Have you ever met anyone who has never had an argument? I have. It was during a youth Sabbath school lesson on marriage and the facilitator was describing how in all his years of marriage he and his wife had never had an argument. Seriously? He was attempting to guide the young people on dating and marriage, and it turned out to be an unfolding disaster from the start, causing confusion and considerable disagreement from the youth. Perhaps he should have taken the lesson with his wife—at least there would have been no argument!
What would life without arguments look like? Would it be blissful, peaceful, harmonious? Would we all end up with the same hair styles and expressions as an army of “Stepford Wives” inhabiting some utopic standardised, expressionless bliss? Do arguments have any role to play in our assimilation and application of truth? Will there be arguments in heaven, or will we simply run off to Jesus every time there is discussion that conflicts with our own understanding or opinion?
Of course, with anything like this the devil is in the detail. What exactly do we mean by “argument”? While arguments can get heated, an argument per se is basically “the act or process of arguing, reasoning or discussing”.1
It is our response to an argument that can get heated!
Most are familiar with the expression, “Play the ball, not the man.” In other words, don’t go after the messenger—evaluate, and examine the message. Often these days it is far too convenient to conflate the message and the messenger because we believe that crucifying the messenger will discredit the message. Unfortunately, when we do this, we don’t afford the message the scrutiny required for integrity, which is a problem if the message is important. Nor do we encourage scrutiny of our own positions that might require some sort of balance or correction!
Our Church is no stranger to argument.2
Does this surprise us? Is this something we might expect or is this an indication of a deeper problem? What would theology look like in the absence of argument? Is this even possible?
Christianity, like basically all religious movements, is steeped in argument and disagreements going back millennia. While many conclude that this is a bad thing, I’d like to suggest that arguments are the seed bed of thought and without them life would be unfulfilled and unreliable simply because the epistemic freedom God has given us of necessity means our understanding of reality will be dependent on our level of knowledge, maturity and experience, all of which is impacted by the sinful world we live in. In other words, we are bound to have disagreements and arguments as our understanding of truth and reality matures, especially over theology.
Not only that, but a fundamental characteristic of God’s government is epistemic freedom of thought and expression. Unlike Islam, which means “submit to God”, Israel means “wrestle with God”! The God of the Bible invites us to confidently and respectfully “wrestle” with Him as we in our immaturity assimilate revealed truth into our own understanding and experience. Why then would we be surprised when some of our theological discussions contain sometimes sharp disagreements?
Before we continue our evaluation of argument, it might be helpful to set argument within a context relating to the church. One of the main purposes of the church is revealing God’s character and government to all intelligent creation both locally and universally. The result of this revelation for us is salvation to those who choose to follow God. This makes sense because “church” could be considered a downstream manifestation of “family”, which was created in the image of God back in Eden. So, the purpose of family and church (both of which are made up of individuals) is to reveal God’s character and government, initially within our immediate circle of influence, and ultimately to the universe.
“The object of the Christian life is fruit bearing—the reproduction of Christ’s character in the believer . . . The Christian is in the world as a representative of Christ, for the salvation of other souls.”3
This statement aligns with Galatians 5:22,23, which describes the fruit of the Spirit, the net result of which is produced by the indwelling Spirit guiding the life of the believer in demonstrating Christ.
It doesn’t take much imagination to realise that every facet of our lives involves some sort of revelation, or demonstration as to who we are and what presses our “buttons”. Additionally, looking beyond our own lives to broader society, we can see that demonstration is very much a part of our civilisation.
Denis Prager, in his The Rational Bible commentary on Exodus, suggests that the worst sin for a representative of God is to commit evil in God’s name. Indeed, in commenting on the third commandment, he points out that the verb often translated “take” (tisa), means ”carry”, which would render the commandment, “Do not carry God’s name in vain.” He then identifies someone carrying God’s name in vain as “[a]ny person who claims to be acting in God’s name while doing the opposite of what God wants—evil . . . When any person commits evil, it reflects badly on the person. But when a person commits evil in God’s name, it reflects badly on God as well.”4
But what has this got to do with arguments? I’d like to suggest that the way we argue or have disagreements provides us with an opportunity to represent or “carry” God to those with whom we are having discussions as well as those observing our discussions.
So, is it possible that the way we argue is more important than the subject?
How did Jesus deal with arguments amongst His disciples? While the embryonic church was arguing about power and position, Jesus moved those socially and culturally constructed goal posts: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).
No mention of tolerance, diversity, equality, commandment keeping, faith, theology, position or power. Indeed, this seems to suggest that the litmus test for our relation to God—the first table of the law—is revealed by our application of the second table of the law, our relation to others.
Later in the same Gospel during the “real” Lord’s Prayer of John 17, Jesus places that directive within the context of unity with the Father; the same “oneness” that He shared with the Father is the benchmark for the “oneness” that we are to have with each other–a “oneness” that is demonstrated by mutual love for one another—despite disagreement!
Indeed, unity within an echo chamber of reflected thought does not appear to be unity in the biblical sense. Jesus did not say that the world would know we were His disciples because of our identical expressions of thought, but because we have love one for another despite our different expressions of thought and disagreement as we individually and collectively “Israel” (wrestle with God) to deepen our own understanding of who God is and how best to express and apply that revelation.
I suspect the gift of conflict will remain within the church until the return of Jesus. It is probably one of the better mechanisms in this sinful world to finetune our dependence on Jesus as we relate to those with whom we have disagreement—perceived or otherwise. What then do we do if we believe the point in conflict is of importance?
Firstly, it is vitally important not to shut down the discussion. Cancelling discussion doesn’t seem to reflect the openness and honesty apparent in the God who invites us to “Israel” with Him. If you feel your emotions rising, then it’s probably better to acknowledge it and appropriately excuse yourself from the discussion so you can review the situation. A couple of questions to consider might be whether the point in conflict is of vital importance to me, or God? And do I really understand the perceived opposing position, or have I simply constructed an easily mocked misrepresentation?
Growth from conflict is only possible when we consider the possibility that we may not have the complete picture.
Regardless of the growth or outcome of our best efforts at understanding the theological issues we consider of vital import, there will always be differences. What then do we do? Might I respectfully suggest that we leave it up to God who sees the bigger picture and may well be calling us to collectively persevere in patience. I have a feeling that He can sort out the theological wheat from the chaff. After all, He was doing it long before I arrived on the scene. Of course, my biggest problem is leaving it to God because, just like Abram thought, I believe God needs a hand.
So, instead of having no arguments, which may reflect some sort of authoritarian culture where disagreements are seen as a dissenting challenge to authority or power, let us welcome arguments as a heaven-appointed gift; an opportunity to better understand truth as perceived by others and in the process “carry” a demonstration of God’s character and government to the world and beyond.
1. Merriam-Webster 2022, Merriam-Webster, accessed September 2022, <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/argument>
2. A rudimentary review of Adventist history reveals many conflicts over many years.
3. White, EG, “Christ Object Lessons”, p67
4. Prager, Dennis, 2018, “The Rational Bible, Exodus”, p245
Randall Ibbott is a freelance IT consultant from Central Coast, NSW.