Have you ever been frustrated at the prevalent disregard Americans show toward experts in fields that laypeople otherwise know nothing about? Joe Average who thinks he knows as much about the political system as the most educated person on Capitol Hill, Betty Bologna who refuses to listen to anyone on a subject now that she has read one blog post about it, or Conspiracy Corey who posts 15 obscure Facebook links a day from random corners of the internet – sure that he’s discovered the secret nobody else knows?
Well, Tom Nichols became frustrated enough that he wrote a book about it. The Death of Expertise is an important book which tries to tackle the issue of not only of why Americans can’t seem to dialogue anymore, but why we actually despise those who have expertise in fields that we do not. The argument is relatively simple: we don’t respect people who have more expertise than us anymore. As Nichols says it, “Americans now believe that having equal rights in a political system also means that each person’s opinion about anything must be equal to anyone else’s (p. 5).” Despite all of the advancements we have made as a society, “the result has not been a greater respect for knowledge, but the growth of an irrational conviction among Americans that everyone is as smart as everyone else…we now live in a society where the acquisition of even a little learning is the endpoint, rather than the beginning, of education. And this is a dangerous thing (p. 7).”
I agree. And as I set out to read the book, I couldn’t help but be struck at how accurately Nichols describes the predicament of American churches and Christians. There is an increasingly nasty disposition American Christians have toward one another, especially those who claim (rightly) a better understanding of the faith than they do. This is not only true of lay Christians toward pastors, leaders and scholars, but it is true between lay people themselves. The older and wiser saint no longer carries the respect of the youth which Scripture says is good and necessary for the health of the church (Leviticus 19:32, 1 Timothy 5:1-2, etc.). Trained leaders are despised for their instruction, rather than being honored for the position and charge God has given them (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, 1 Timothy 5:17-18, etc.)
One section of Death in particular has struck me in how much it applies to the state of the American Church, and that is the chapter on American higher education. It is in this chapter that Nichols attributes much of the “death of expertise” in America to the higher education system. As I read this chapter, I couldn’t help but find parallel after parallel between the problems besetting higher education and the American Church. I want to focus on three for the remainder of this post: The Sold Experience, Over Saturation, and Over Inflation.
- The Sold Experience
Although higher education was originally a place for the select few privileged people who could both afford the tuition and compete academically for their place in the school, “today attendance at postsecondary institutions is a mass experience (p. 71).” It is now the expectation that most people will – and everybody should attend college. Whereas obtaining a college degree once separated those with educational achievement from those without, this is no longer the case. The reality is however, that not everyone can or should make the cut to attend a college or university. But as higher education has become a product for the masses, it no longer guarantees a “college education” but instead a full-time experience of “going to college” (p. 72).
In other words, there is an increasing commodification of education. Students are not treated as such but instead are treated as clients. Those schools which know that they can’t compete for the highest tier of students instead focus on giving people what they want: a four-year getaway complete with apartment-style housing, state of the art recreation centers and Four-Star dining.
With remarkable similarities in many so-called churches in America, Christianity is no longer a system of beliefs and truths to know and be internalized but instead it has become an experience to share with others. Those churches which do not trust in the God-given means of conversion and growth (the preached Word, Sacraments) instead turn to selling an experience to attract the masses.
I recently went to the website of one very popular mega-church in my area to see what they believed and taught. It was extremely difficult to find a page that lists the church’s beliefs, and when I could, it was so generic and ambiguous that I could hardly distinguish it from a self-help center. Instead, the main page flooded me with information about their live-streaming services and the friendly, convenient experience I could have from the comforts of my own home. The “About Us” page contained testimonials – dare I say user testimonials – about how their life had changed since they bought the experience the church had sold them. I wasn’t quite sure if I was on a church website or something for essential oils (these days it seems like it could be one and the same).
Or consider the pamphlet I found in my mailbox for another local “church” which offered me a free week pass for my kids to attend their amazing indoor playground and recreation center. If I would just attend their church, my kids would have so much FUN while I would be ENERGIZED by the experience I’ll have. What does the church actually believe? Who knows, but at least I’ll have fun, right?
While these stories are anecdotal, we all know that these kinds of examples aren’t hard to find. When congregants become consumers, the Christianity they drink from is a watered-down and tasteless variant. The difficult task of confessional and Bible-teaching churches is to convince these people that even though they’ve shared in some generic barely-Christian experience, they haven’t yet tasted the real thing. This is often harder to do than just giving people the real thing in the first place.
Tell such a person that what they’ve bought into is unhealthy – often not even Christian – and the response is one grounded in experience and not Scripture. “My faith has grown tremendously through this, doesn’t that matter? People come into the faith through this, so who are you to say it’s wrong?” Well, if by faith you mean an ambiguous pseudo-Christian experience that they now sort of share with you, then I suppose you’re right. But if you mean an acceptance of the truths of the Triune God, the historic work of Jesus Christ on our behalf, the depths of our sins, and an application of Christ’s benefits to us – then I’m afraid you’d be terribly wrong.
After all, none of these things matter so long as you’ve bought into the shared experience of the “Christian” product of the masses.
- Over Saturation
If you can’t win people with their need for a robust and intense education, then you can certainly win them with a four-year getaway with their friends. If you can’t win people by preaching and singing the truths of the Scriptures every week, then you can certainly win them by promising they’ll have fun. Most of the time.
However, as the experience is bought up by the masses then the population becomes saturated with people who think they’ve obtained something they actually have not. Nichols points out how small state colleges and schools try to sell students into believing they’re paying for something that is actually a higher-tier product. They offer degree programs that they really aren’t qualified to teach – not only at the undergraduate levels, but at the graduate and doctoral levels as well. The problem here is when underqualified schools offer courses and degree programs as though they are equivalent to their better-known counterparts. Although there is a large quality gap between a competitive university and a “rebranded” smaller school, the student with the lesser-quality degree believes they have actually achieved the same degree as the student from the competitive university. If two students from two different schools have the same degree (even if it is in name only), how could your degree be better than mine? My view and opinion is just as important as yours – we have the same degree…even if my degree was from an unqualified and (perhaps) unaccredited program (p. 92).
The American Christian experience is facing a relatively similar phenomenon. Is every church the same? No. Does every church believe the same things? Not at all. Are all churches as rigorous for their demands from members or the education of their leaders? No. Yet, more and more, just because someone bought into the generic Christian experience they believe their opinion counts just as much as anyone else’s. The person who attends a non-denominational and entertainment-driven church once a month and who barely reads their Bible flaunts their opinion even more strongly than the 65-year-old woman who has attended church every Sunday and has studied the Bible daily under the tutelage of her pastors for generations. The individual who only knows enough out-of-context Scripture from the Gospels to proof text his or her views on social issues knows just as much about Christian ethics as the individual who could outline and quote extensively from numerous books of the Bible. The non-educated and untrained pastor believes their interpretation to be as valid as the pastor with two advanced degrees simply because they share a similar title.
This is absolutely ludicrous, and yet, it makes sense if one judges being Christian not off of beliefs held but an experience that is shared.
- Over Inflation
When college becomes an experience to be sold rather than a degree to be earned and the population becomes saturated with individuals buying up the product, then the business needs to carry to the client. At the university level, this means the student is always right – even when it comes to their grades.
As Nichols points out, as the cost for the college experience goes up, so too does the demand for better grades. Students who graduate with a high GPA no longer reflect their level of education or intellectual achievement. A study of two hundred colleges and universities through 2009 found that A was the most commonly given grade. Grades in the A and B range now account for more than 80 percent of all grades in all subjects. In 2012, the most frequently given grade at Harvard was a straight A. At Yale, more than 60 percent of all grades are either A or A-. High grades are now rewarded not for academic achievement, but simply for course completion (pp. 94-95).
And so, in similar fashion, as the Sunday church service becomes an experience to be sold and the population becomes saturated with individuals who have bought into a shared experience, the business starts to cater to the client. Give the people what they want – fun, entertainment, positivity. Tell people how good they are in a bigger, louder, faster and sleeker fashion. Stay away from the stuff that turns people away – sin, consequences, repentance, and divisive topics.
Fortunately, this is where the similarities end and we find a major difference between the American church and university. Church leaders and pastors may believe they’re able to come up with new and ingenious ways to grow churches and sell the Christian experience, but ultimately all of these means will fail. We may try to do what we think is best to grow numbers and get more people into seats, but ultimately it is God who gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:5-9). Christ builds his church, not the “wisdom” of man.
So, perhaps, if we want more people to share in the faith which we hold, we should stop selling them some generic notion of a common experience. Instead, let’s give them the full and wonderful truths about our God, about ourselves, and our glorious savior which the Bible so beautifully lays out for us. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Corinthians 1:25).”
But then again, what do I know? Your opinion is probably just as good as mine.
If you’d like to read this in PDF format, please click here.
My brother will forever be one of my heroes.
Joe Hein was a tireless humanitarian. Skilled in business, he instead spent many of his years relentlessly advocating for the less fortunate. Joe spent some time as a peace-keeper in Bosnia during the crisis there. While he was in the United States, he worked for a senator and strongly advocated for reading programs for underprivileged students in the inner city of Washington D.C. He also worked hard to get similar programs started on Native American Reservations in South Dakota. This was a man who didn’t have much, but emptied his wallet every time he passed a homeless person on the streets. Charming, intelligent, gentle, kind and attractive – Joe Hein was looked up to by others for inspiration and hope.
More importantly, he was the best older brother I ever could’ve asked for. He was 17 years my senior, which meant that he was graduating high school and leaving the house around the time I was born. As far back as I can remember, my brother had something of a “legend” status in my head. When he came home from college, his older brother game was always on point. He taught me how to read a clock, and he encouraged me to read with bribes. He played basketball with me in the driveway, and took me out to train as a skee-ball champion at Chuck E. Cheese. He trained me up in the ways of Dallas Cowboy fandom. He wasn’t afraid to show me physical affection, and he modeled compassion and mercy for me when he took me to serve in homeless shelters with him.
On April 25, 2000, we lost my brother to the monster called depression. Even the strongest and bravest knights can fall to this beast.
Depression has seen increasing awareness in recent years – and for good reason. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, nearly 18% of the U.S. population suffers from some kind of anxiety-depression disorder. Major Depressive Disorder is the leading cause of disability between ages 15 to 44, affecting 15 million people (about 7% of the population). Of course, these are conservative statistics as many who are silently suffering don’t come forward to ask for help.
Yet, despite all of the advancements in awareness and treatment, depression still has something of a stigma in our general culture. It is rarely talked about; and our silence encourages sufferers to persist in silence. Silence perpetuates shame, and shame perpetuates depression. It is a vicious cycle which many people fear they can never escape.
Perhaps part of the problem is we don’t like the fact that depression does not fit neatly into one paradigm. It’s not as simple as positive thinking. Many individuals will still struggle even after receiving years of the best counseling available. While medicine can be of great benefit to some, it can also make symptoms worse. As a Christian, I believe the message of the gospel offers great hope to sufferers of depression. Yet I also know that it’s not as simple as “take two doses of John 3:16 and call me in the morning.” The Bible doesn’t paint the human experience so naively and neither should we.
In fact, I think the Bible gives us much wisdom and insight into better caring for those who suffer from depression. In memory of my brother and – in the hopes that as a result of his death I may be able to help others who suffer as he once did – I want to offer a few pieces of this wisdom to you in the remainder of this article. I remember him say that he used cbd oil for anxiety and his depression every day to improve his mood.
First, the Bible presents us with a robust understanding of the human being. Depression is often met with one of two extreme solutions today. The first is a hyper-physical view of the person: all our problems are either medical issues within the body or originate from not having our physical needs (food, sleep, sex, etc.) met. The second view is a hyper-spiritual one, which centers our problems in our wrong beliefs about ourselves. If we think/feel/believe more positive things about ourselves, our issues (i.e. depression, etc.) will go away.
In the middle of these two extremes is the biblical view of the person. Commonly referred to as the dichotomist view, the Bible presents the human being as both material and immaterial, both a physical and a spiritual being. Some might call us an “embodied soul” – a term I really like. There are many places in Scripture which show this view, but I will just highlight a few of them:
- God made man out of two substances, dust and spirit (Genesis 2:7).
- As Christians, when we die our bodies return to the ground but our spirits return to God (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
- Christ summarizes the person as both body and soul (Matthew 10:28).
Paul, in his defense of the resurrection, cannot comprehend of a person without a corporeal nature (1 Corinthians 15:35-49).
What does this mean for us? It means that we should expect suffering like depression to have both physical and spiritual symptoms. It means we need to labor hard to care for the entire person, and not just a part. It means we shouldn’t try to neatly fit out friends into a one-size-fits-all paradigm.
It also means we must distinguish between physical and spiritual symptoms. This is important for two reasons: 1) because we do not want to hold people morally responsible for a physical symptom, and 2) we do not want to excuse spiritual problems or lose hope for spiritual growth when there has been a psychiatric or physical diagnosis. Here are some examples of what it might look like to distinguish between physical and spiritual symptoms for someone who is going through depression.
Insomnia or hypersomnia
Secondly, the Bible reminds us of the painful realities of life. The world isn’t sunshine and rainbows for anybody. Many of us want a quick solution that will fix our many problems and struggles. Some people will even sell Christianity to you in that way – as if confessing belief in Christ will make all your problems go away.
Yet the Bible doesn’t give us a quick solution, nor does it fool us into believing that following God leads to an easy life. In fact, the greatest heroes of the Christian faith all suffered immense physical and spiritual torment. Moses doubted his call as a prophet and was often chastised or even betrayed by his family and the Israelites. After defeating the prophets of Baal, Elijah retreated into the wilderness by himself (in an episode strangely similar to depression) and wished death upon himself (1 Kings 19:1-18). Jesus was a man of much sorrow (Isaiah 53:3), and after being betrayed and abandoned by his 12 closest friends he cried out to his Father, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me (Matthew 27:46)?” The Apostle Paul, having faced much suffering, despaired even of life itself (2 Corinthians 1:8).
Why does this matter? Knowing the realities of this life, we are able to have compassion on people in the midst of their suffering and trials. Rather than giving them platitudes which we know won’t help, we can meet them with hope and strength to persevere to the end, even if the darkness never lifts in this life. Which brings me to my last point.
Finally, Christianity offers us real hope. Clearly I don’t mean the kind of hope which says, “Believe this and your depression will go away.” I’ve met many people whose faith has transformed their struggles with depression; I’ve met many people who have still needed years of counseling and medicine to coincide with their Christian faith. So what kind of hope do I mean?
The Bible teaches us that when we confess saving faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, we are adopted into the eternal family of God. Adoption is the height of our privilege as God’s people. This doctrine reminds us that in our salvation we are brought into a family. While we were formerly separate from God and walking in darkness, we are now “called children of God, and so we are” (1 John 3:1). As we become sons and daughters in our vertical relationship to God, we become brothers and sisters in our horizontal relationship to one another.
Our society today wants us to believe that our worth and value is based on our own decisions and merit. Our surround culture says that worth and value are measured by our job performance, our charity and good deeds, or even our sexuality. If we haven’t found our worth in these things, then we need to keep looking until we’re fulfilled. Is it any wonder that depression is on the rise with each passing year? Failing to achieve these standards of worth only sets us up for doubt and disappointment.
In stark contrast, the Christian knows that their worth or merit is not found in themselves, but it is found in the very fact that they belong to a loving Father. Even when we don’t believe it, even when we don’t want to believe it – it’s still true. Once we’re adopted into the family of God we bear his stamp forever upon us, a stamp which reads: loved, valued, precious, beautiful, created with purpose, a child with full access to all the rights and privileges of a son or daughter of God. It’s a bit of a mouthful.
This is a hope that points us away from the things we’ve chosen to give us purpose and define us, and towards the only title which we need to give us purpose: child of God.
When we properly understand what it means to be adopted into the family of God, we know that we can’t abandon our brothers or sisters to face their struggles alone. Because our worth is found not in the things of this world but in the arms of a loving father, there is no effort, no amount of time, no amount of love that is too much for the people of God to give to those in our midst going through any kind of struggle. That is simply what family does; they care for and love one another when all other lights go out.
So, what can you do to help people struggling with depression that you know? I’d like to offer six things:
- Read this article I wrote. This isn’t shameful self-promotion, but I know many people who have been greatly helped by the material in this article. It is a much more in-depth approach to some of what you’ve already read here.
- Pray. Pray for them, pray for your own heart. Pray that God would lift them out of the mire, and give you a greater compassion for their particular kind of suffering – especially if you haven’t struggled with depression yourself.
- Listen. Be Present. Often, bearing each other’s burdens looks less like speaking and simply lending a listening ear and a bodily present. Simple, small reminders go a long way (“You’re not alone”, “I’m here”, “It’s not your fault”).
- Offer your service, not answers. It’s impossible for us to have the answer and solution for someone else’s depression. But, you can offer yourself as an aid during their struggle. Ask them, “What can I do to serve you?”, or “Can I go with you?” (to their counseling sessions, should they be in counseling). Counseling can often be more effective when someone you trust comes with you.
- When the time is right, encourage them with the gospel. Charles Spurgeon once said, “If we suffer, we suffer with Christ; if we rejoice we should rejoice with him. Bodily pain should help us to understand the cross, and mental depression should make us apt scholars at Gethsemane.” Remind our friends who are struggling that our suffering confirms our adoption and status as co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17), that we have a savior who knows the pain and struggle that we are going through and meets us in our pain and need.
- Ask the hard questions. Even though it may be difficult or awkward, don’t shy away from the hard questions. “What kind of thoughts are you having?” and “Have you thought about hurting yourself?” are important questions to ask when people are going through depression. If they have thought about bringing themselves physical harm, then it is important to pursue immediate help through their counselor or some other means. Contact your pastor, their counselor or other family that can help during this time.
Finally, if you or someone you know are going through depression at this time, I want to highly recommend this book to you.
There is a temptation when we look back on figures in history to view them as a finished product; individuals who began their life’s journey in as prolific of a manner as the way they ended it. The Reformed tradition often gets this wrong when we look back on figures like John Calvin. We know of his incredible achievements, yet there is another side to John Calvin: a man who suffered much and caused sufferings for others, a man who got as many things wrong as he got right, a man who struggled with the sins of pride and poor temperament. I have learned much from Calvin’s works and his successes, but I’d like to suggest at least four lessons that we can all learn from some of his mistakes and failures in his early years of ministry.
By 1536 John Calvin had begun his work of ministry in the city of Geneva, Switzerland. He showed much promise in his zeal and understanding of the Scriptures. By 1535 he already had a first edition of The Institutes printed, and it was a complete enigma to everyone how a twenty-five-year-old man who never had formal theological training could write such a magnificent work. Older pastors and Reformers were inclined to take interest in his success and training.
We have letters that were exchanged between at least two of his mentors: Martin Bucer and Simon Grynaeus. In these letters we find a furious and intemperate Calvin who made accusations of his mentors. Bucer’s response to Calvin was firm, and he told Calvin that everything he did was out of love. Calvin understood what Bucer was implying: for all of his theology, Calvin lacked love. Bucer’s rebuke crushed Calvin.
In a similar fashion, Simon Grynaeus wrote to Calvin and rebuked him for his rancid language toward other church leaders. Grynaeus pointed out Calvin’s arrogance, and told him he was too prideful over his education and superior intellect. Between these two men, Calvin was crushed by the weight of his own relational sins. His youth and immaturity brought out his lack of love, his arrogance, and his pride.
Lesson 1: Youth breeds immaturity. Speaking as a person in ministry who hasn’t yet passed the age of thirty, this is a lesson I don’t like to hear. Like Calvin, I have often committed the arrogant sin of making accusations toward older leaders in ministry that were simply a result of me not being able to see the full picture. Certainly no one should be despised for their youth (1 Tim. 4:12). Yet this doesn’t change the fact that youth and inexperience is fertile soil for pride and immaturity. Young Christians would be wise to give the proper weight to the insight and experience of older brothers and sisters in the faith.
Calvin’s pride and arrogance had not yet gotten the best of him. Along with William Farel (another Reformation leader in Geneva), they had entered into a conflict with a council in Berne (the capital of Switzerland) over the minor issue of liturgical rites that should be used in the worship of the church. Calvin soon began denouncing the Bernese Council from the pulpit, calling them the “council of the devil.” He was quickly labeled as a hot-headed troublemaker, especially after he and Farel began refusing communion rites to the whole city of Geneva. The Bernese Council ordered Calvin and Farel to leave the city within three days.
What happened next still astonishes me and breaks my heart. Calvin and Farel headed to Zurich, but stopped in Berne to try and make a deposition while they were there. The two men openly lied to the Council and presented a very tailored account of the conflict, claiming that they had never opposed the Bernese liturgical rites and that a conspiracy had been mounted against them. Calvin’s attempt to win over the Council by openly lying to them backfired, and his reputation was severely damaged.
Lesson 2: Words have the power to destroy. Gossip and envy are the greatest enemies of God’s people. There is no quicker way to tear down unity in the church than with our words. This was clearly the problem in the church James addressed in his epistle, as his rebukes over taming the tongue come just before his admonishment about the envy which was tearing apart the church (James 3:1-4:4). All it takes is saying one thing we shouldn’t have said, and then it is out there forever to wreak havoc on relationships and friendships. In Calvin’s case, his words both publicly and private brought disaster and ruin. Not only did his personal relationships and reputation suffer, but the broader church in Switzerland suffered as well. It is important for Christians to resolve never to speak ill of another, or we too will bring similar consequences on our life and in our churches. Gossip and slander are never worth it.
A synod arose in Zurich made up of the leading Swiss churchmen and reformers. Multiple issues were discussed at this synod, in particular an ongoing dispute with Luther over the Lord’s Supper. Calvin and Farel were also a subject of discussion, and it was to their shame when they realized that they were regarded as the problem in Geneva, not the victims. In the eyes of these leading reformers, they had committed the horrid sin of bringing discord and division to the church.
Lesson 3: Unity and charity have priority over winning an argument. In other words, we want to win people – not arguments. Calvin was learning a lesson that many evangelicals need to learn today: have unity in the majors, and charity in the minors. The way we dispute amongst ourselves about doctrinal disagreements still needs to reflect the kind of love and unity Jesus prayed for in the Garden (John 17:20-26).
By this point, Calvin was beginning to learn all of these lessons too. He had bruised pride and a shattered ego – and it showed. Calvin doubted his calling to serve the church and was hesitant to resume the work again. In one letter to another church leader he wrote, “For though when first I took it up I could discern the calling of God which held me fast and by which I consoled myself, now, on the contrary, I am in fear that I would tempt him if I were to resume so great a burden, which I have already felt so insupportable.” Calvin drifted and felt a loss of purpose or meaning. Over the next three-and-a-half years, he meditated on these lessons he had learned. By the time he returned to Geneva in 1541, he had grown in wisdom and maturity and in many ways became the winsome and pastoral leader we regard him as today.
Lesson 4: Growth doesn’t come without resistance. It’s just as true for us physically as it is spiritually. One of the repeated themes of the Bible is that the Lord uses pain and trial to refine us more into the image of Christ (Hebrews 12:3-17. 1 Peter 1:3-7). When we first become Christians, many of us walk around with a kind of spiritual swagger. Through trial and affliction, the Lord gives us a limp to remind us of our daily need for his grace. Don’t underestimate what God is doing in your difficult season.
 Material for this article was taken from Bruce Gordon’s biography, Calvin. Particularly, chapters five and six.
I have no formal education in training in how to debate well. The closest I come to having formal debate experience is years of failure from when I believed Facebook debates (“discussions” is what I used to call them) could actually create healthy discourse. I’ve also watched Jim Carrey’s Liar Liar probably one too many times, but I have a feeling that his portrayal of courtroom antics isn’t exactly true-to-life.
Fortunately, there is one debate concept that I have managed to pick up on over the years that has shaped how I engage in public discourse. That is this: there is a difference between making a negative argument or a positive argument. To put it another way, there is a difference between making a negative case against the position you disagree with and making a positive case for the position you hold. In order to make a complete and persuasive argument, you must be able to articulate both a negative and positive case. Otherwise your argument is incomplete and ineffective.
Unfortunately, I think this is a concept that many Christians need to learn (truth be told, I think the general consensus would be that Western society needs to learn this concept – but that is outside of the scope of this article!). Too often I find that when Christians engage publicly with other people and try to make a case for their views, they only do so by making a negative case against the position they disagree with. I rarely hear persuasive and positive arguments for the Christian faith. Many Christians are good at pointing out what they don’t like about other people’s views and positions; they’re not so good at positively articulating why their view or beliefs are better.
Friends, it is a very bitter tasting flavor of Christianity which can only make a case for itself by tearing down the views of others.
I’ve seen this play out not only when Christians engage non-Christians, but also when Christians engage other believers in areas where they happen to disagree. This sad reality then creates a Church where Christians are unable to engage in healthy disagreement and conversation because we’ve so negatively painted other views and positions. Nobody said we have to agree on every theological issue, but we do need to engage each other with love (John 17:20-26, Galatians 5:6). That means we need to be able to emphasize positive arguments for our positions, rather than focusing on what we think is wrong with other views.
Here are a few examples of the kinds of negative argument’s I’ve seen come from Christians the last few years:
- Christianity is right because your religion is wrong. This point is really a bucket for all kinds of poor arguments for Christianity I have heard. One example I have frequently heard is, “Christianity is true because prophets from all the other world religions are still dead!” Ok, true. But what is it about Jesus’ resurrection that actually makes a case for why I can and should trust him? What positive impact does Jesus being raised from the dead actually have on my life? Why does it matter?
I’ve also heard arguments such as, “Christianity is true because other worldviews don’t make proper sense of the world.” Maybe so. But how does Christianity make better sense out of the world?
I was recently sitting in a skeptics meeting where a popular Christian evangelist was brought up. Every single one of the skeptics I was meeting with an aversion to this evangelist because of what he represented to them: someone who couldn’t make a good case for Christianity and instead jumped around from subject to subject trying to tear apart the atheist position. Is this the kind of evangelism we want to be known for?
- Your church has poor worship because it’s not regulative enough. This is something I hear often in Reformed circles. We’re really good at critiquing seeker-sensitive mega-church worship, but we’re really terrible at articulating why the Regulative Principle of worship is both better and healthier in the life of the church.
- Your view of spiritual gifts is wrong because it’s dangerous. I’ve heard this come from either side of the continuationist/cessationist debate. Cessationists will often charge continuationists with dangerous manipulation and expressions of the sign gifts in churches. Continuationists accuse cessationists of “quenching the Spirit,” or imposing some kind of authoritarian rule from the pulpit. This only leads to stereotyping and misrepresentation of our brothers and sisters in Christ. We need to be able to lovingly and clearly articulate why our views are both more biblical and healthier for the life of God’s people today before we jump to negative conclusions about someone else’s views.
- The way you read the Bible is wrong and unhealthy. This argument can come in many forms. I’ve heard people attack the method of Bible reading (“You’re reading is too individualistic” or, “You’re not Christ-centered enough”, etc.). I’ve also heard attacks on the very concept of individual Bible reading (“Christians can’t interpret the Bible on their own” or, “Bible reading should only be done in community”, etc.). There may be truth in these criticisms. But you need to be able to make a positive case for how you want me to read the Bible rather than just making a case against how I do it.
These are just a selection of the kinds of things I commonly hear in Christian circles. Friends, if we want to see our non-Christian friends persuaded to the glories of our faith, then we need to be able to make a positive case for what we believe. And we need to start by being able to make a positive case for what we believe with each other. If we’re unable to do this together as the family of God, how will we ever do it well with those who are looking in from the outside?
In the beginning of Tim Keller’s book Making Sense of God, he longs for a culture where people are able to engage with each other in healthy and respectful discourse. He longs for the kind of place where “people who deeply differ nonetheless listen long and carefully before speaking. There people would avoid all strawmen and treat each other’s objections and doubts with respect and seriousness. They would stretch to understand the other side so well that their opponents could say, ‘you represent my position in a better and more compelling way that I can myself.’”
I too long for this kind of healthy discourse. One of the ways we’ll get there is if we can learn how to emphasize positive arguments before we use negative arguments in our discourse and conversation. Let’s grow in this together.