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How to have a Christian argument

A Christian argument? Isnt that a contradiction? Of course Christians do argue, fiercely sometimes, but we shouldnt, should we? The apostle Paul writes, If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone (Romans 12:18). Thats everyone, notice, even the people wed naturally disagree with. An argument among Christians seems even worse.
How can we be like minded and united in spirit and mind while we argue (Phil 2:2)? If youve been part of a church argument or fight, you know how bitter and unpleasant they can be. Surely God wants the very opposite of that among his people. Yet there is a place for Christian argument. The New Testament records several. Perhaps the most spectacular is Pauls opposition to Peter in Antioch. When Peter broke table fellowship with Gentile Christians Paul could see that this was not in line with the gospel and opposed him to his face (Gal 2:11). Paul tells Timothy and Titus that they and elders in the church have to be ready to oppose false teachers and contradict their teaching (1 Tim 1:3; Tit 1:9, 13). Jesus had critical words about his opponents, and in Matthew 23 he launches a sustained attack on them for their hypocrisy calling them children of hell (v15),blind guides (v16, 24), blind fools (v17), whitewashed tombs (v27), serpents and vipers (v33). It seems there is a place for a Christian argument. We often avoid disagreements by hiding behind a superficial politeness. We smile at each other and speak piously about Christian love, and we dont let on how hurt, disappointed and annoyed we really are. A decent argument might be a step to understanding each other more and growing in real unity. Real relationships usually have some conflict, and they flourish with good communication, not cover-ups. When sinful people live together we will disagree with each other. So, there is a place for Christian arguments, but they need to be handled carefully. Arguments are like anger. There can be good reasons for anger. Sin, evil and injustice should stir us. However our anger is usually selfish and unfair. Even when we have a good reason for it, anger has a way of getting away from us and making a mess of people and relationships we value. Arguments can be the same in fact they often involve a dose of anger. So how do we have a good argument? The obvious first step is to make sure that an argument is really worth having. Jesus and the apostles argued with opponents over big issues. Jesus attacked the Pharisees because they were destroying people. Paul argued when the gospel was at risk and false teachers threatened. We have to admit that we often end up arguing about trivial matters. Trivial arguments are often a warning about our motivations. When we feel threatened or rejected we are prone to quarrel over the most minor matters. Often our arguments start because we want to keep control of a situation. Our pride and longing for power can make us very ready to fight, even when the issue itself doesn't really matter. A raging argument over a minor matter often means that the real issue is something else. How many times has a church argued about the colour of paint for the hall, when really people were upset about changes in the church or new ministry directions (or perhaps lack of direction). Remembering true Christian freedom helps us to avoid useless arguments. Paul teaches that Christians can have different views on contentious matters such as eating food sacrificed to idols or keeping holy days (1 Cor 8-10, Rom 14). He says that those are matters in which we can allow freedom and in which we should use our freedom to serve our brothers and sisters. I do not have to have everyone at church agreeing with me on everything in order to have true fellowship. We might have quite different styles of parenting and disagree about politics and preferences in worship. It is possible to live with all those differences, and talk about them, without destroying each other in the process. So, we need to think carefully about motivation for an argument. When you feel worked up, stop and ask yourself why that is. What has the debate triggered in you and how are selfishness and pride likely to distort your perceptions? Where could your own fears cloud your judgment? Here is a point where it is great to have honest friends to talk to. You dont need someone who will automatically tell you that you are doing the right thing, but someone who will help you to honestly assess your motivation and ask you some hard questions. In the middle of an argument, try to understand the point of view of the other person. It is tempting to ascribe the worst explanation to them: they are ignorant, stubborn, thoughtless, selfish. They might be, but ask yourself why they care about the issue you are arguing over. Even better, try to have them explain why they care. As you talk about what really matters for each side in a fight it often starts to clarify what it is actually about. Because we view matters from our own point of view, it is easy to find that you have presumed what the other person is fighting about. Sometimes spending some time clarifying the issue helps to show that there are not two polar opposite views in the debate. It is important to remember that different people and different cultures can see an argument quite differently. What one person thinks is a vigorous discussion of an issue, can seem to someone else to be an insulting and hurtful exchange. Do not assume that your style of arguing seems OK to the other person. One of the surprises for many couples is to discover that their styles of conflict do not fit well. A good argument happens in the correct arena. Public issues often need to be discussed publically, but a personal and even a private discussion will produce more light and less heat than a public argument. Jesus gives us directions about how to respond to wrongs: If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. (Matt 18:15). That pattern gives priority to relationships and reconciliation, and is the right way to approach arguments: deal with them one to one if possible. One of the worst ways of having an argument is on email. When you sense things getting tense on email, at least pick up the phone and make a call! One dangerous strategy Christians can adopt is recruiting as many people as we can to our side. It is easy to tear a church apart when a fight between two people becomes a brawl (at least a figurative brawl), between two sides. The New Testament warns against factions and divisions (Gal. 5:20; Titus 3:10; Jude 19). We have to be very careful about allowing our arguments to develop into church divisions. A Christian argument requires us to exercise important virtues or to show the fruit of the Spirit. Patience, forgiveness, forbearance help to sanctify an argument. It is not easy to show these. Once you are in an argument and the adrenalin starts to flow it is tempting to think that all your reactions are justified. Winning seems to be the only outcome that matters. Showing patience can seem risky, because it may not be reciprocated. It is important then to remember Jesus pattern that we treat others as we want to be treated and as God has treated us. Gods patience with us is our model. Sometimes the aftermath of an argument is worse than the fight itself. We retreat, lick our wounds and settle into a false peace. The gospel of Christ calls us to reconciliation, and reaching that can be hard work. The goal of a Christian argument is not to win no matter what the cost. Our goal is to speak the truth, but to do that in a way that builds others up in Christ and helps them to serve him. Doing that is not easy but it is the work of the Spirit among us to produce a unity which we could never produce ourselves. By the Spirit, we can aim to grow in love together even through our conflicts. Over the years Christian thinkers have developed a sophisticated view of Just War and it has something to teach us about arguments. It focuses on three aspects of war: if the war is justified, how can it be conducted justly and if the outcome is just. These questions can help us analyse our arguments. The first question is whether the argument is justified . Is this debate one that matters enough to fight over? Why do I want this argument? The second question is whether we are fighting fairly and in proportion with the issues involved. What are my tactics and are they the right ones for this argument? The final question is what happens after the fight. How can we deepen relationships rather than let them drift? Christians arent called to avoid fights, but we have to fight in a Godly way which aims for real peace. If you disagree, we can argue about it but try to do that well.

ETHICS:

COMMENTARY BY JOHN McCLEAN

18THEPULSE