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Discussing Controversial Issues

All considerations of how we should behave must start with the golden rule, to treat each other as we want to be treated; and the new commandment, to love one another as Christ loved us.
By JOE HILL
Read Time: 12 minutes

Controversial subjects are proliferating among us. It is becoming ever more common for certain brothers and sisters to escalate these speculative issues into tests of fellowship. These topics are not in our Statement of Faith, and for most of them, we have traditionally allowed flexibility of thought without fear of withdrawal.

In contrast, today these issues are sometimes made the basis of withdrawal of fellowship from individual members, or from whole ecclesias, or even from large segments of the community.

This article identifies nine behaviors we must maintain as we discuss controversial subjects:

  1. Be Christ-like in all our interactions
  2. Stay calm
  3. Assume good motives
  4. Be quick to listen, slow to speak
  5. Be prepared to give an answer
  6. Be trustworthy
  7. Avoid gaslighting and gaslighters (see definition below)
  8. Build up our brothers and sisters
  9. Agree to disagree on non-essentials

 

1. BE CHRIST-LIKE IN ALL OUR INTERACTIONS

All considerations of how we should behave must start with the golden rule, to treat each other as we want to be treated; and the new commandment, to love one another as Christ loved us; and the fruit of the spirit, to be peaceful, kind, gentle, and faithful; and the new clothing we have in Christ, to be compassionate, humble, and patient, forgiving and forbearing one another:

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you. (Matt 7:12).1
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34-35).
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other. (Gal 5:22-26).
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Col 3:12-14).

2. STAY CALM

Staying calm in the heat of the battle is perhaps the most difficult challenge, but it is essential:

A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger… A hot-tempered person stirs up conflict, but the one who is patient calms a quarrel. (Prov 15:1, 18).
The one who has knowledge uses words with restraint, and whoever has understanding is eventempered. (Prov 17:27).
Fools give full vent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end. (Prov 29:11).
“In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry. (Eph 4:26).
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be… slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. (Jas 1:19-20).

3. ASSUME GOOD MOTIVES

Bro. Bill Link recently published an exhortation in the Tidings on dealing with conflict within our spiritual family.2 His words are based on the exhortation to Sisters Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians 4:1-8, which he recaps: “If we are to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, let us remember our brothers and sisters for good, focusing on their strengths and virtues.

So then, the next time we find ourselves feeling some discord with a brother or sister, let’s try to think of Paul’s seven-step solution. 1) Get help; 2) ‘Rejoice in the Lord’; 3) ‘Be gentle’; 4) Remember ‘the Lord is at hand’; 5) Don’t worry; 6) Pray, with supplication and thanksgiving; and 7) Think on praiseworthy things. It’s hard to be in conflict with someone we admire.” (p. 280).

Step 7 summarizes Paul’s words:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable— if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Phil 4:8).

As Bro. Harry Whittaker pointed out in Exploring the Bible, the Greek word translated “think” is translated “impute” and “reckon” in Romans 4. In other words, Paul is encouraging us to attribute things that are noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy to brothers and sisters we are at odds with. This is easy to say, but hard to do.

4. BE QUICK TO LISTEN, SLOW TO SPEAK

One common theme of all advice about how to have fruitful discussions is the importance of listening.3 You must listen first before you speak. Ask questions and listen carefully to the answers. Listen to learn and understand, not merely to reply.

Reflect on the answers and give them full consideration before responding. And this goes for both parties. Effective dialog requires two-way communication with both sides listening to the other. Understanding the other person’s point of view is critical for any response you might offer to have any relevance to the discussion. James and Proverbs emphasize this point:

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. (James 1:19).
Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues. (Prov 10:19).
The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil. (Prov 15:28).
Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions. (Prov 18:2).
To answer before listening—that is folly and shame. (Prov 18:13).
Answering before listening is both stupid and rude. (Prov 18:13 MSG).
Do you see someone who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for them. (Prov 29:20).

5. BE PREPARED TO GIVE AN ANSWER

Once you’ve heard the other person so that you understand their position and could defend it with the best defense possible, then you can start to prepare your answers to their questions. Give this effort your full due diligence.

You are to educate the other person on your perspective. You need to be prepared to make the case for your viewpoint. You can’t assume they know it already. They need you to help them understand it.

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. (1 Pet 3:15).
Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. (Col 4:5- 6).
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth. (2 Tim 2:24-26).

In addition, we must routinely challenge our own viewpoint. We must maintain our intellectual integrity, searching out and acknowledging the weaknesses in our own case. It is easy for us to become isolated in an information bubble that we think represents the whole Christadelphian world.

We can unwittingly suffer from constant confirmation bias, never hearing any other opinions, so having no doubts about our own views. This can lead us to a false assumption that everyone agrees with us and that if anyone disagrees then they shouldn’t be in fellowship. Enlarging our circle of connections and making sure it has a wide range of diverse views can mitigate such a situation.

6. BE TRUSTWORTHY

I often hear that brothers and sisters need to trust each other more, that this is the main reason there are divisions between us. No doubt lack of trust is a major issue, but it is likely the consequence of a bigger issue, the lack of trustworthiness. We need to be faithful to each other. We need to keep our word and avoid saying one thing and doing another. We need to be honest and reliable.

trust should be a judgment based on trustworthiness.

British philosopher Onora O’Neill (1941- ) gave an excellent TED talk on our misunderstanding of trust.4 She identifies three commonly held views about trust:

  1. A claim: there has been a great decline in trust.
  2. An aim: we should have more trust.
  3. A task: we should rebuild trust.

Then she debunks these three clichés, emphasizing that trust should be a judgment based on trustworthiness. We should trust those who are trustworthy but not those who are not. Being trustworthy involves being competent, honest, and reliable.

Trust is a response based on a judgment of the other person’s trustworthiness. We can’t rebuild trust, because it is a response over which we have no direct control. Instead, we should work to rebuild our trustworthiness (1) by being trustworthy and (2) by providing evidence that we are trustworthy.

Making ourselves vulnerable to others is a key to communicating our trustworthiness. O’Neill’s general comments are particularly germane to our interactions with one another in our community of faith. If we want to be trusted, we must be trustworthy in our behaviors. Scripturally, by default we ought to trust our brothers and sisters, but such trust can be eroded if either side demonstrates a lack of trustworthiness.

Failing to be trustworthy can undermine the basis of trust and cause deterioration of the relationship. So, we all need to work on becoming more trustworthy and on providing sufficient evidence of our trustworthiness so that others can trust us.

Increased trustworthiness prompting increased trust will certainly improve our ability to have fruitful dialogs on controversial topics. One concrete example are the frequent misrepresentations of Bro. Harry Whittaker’s views of prophecy.

Various brothers routinely report that he was a “preterist”, meaning that he thought that Revelation was entirely fulfilled in AD 70. The fact is he argued for three fulfillments, with AD 70 being the first, the standard continuous historic view being the second, and a future fulfillment in the last days leading up to the second coming of Christ being the third.5

Anyone who has read his book would know this, so either these brothers are not competent (because they haven’t made the effort to know what they need to know to talk intelligently about Bro. Whittaker’s views), or they are not honest (because they do know and are intentionally misrepresenting the facts). In either case, these brothers are not reliable sources of information on this topic.

7. AVOID GASLIGHTING AND GASLIGHTERS

Dr. Alison Cook has written several excellent blog articles on spiritual gaslighting6 which she defines as follows:

“Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which your reality or experience is systematically and intentionally invalidated. It is when a person or group questions your experience or your perception or reality in order to keep their power… Their goal is not to help; it’s to make you feel crazy, weak, or dependent… Spiritual gaslighting is when a person or faith community uses spiritual tools, such as God-language or the Bible, to cause you to question your own reality in order to retain power over you. This is spiritual abuse.”

She gives several real-life examples of spiritual gaslighting. Here’s one to make the idea more concrete:

“You confide in the members of your small group that you are struggling with feeling lonely. The response you hear in return is: ‘You aren’t really lonely. You’re simply not trusting God enough.’” See how the person’s experience is invalidated as if they have a spiritual problem.

We must avoid gaslighting others, even unintentionally. For example, we must not distort our brothers and sisters whose views we disagree with by asserting they are being driven by humanism or feminism when in reality they are sincerely trying to determine and follow the teachings of Scripture.

As another example, we must not spread inaccurate rumors about the things said at reunion meetings. Such behavior would be particularly egregious if you were intentionally misrepresenting the views of those whose opinions you oppose, even if you think you are justified in doing so: “I know what you meant even though you said the opposite.”

Such misinformation often causes those who don’t know better to misunderstand the actual situation. It can also cause those who are being misrepresented to question whether they actually said what they know they said. Dr. Cook argues that the Bible’s word for those who gaslight others is “fool”. Here are some of the verses she quotes of the many warnings against foolishness (all from The Message):

Liars secretly hoard hatred; fools openly spread slander. (Prov 10:18).
The wise watch their steps and avoid evil; fools are headstrong and reckless. (Prov 14:16).
Fools care nothing for thoughtful discourse; all they do is run off at the mouth. (Prov 18:2).
The words of a fool start fights. (Prov 18:6).
Fools are undone by their mouths; their souls are crushed by their words. (Prov 18:7).
A fool lets it all hang out; a sage quietly mulls it over. (Prov 29:11).

She quotes Proverbs’ advice on how to respond to gaslighters (from The Message):

Escape quickly from the company of fools; they’re a waste of your time, a waste of your words. (Prov 14:7).
Don’t bother talking sense to fools; they’ll only poke fun at your words. (Prov 23:9).
Don’t respond to the stupidity of a fool; you’ll only look foolish yourself. Answer a fool in simple terms so he doesn’t get a swelled head. (Prov 26:4-5).

She summarizes how we should handle gaslighting fools:

Limit your words and interactions.
Let the foolish person suffer his/her own consequences.
Stay anchored in your own integrity.
Surround yourself with wise people.
Trust in God’s justice.

8. BUILD UP YOUR BROTHERS AND SISTERS

The first century ecclesias faced a major controversy over the keeping of the Jewish dietary laws. Paul’s comments on this issue provide relevant exhortations for how we should deal with the controversies we face today; in particular, we must not cause our brothers or sisters to fall, instead we must build them up in love;

Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall. (Rom 14:19-21).
Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that ‘We all possess knowledge.’ But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. (1 Cor 8:1).

The same exhortation applies more generally to our dialog with one another:

From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work… Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (Eph 4:16, 29).

9. AGREE TO DISAGREE ON NON-ESSENTIALS

No matter how important our “hobby horses” or personal preoccupations are to us, most of them are not essential to salvation and should not be made tests of fellowship. This includes most of the controversial topics we face today, including:

  • Reconciling the Bible and science, with topics like the age of the earth, the detailed mechanisms of creation, the scope of the flood, etc.
  • Different approaches to the interpretation of Bible prophecy.
  • How to harmonize Bible history with archeology.
  • Ecclesial differences on handling divorce and remarriage cases.
  • Gender roles in ecclesial worship services.
  • Different opinions on intricate nuances concerning the doctrine of atonement.
  • Fellowship practice and ecclesial autonomy.
  • God’s spirit in the lives of believers today.

In such things, we must not insist that others accept our opinion, no matter how strongly we hold it. We must strive to discuss these controversial subjects in a Christ-like manner.

Live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (Eph 4:1b-3).

Joe Hill
Austin Leander, TX

 

1 Unless otherwise noted, Bible quotations are from the New International Version (NIV, 2011).
2 William Link, Jr., “Dealing with a Difficult Brother or Sister–Paul’s Seven Step Solution,” The Christadelphian Tidings, June 2021, 278-280.
3 See, for example, Celeste Headlee, “10 ways to have a better conversation,” TEDxCreativeCoast, May, 2015 (https://www.ted.com/talks/celeste_headlee_10_ways_to_have_a_better_conversation); and Megan Phelps-Roper, “I grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Here’s why I left”, TEDNYC, February, 2017 (https://www.ted.com/talks/megan_phelps_roper_i_grew_up_in_the_westboro_ baptist_church_here_s_why_i_left.Megan).
4 Onora O’Neill, “What we don’t understand about trust”, TEDxHousesOfParliament, June 2013 (https://www.ted.com/talks/onora_o_neill_what_we_don_t_understand_about_trust).
5 Harry Whittaker, Revelation: A Biblical Approach, Ch. 11, “It is now time to consider the Seals in detail. It is important always to have in mind the triple fulfilment of this part of Revelation, which has been argued for in the two preceding chapters: a. A.D. 70. The Fall of Jerusalem. b. The ‘continuous-historic’ application (‘Eureka’). c. The Last Days and the Coming of the Lord. “In what follows the second of these will be omitted. It has already been excellently done elsewhere. (For those without the time to give detailed consideration to the three large volumes of Eureka, Notes on the Apocalypse by C.C.W. will be found most valuable. It is an admirable digest of the bigger work.)”
6 Alison Cook: “Should I Turn the Other Cheek?” (https://www.alisoncookphd.com/should-youturn-the-other-cheek/); “Gaslighting and the Importance of a Good B.S. Detector” (https://www. alisoncookphd.com/gaslighting-and-the-importance-of-a-good-b-s-detector/) ; “Gaslighting and the Bible: How to Respond When Someone is Manipulating You” (https://www.alisoncookphd.com/ gaslighting-in-the-bible/). The concept of “gaslighting” has skyrocketed in our current culture. The term comes from the play that was made into the 1944 movie “Gaslight” staring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman.

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