by Nicholas Price
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post on my blog reflecting on a disturbing issue that has arisen since beginning my studies in seminary in July of 2013. It is a problem that has continued to bother me and it relates to how we, as seminarians and faculty, talk about those with whom we disagree.
Let me explain what I mean. At several points over the past two quarters I have heard professors and students set up straw men when trying to highlight what makes us, as Lutherans, theologically superior to other strains of Christianity. More often than not the straw man is the “Evangelical”. I’ve heard evangelicals called anti-intellectual, prone to emotionalism, shallow in their theology, self-centered in their worship practices, and overly focused on works righteousness.
Not only are these criticisms harsh, they are not true!!! And I say this as someone who worked for an evangelical para-church ministry for six years. I say this as someone who has attended evangelical churches, received training at evangelical conferences, and studied at an evangelical seminary. In fact, it was the evangelical commitments to discipleship of the mind, deep theological inquiry, Christ-centered worship, and the insistence on salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone that brought me to the Lutheran Church. I have a high regard for my evangelical brothers and sisters and, in many ways, still consider myself a part of that community. So you can understand my personal frustration and distress when I hear members of my own church community insulting and denigrating an entire community of Christians just to score a couple of theology points.
But beyond being unfair and ungenerous, this problem matters for one other reason: we are breaking the Eighth Commandment. This commandment states the following:
“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16).
When we set up straw men and use them to make a point, what we are really doing is judging and speaking against a community based on stereotypes. We are claiming that those who belong to this community say, act, and believe things that, in truth, they do not. In so doing, we are bearing false testimony against them. And we are doing this to fellow Christians, brothers and sisters in Christ.
Not only does this damage the unity of the larger body of Christ, but it actually hinders our witness to the world. When I was studying Islam as an undergraduate student, one of the most frequent charges against Christians by my Muslim friends was that they fought all the time about doctrine and would regularly tear each other down over religious disputes. They said that they could not believe in a faith tradition that was marked by such division and infighting.
However, as I have reflected on this further, I’ve come to the realization that this kind of “straw man” approach not only damages those within the Church, but also to those outside of it. How many times have we, as Christians, heard our fellow brothers and sisters tear down Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Pagans, Atheists, and Agnostics based on stereotypes of these religious and philosophical communities? In our attempts to highlight the unique features of our own faith tradition, are we denigrating and painting a false portrait of those from other backgrounds? I would argue that this is no less a violation of the Eighth Ninth Commandment than when we fall prey to infighting, for when we do this we are tearing down our neighbors. Furthermore, it destroys bridges to cooperation.
But the damage doesn’t end there, for these kinds of stereotypes actually do harm to us as well. When we start seeing an entire community of people through the lens of a stereotype we hinder our own ability to build meaningful relationships with people who are different from us. The reason is because our perception becomes our reality.
For example, if we start from the premise that evangelical Christians have weak or inaccurate theology, then we build up the impression in our own minds that we have nothing to learn from them. If we start from the premise that Muslims are violent, then we will never learn of the rich history of social justice and peacemaking work that has been done by pioneers within the Islamic community.
In so doing, we cut ourselves off from the powerful theological insights and social contributions that entire faith communities, within and outside of the global Church, are making. The truth is that often my own faith is strengthened when I learn from the insights of my brothers and sisters from other branches of the Christian church. Likewise, my appreciation of the arts, sciences, social activism, and yes, even theology, have been broadened as I have learned from my non-Christian neighbors.
So, if we must argue against people who have differences in opinion let’s be specific. Rather than saying things like, “Evangelicals believe….” or “Hindus think…”, it would be more helpful to say, “When I was at a theology conference, I had a disagreement with a particular presenter on the following issue…” or “When I read (insert specific title or author) I disagreed with (him/her) on the following point….”. Get specific. Address real-life disagreements that happened between specific individuals. Don’t paint broad strokes and don’t label an entire community.
My hope is that we would learn to disagree honestly and with integrity while still leaving the doors open for fellowship and mutual instruction. The truth is that we, as Christians, have significant theological differences with those inside and outside of our community. However, there is a way to discuss these differences while still communicating respect to others. Generosity must trump polemics and addressing specific concerns goes much further than condemning entire communities. My prayer is that at the seminaries and in the churches around the country, we build academic environments and ecclesial cultures based on respect, honest inquiry, and humble conviction.
Nick is currently enrolled full-time at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis in the M.Div program. He is the proud father of two kids and happily married to his wife of five years, Jenny. He writes regularly on his blog, Prodigal Preacher.
Read another Faith Line Protestants reflection on Bearing False Witness here.