I have to admit I can be a bit of a jerk when it comes to theological (or really any for that matter) debate. I get aggressive and antagonistic; I view the other person as my opponent who I must defeat, must drive deep into the ground. Sometimes that can be fun for both people, when the debate itself is the point. I could argue almost any point because I think its fun.
Sometimes the “debate” is not really like that though. Sometimes people want to really hash out ideas and learn and grow through discussion. When that is the goal my attitude and approach are very inappropriate, but I tend to fall into those habits rather easily. I know this can hurt folks, and can lead them to dislike me, my opinions, and sadly sometimes turn them off from God and theology. It saddens me to know I have done this to folks and I want to sincerely apologize if you have been at the receiving end of my aggressive hurtful attitude in discussion.
In light of this I have thought and prayed a lot about the right way to approach these kinds of discussion; how to learn from and grow with others who may not agree with me. Is it ok to let people have wrong opinions? Should I push them beyond where they are willing to go in hopes of changing their minds? How do I convince someone they are wrong when they are unwilling to listen to reason? These are the wrong questions. They come from a self-righteous and arrogant heart.
I try to think differently now when talking with people who may propose a different (not necessarily wrong) view than my own. I think that distinction, between different and wrong, plays a big role in the right approach. Could their view be wrong? Possibly. Do I KNOW it is wrong? Not really.
So here are some things that I think are important when looking at other people’s views and opinions:
First, try to really understand what the other person thinks. This makes me go against my natural instinct when I hear words like “free will” or “premillenialism” or “clergy” or “church” (referring to a building or event). When I hear these words or other red flags I immediately assume I know exactly what that person thinks. I don’t. I need to seriously listen and try my best to understand what that one individual is trying to tell me. Maybe I do agree with him, maybe I don’t, but unless I know what he is REALLY trying to tell me I will have no idea what I think of his opinions.
Second, try to understand WHY he believes what he does. Maybe he has some information I don’t. Maybe he has really solid reasons for what he thinks. The thing is that unless I understand why that person thinks the way he does I won’t be able to truly engage with him, because I will attack what I THINK are his reasons. I need to try and understand his thought process and logic behind his beliefs and engage with those, instead of my cookie cutter arguments.
Third, desire to learn and grow together, not win. This is the big part. I don’t want to understand what someone thinks and why he thinks it simply to better my chances of winning him over to my opinion, or to beat him in argument, I want to understand what he believes and why so that I can learn from him, and so I can share my applicable thoughts to our discussion in hopes of helping him learn from my thoughts and reasons.
Fourth, understand that these beliefs may be very important to that person. Instead of trashing and tearing apart this person’s opinions, treat them (and him) with respect. Understand that I am dealing with important subjects that are the basis for how this person lives his life and treat them (and him) with appropriate dignity and respect. This person I am talking to is important and his opinions are meaningful to him. If I drag his opinions through the mud I do not demonstrate love or care for him, and even if I win the argument I will not convince him of anything other than my own arrogance and self-righteousness.
Fifth, know that I can be and probably am wrong, or at least that my opinions are not completely true and perfect. I list this last just because it is what will really change the way I talk to others. It is the heart change that will result in the previous points. If I am open to the possibility that I don’t know everything and that what I believe may not be perfectly right will change the way I approach discussion. It will change my thoughts from “how do I convince this person?” to “what can I learn from this person?” When I seek to learn from others I will be much more apt to try and understand what they think, why they think it, how we can grow in our conversation, and I will be demonstrating respect for that person.
Why debate, why discuss, why converse? If it is not to build each other up then maybe, and very likely, it is wrong and selfish. I hope in the future to win friends not arguments, to help, not beat those I talk to, to glorify Christ, and not myself in my conversations.