I was asked by a friend recently, “How do we possibly argue for biblical truth with all of the contentious issues in our world today?”
The answer I gave to my friend has not changed: “However we do it, we must do it with humility.”
We live in a culture that thrives on inflated opinions, disagreements, and conflicts. No genre of discussion is immune — whether it be politics, current events, sports, historical interpretation, entertainment, and yes, of course, matters of faith. We like to think that most of our strongly held opinions are about really important issues. In reality, though, our opinions about issues are probably not about the issues at all. They are actually opinions about others. Issues don’t make us angry; the people involved in the issues are what really raise our blood pressure. In many cases, we feel like it is nearly impossible to keep our opinions to ourselves. Without a doubt, there are times when we ought to speak up and speak out. There are also right and wrong ways to do it. This is especially true when it comes to disagreements about our faith — with those who claim to be believers and with those who do not.
Philip Jakob Spener is known as the “Father of German Pietism.” The Pietists of the seventeenth century sought to reform the Lutheran church amidst theological, moral, social, and political corruption. As a result, they found themselves on several occasions in the midst of religious controversy and disagreement, more often than not against those who also claimed Christianity as their system of faith. For Spener, what was of the utmost importance was that believers found ways to disagree with humility, grace, and mercy towards each other; and even towards those who had been labeled “heretics”. In the selection included below, you can clearly see Spener’s reliance on the concluding words of the Book of Jude, reminding his readers that showing mercy to each other is a clear command of the New Testament.
In his short, yet brilliant work Pia Desideria (c. 1675), Spener offers six ways believers ought to learn to disagree with others — whether with believers, non-believers, or “heretics”.
- Pray for those who are “in error”. Pray that God might bring them to a fuller knowledge of His truth so that they might be saved from error or, more importantly, saved from death “like a brand plucked from the fire” (Jude 22). Remember: Jesus Himself demonstrated this kind of prayer in the first three statements of the Lord’s Prayer: “that God may hallow His name in them, bring His kingdom to them, and accomplish His gracious will in and for them.”
- Be a good example for them. We should do our best to not offend them, but rather to leave conviction to the Holy Spirit. Remember: “If we offend them unnecessarily, we might give them a bad impression of our true teaching and hence would make their conversion more difficult.”
- Present your arguments firmly, but always with humility, modesty, and decency. Those with whom we disagree ought to always know that “we do so out of heartfelt love and concern for them and their paths. We must be careful to never argue out of carnal and unseemly feelings, and never indulge in excessive vehemence unless we are sure it comes out of a pure zeal for the glory of God.” Remember: “We should always avoid personal attacks or accusations, for they will only tear down all of the good we have in mind to build.”
- Offer clear expressions of “heartfelt love” in our speech and actions towards those to whom you are opposed. We should always “demonstrate that we consider such people to be our neighbors (just as the Samaritan was represented by Christ in Luke 10:29-37 as the neighbor of the injured man.” To use harsh words against a person’s religious beliefs comes from pride of the flesh and such actions are likely to hinder the conversion of others who are lost. Remember: “A proper hatred of false religion should neither suspend nor weaken the love that is due the other person.”
- Hold to a strong desire for unity among all confessing Christian brothers an sisters. Remember: “True unity that is blessed by God will not be achieved by intense arguments, but ‘by true repentance and holiness of life.'” (1)
Spener’s conclusion: “Not all disputation is useful and good . . . proper disputation is not the only means of maintaining the truth but requires other means alongside it.” In other words, if we want to earn the attention of those with whom we disagree, our opinions and arguments that we consider to be on the side of truth should be accompanied by clear evidences of respect for the other person.
In parting, consider the words of Jude which Spener so clearly assumes in the teaching above:
But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh. (Jude 1:20-23 ESV)
(1) Here Spener is quoting his predecessor Johann Ardnt, a German Lutheran who sowed the earliest seeds of Pietism.