If you ask a typical family from the Bible Belt (Southern & Midwestern United States) which two subjects are off limits at family dinners, they’ll probably answer: politics and religion. I grew up in a family that didn’t generally talk about the topics we disagreed on, but I have friends whose childhoods were the opposite. The dinner table served as a sparring ring to hash out and debate any and every disagreement out there, all before dessert was served.
My hunch is that there is a healthy middle ground in there somewhere. The reality is that the things that trigger us and get people heated are often the things that we really need to talk out with people we trust. But this is why we care so much, and why these topics can be divisive and difficult to discuss in a civil manner.
So today we’re tackling the latter of these two topics: What do I do when my friend and I disagree on a theological issue? We need to learn how to have these conversations in a healthy way, because sometimes the things we’re afraid to talk about are the things that matter most.
Paul’s second letter to Timothy, his mentee in faith and pastor of the church at Ephesus, gives some insight into how to have these conversations. Timothy was dealing with false teachers rising in the church, and Paul’s advice for him can help us understand some helpful ways to approach conversations in which we find ourselves disagreeing with a friend on a matter of theology or Biblical interpretation.
POSTURE: IT’S NOT ALL ON YOU.
As Paul begins addressing how Timothy should handle false teachings in the church, he reminds Timothy that, ultimately, the burden of truth isn’t on him. He says that, despite the attempts of false teachers, “Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm” (2 Tim. 2:19). At the end of the day, we are not ultimately responsible for defending God’s truth. God is the solid foundation upon which we stand when we believe the truth of the Bible, and he alone holds all things together (Col. 1:17). God’s truth doesn’t ride on you defending it perfectly, and, regardless of the outcome of that conversation, “God’s solid foundation stands firm.”
So, now that you’re breathing a bit easier, let’s ask ourselves this question…
WHAT KIND OF CONVERSATION IS THIS?
Paul instructs Timothy in 2:23, “Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.” Ask yourself what kind of conversation this is. Is it a foolish and stupid argument you’re about to engage in? Will this produce a quarrel?
If the answer to the first question is yes, let’s disengage. Some ways to do this might include an honest statement like, “I don’t think this is an issue that should divide us,” or “I know we disagree on this, but I think that’s okay.”
Second question, will this produce a quarrel? Some people just love to argue. Let’s make sure that we’re not quarreling for the sake of excitement, entertainment, or with the hopes of feeling that thrill of winning, unless our friend knows and agrees that’s what you’re doing. If you don’t like to argue, but you do care that God’s word is handled correctly, which you should, let’s ask ourselves another follow-up question…
Is this a primary or secondary issue? Secondary issues can be interesting to discuss with other believers to see differing opinions and interpretations, but at the end of the day, they are not salvation issues. They do not change anything regarding my belief that Jesus died and rose again that I can live forever with him as my Lord. Secondary issues might be interesting to discuss, but they are not worth an actual “quarrel.”
Perhaps consider in that situation, if you are dealing with a secondary issue, whether you and this person are capable of engaging in a healthy discussion without allowing any potential disagreement to put a wedge in your friendship or lead to anger or disunity. Because remember, if you read any of Paul’s writings, it won’t be long before you come across his call for believers to live in unity. In regard to things that don’t change the core of our faith in Jesus, the unity of believers always trumped “agreement” for Paul. If you and your friend agree that you can engage in healthy discussion and that, if you still disagree at the end of the day, that’s okay, then go for it!
But what if this is a primary issue? Primary issues are aspects of our faith that are relevant to salvation. Some examples of salvation issues might include:
– Is Jesus the only way to heaven/new life?
– Did Jesus literally die and rise again?
– Did Jesus die for the sins of everyone?
– Is salvation a free gift from God that I can’t do anything to earn?
– Was Jesus actually God?
Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. These are some examples of theological issues we can stand firm on. Believing differently on these issues directly impacts the foundation of our faith. Whereas a conversation about a secondary issue might end with you both shrugging and agreeing that we can just ask Jesus someday, primary issues offer a different kind of opportunity.
Assuming this person is in your trusted circle and you have the right to speak into their life (see my post about this from a few weeks ago), this is an important opportunity to press into. For primary issues, we don’t just shrug and say “agree to disagree.” If this person has given you permission to speak into their life, claims to follow Jesus, but doesn’t believe, for example, that Jesus was actually God, have the conversation!
So, you know this is a primary issue and you need to have the conversation. First, let’s…
As you enter a conversation in which you and a friend disagree on a theological issue, I think it is really wise to take a moment to check yourself and your opinions.
Paul warns Timothy in this letter, “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Tim. 4:3). Unfortunately, it’s not that hard these days to find someone to support your opinion. Let’s use these kinds of disagreements and conversations as an opportunity to dig in, figure out why you believe what you do, and make sure your view is actually Biblical.
This self-check is also an opportunity to remember to approach such conversations with humility, not arrogance. Paul says that God grants us knowledge of the truth (2 Tim. 2:25-26). When we remember that it’s only by the grace of God that we can understand Scripture, we approach such a conversation with a humble heart acknowledging that what understanding we do have is a gift from God to be used for his glory and that our friends might come to know him better.
Okay, so I know the burden of truth doesn’t rest on my shoulders alone, I know whether this is a primary issue (something worth standing firm on) or a secondary one (something that we can definitely agree to disagree on), and my heart is right. Let’s talk about how to have this conversation.
GENTLENESS, PATIENCE, AND CARE.
Paul advises Timothy to deal with false teachings with gentleness, patience, and care. He says, “Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will” (2 Tim. 2:25-26). Gentle instruction, not brash argument is how Paul advises Timothy to deal with “opponents” to the truth of Jesus. His motive is that they would be brought to right understanding.
Furthermore, Paul doesn’t see these false teachers as rivals, he sees them as captives who need help getting free. His greatest hope is that they would repent and that God would grant them right understanding. Might our approach to these conversations be filled with such gentleness, not a yearning to prove we’re right or correct a friend’s misguided views. According to Paul, the only reason we would have such a conversation is to restore a brother or sister, not to engage in a foolish quarrel.
Finally, he tells Timothy to “Preach the word…with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2). As we approach these conversations, we must do so with patience. I don’t think I have ever been in a conversation where I have pointed out a flaw in thinking or an alternative view and the other person has immediately changed their opinion. We hold our opinions close, and changing them takes much patience on the side of those attempting to gently guide someone back to truth.
Timothy is also advised to preach the word with “careful instruction.” Friends, we are going to get it wrong sometimes. Let it be our goal to preach the word with great care for the instruction we share, seeking to always guide others to truth that we have wrestled with ourselves and are convinced of its veracity through careful study and much prayer. And let us always be open to the possibility that we might get it wrong and need correction at some point, too!
Kimber, you say, these conversations sound intense. Can’t I just avoid having theological discussions all together?
I’m sorry, but I’m gonna say, no.
WHY DO THESE CONVERSATIONS MATTER?
Paul tells Timothy that, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Why do we need to know the truth and be able to discuss and share it with our people? It’s not so we can win arguments or so we can be “right.” It’s so we can be thoroughly equipped for good works.
It’s important to know God’s character, because this teaches us how to love like he loved.
It’s important to know the way to salvation, because we can lead others there too.
It’s important to know the difference between truth and lies, so we can help our brothers and sisters come to know the truth and be set free from the lies of the enemy.
So friends, next time you find yourself on the precipice of a theological conversation, I hope you won’t suddenly need to go to the bathroom or change the subject. I hope you’ll stay.
I hope you’ll remember it’s not your job to hold up God’s truth on the strength of your argument.
I hope you’ll consider if you’re dealing with a primary or secondary issue, and let that determine how you approach your conversation.
I hope you’ll take a moment to check yourself and ask the Holy Spirit for wisdom and humility.
I hope you’ll speak and, if needed, correct with great gentleness, patience, and care for God’s word and your understanding of it.
And if it goes great, awesome! But even if it doesn’t, I hope you’ll remember these conversations matter, because truth is important, and it matters that we know it and can stand for it among our people.
Love ya, friend.
Your Sister, Kimber
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