Am I the only one, or have you also noticed that disagreements about God can get nasty very quickly? Amazingly, this even happens on the Internet!!
Here’s my point for today: Belligerence in theological discussions is a reaction to a deep fear—typically unperceived as such—that one’s narrative is under threat.
Before someone goes off in the wrong direction, I am not saying Christians can’t disagree or even get angry. I’m talking about a life of faith marked by a theme of belligerence—hostility and aggressiveness toward others who think differently.
You know who you are. And if you don’t, the people around you will let you know (if you listen).
People fight about their views of God because they are afraid of the consequences of being wrong. Being wrong about God is fearful because it destabilizes their way of looking at the universe and their place in it. People tend to fight when frightened this way.
Let me put that in Yoda-speak: Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.
Show me someone who expresses his/her faith in language peppered with anger, and I will show you someone who is deeply afraid of losing control of God.
That anger can be veiled as passive-aggressiveness or the appeal to an “honorable” principle: “It’s nothing personal, but since the gospel is at stake, well, we can’t take prisoners. You understand. We’ll be sure to tell your wife and children you love them.” But this is belligerence nonetheless.
- A tendency to seek out theological conflict with others,
- being quick to turn the temperature up at the slightest provocation,
- presuming to be right at every turn and having an excessive need to display it—like satisfying an addiction.
Those are symptoms of deep fear—a fear so deep it may not even be named as such. It is given other names: zealous, bold, uncompromising. But it is still fear.
The defense of belligerence often goes something like this: “Look at Paul and Jesus. They went after people. They fought for the truth as warriors in a fierce battle. Don’t bother me with your Yoda-esque, soft-minded, Oprah-laced, psycho-babble. We are following biblical teaching whenever we fight and contend for the truth.”
OK, but . . . well . . . no.
Sometime in the mid-90s at a lecture at Westminster Theological Seminary, the evangelical leader John Stott spoke to us on Christians fighting over truth (and I don’t think that topic was coincidental given the setting). Stott made three points that have stayed with me (and I am faithfully representing his words):
- Yes, sometimes Christians have to fight.
- But they should hate it.
- An excessive attraction to fighting is pathological.
One cannot use Jesus and Paul as a justification for pathology—an excuse to see a gospel-survival conflict at every point of disagreement. Christians should hate to fight. They should seek to avoid it.
Again, that doesn’t mean you can’t disagree—publicly, privately, strongly. It doesn’t mean you can’t call other Christians to the carpet for what they think or do.
But there are those who love to fight and think they are serving God in doing so—that he is perhaps especially proud of them when they bludgeon others. There are those who cheer, with a bloodlust giddiness, that “doctrine divides.” And so they march out to divide, with tactical, military precision, between Christians who get it (them) and those who don’t (others).
“Doctrine divides,” but that may tell us more about the person than the nature of doctrine. Doctrine is divisive with those who harbor a contentious spirit, an excessive need to be right on theological matters—afraid of being wrong.
Yes, Jesus turned up the heat, to be sure—but against hypocrites, some of the religious leaders of his day, who were quick to pounce on others for not toeing the line of an arrow-straight traditional theological system.
Belligerent, self-assured “defenders of the gospel” today have more in common with what Jesus was against than with Jesus.
If you want a model from Jesus for how to talk to those with whom you differ, read the parables and follow Jesus’s lead there. Or read the story of Nicodemus, or the woman at the well. Just watch how Jesus interacts with people.
And yes, Paul got a bit snarky at times. He went after the church in Galatia, that’s for sure. He was angry and got downright prickly. Sarcasm may have been his love language, even to the point of telling the men who opposed him that they should cut their penises off (I’m not kidding).
But, however tempting Paul’s approach might be, Galatians isn’t a template for your life and ministry.
For one thing, the church in Galatia was one Paul had built and invested much time in. Internet enemies are not people you have invested in personally. As Aslan told Peter concerning Edmund, think of minding your own business.
Second, the gospel was truly at stake—namely whether Christian faith rests in anything other than the centrality of Christ. Not every theological disagreement we come across is a “Galatians moment” where the gospel is at stake.
Third, it just doesn’t work. People tend not to be convinced by hot rhetoric. If your aim is to build as small a Jesus movement as possible, I suppose this is a good strategy, though.
Other models exist in Paul’s letters for handling theological disagreements, such as the entire book of 1 Corinthians. Talk about a theological mess. These yahoos were each following their own pet cult personality, treated the Eucharist like an open bar at an Irish wedding, were engaged in all sorts of immoral activity, and even had doubts about the resurrection.
Paul speaks with urgency, but he doesn’t blast them or denounce them. He spends fifteen chapters going over ground they probably already should have known but couldn’t quite get right. And the whole tone is set in the very beginning of the book (verse 2),
To the church of God at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours. Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
With all that this church was doing, Paul’s tone is marked by the common faith they share, not by belligerence. To the church of God at Corinth . . .
When engaged in potentially threatening theological dialogue, rather than caving into fear we need to chose to trust—trust that God is bigger than our arguments, our intellects, our sacrosanct theological systems.
Listen, we all screw up here. We all give in to our darker side and get defensive. Rumor has it I’ve done it once or twice. No one reaches the ideal.
But there is a difference between screwing up by caving into the dark side and camping out there, where belligerence becomes a preferred pattern of conduct, a badge of honor, defended as truly godly behavior. It isn’t.
[An earlier version of this post appeared in October 2011, and I have since developed some of these thoughts more fully in The Sin of Certainty (HarperOne 2016)]