend churches that preach and pray according to our preferences.
We stop growing as disciples and merely become echo chambers of our own making. We don’t seek each other for new information and we allow the nightly news to shape our theology more than the good news of Jesus shapes our theology.
Here are a few tips that might bring back the spiritual discipline of debate:
1. Make space for conversation about the Sunday sermon in a well-facilitated environment.
Some churches no longer meet on Sunday evenings, but this would actually be a good time for pastors to meet with parishioners in a study group to go deeper, build off the sermon and invite conversation in which differences are examined and even celebrated.
2. Set boundaries in Sunday school classes or Bible study groups that help people present alternative arguments or opinions about the Scriptures being studied while learning how to hear opposing viewpoints.
Getting to a place where people do not feel the need to have the final word might be a healthy goal.
3. Set a goal for debates.
Agree that when you reach a certain time or achieve a certain goal, you and your friends will cease and desist in talking about the Bible. We need to get out of the church and do things together, to learn what makes us who we are as individuals.
In a polarized world, we cannot afford to talk past each other or avoid each other.
We need to strike a balance – the Bible is too valuable to avoid debate. Let’s get into it, let’s discover where we stand, and let’s move – together – closer to the God who exists above and beyond all our opinions, arguments and beliefs.
We are to be conformed to Christ, not the notions married to our limited knowledge.
Joe LaGuardia is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Vero Beach, Florida. He is the author of “Awe and Trembling: Reflections for the Christian Journey,” a book of articles and homilies. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Baptist Spirituality, and is used with permission.
Joe LaGuardia is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Vero Beach, Florida.