As cultural discussions and debates continue to roll regarding the sanctity of human life, validity of same-sex marriage, the acceptance of infanticide, genetic modification, racial differences and “coming to a theater near you,” it is crystal clear that many self-identified Christians are ill-equipped for public debate. This is not to say they should be forbidden from the arena; this is America. You do not need a reason for your opinion, good, bad or ugly. We are constitutionally protected to hold almost any position for almost any reason or no reason at all.
Having an opinion, however, is not the same as convincing others of its truth or value. Christians are really adept at the first. On the second? The phrase “clanging cymbal” does spring to mind.
Many online conversations degenerate into shriek-fests with political opponents calling each other names, casting aspersions on motives, questioning opponents’ heritage, doubting their IQ, breaking Godwin’s Law, or missing the point entirely. Sadly, Christians are not always leaders in the way forward.
Here are three simple things Christians should remember about public debate:
1. A growing number of unbelievers no longer accept what the Bible teaches about any given subject. If your best arguments all begin with “The Bible says such and such” you are probably losing the debate without realizing it. We can and should expect non-believers to not believe. We interact more and more with people who are unsettled on any one belief system. We are foolish and slow of mind to expect them to be convinced simply because we are. We are also foolish to think the loudest voice carries the argument.
In decades gone by Americans had a mostly unified sense of right and wrong. Most tended toward a Christian worldview even if they were not aware of it. This is not to say most were Christians; most were not. But, even unbelievers adhered to a moral code influenced by centuries of Christian thought. Nostalgia misses that slice of “Christendom,” but it has faded.
Today, increasingly, if you want to invoke God in public debate you must defend why faith has a place in the marketplace of ideas, how to distinguish between faith and philosophy, why the secular arguments of many are actually built on faith, the limits of religion on the constitution, and on and on. If followers of Christ are not willing to learn beyond the narrow constraints of talk radio, televised spin rooms and online “news,” our arguments will remain poorly constructed and ineffective.
2. A growing number of Christians do not know what the Bible teaches about any given subject. If a pastor wants to know how most of his church comprehends the Bible all he need to is spend a few hours on Facebook, Twitter or blog comment threads.
Forget nuanced theological debates. Try the “big picture” of the text; the story of God and His redemptive plan. An alarming number of our people are biblical imbeciles wielding a few choice verses like textual clubs to put a beat down on anyone with a different opinion. It’s like a polemical Hunger Games for those kinds of people.
If you can’t convince your Sunday School class, there is a decent chance the Net will not bow to your position, either.
Related to this is that the growing number of subjects the Bible does not address directly–issues that fall into gray areas. How does a follower of Christ deal with the capital punishment if the system that forces the lethal injection is rife with problems? How do we ensure constitutional rights for Americans? Does the Bible clearly speak to either limited or large government? How much of the Old Testament directly applies to believers today?
3. Standing for “our way of life” is not “earnestly contending for the faith.” Since before the founding of the Republic some have zealously but grievously interwoven Christianity with the American Dream. Many Christians believe their particular brand of patriotism is necessary to be a follower of Christ. I do not push too far to suggest “mom, baseball and apple pie” stands alongside to “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” for some.
This unhealthy, unholy hybrid of Christianity and hyper-nationalism has cheapened the former and lent presumptive divine authority to the latter. When a church baptizes converts under the American flag rather than the cross–as I witnessed one July 4–it is Christians, not unbelievers, who stand on the brink of blasphemy.
Followers of Jesus stand for the unborn not because we are the land of the free and home of the brave. We stand for the unborn not because the Declaration of Independence mentions a right to life. We stand for the unborn because the Bible teaches the Imago Dei, and commands us to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.
We should practice lifelong, heterosexual marriage not because the Founding Fathers didn’t envision same-sex marriage, but because Jesus affirmed the former not the latter. We should speak out against injustice in all its forms not first because we are Americans, but first because Micah 6:8 (and dozens of other texts) reveal God’s anger against it.
More than ever followers of Jesus should be engaged in public debate and discussion. And more than ever we should be wise as serpents yet harmless as doves so someone might stay around long enough to listen.
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