One of our defining ironies as Christians is that we love unity, yet we are often obsessed with disagreeing. Believers play their own version of “Family Feud,” sharply dividing even over what unity means. Much of the noise that passes for Christian dialogue today lacks an element of class. Social media has armed the masses with the ability to add their voices to these conflicts, either to devour the other tribe or to cheer for their team.
Internal disputes are ingrained in our history, even since the early church, when Paul harangued Peter for joining the “circumcision party,” a.k.a. “the no-Gentiles-allowed-at-the-dinner-table club” (Galatians 2:11-14).
The 18th century, as historian George Marsden says, was an “age of debate.” Theology students at Harvard and Yale were well-trained in rhetoric and argumentation, exchanging vitriol and cutting witticisms with little reservation. The brilliant thinker and prolific writer Jonathan Edwards had his share of public controversies. Today, as then, success in ministry inevitably leads to celebrity status. And, for better or for worse, many look to these figures as representatives of a position and either support or oppose them for it.
In one public debate, however, Edwards raised the bar for how Christians during his time should engage each other. His principles can help Christian leaders and their followers today.
- Don’t compromise your Christian character and mission when trying to make your point. You’re funny and clever. But you’re also a Christian who committed your life to imitating Christ and edifying fellow believers. Edwards had felt that his opponents acted “much against the honor of Christ, the interest of Christianity, and to the prejudice of the ministerial character.” People look especially to ministers to set an example of love, charity, and grace. That’s a far greater responsibility than making others look stupid — even though it’s really tempting sometimes.
- Give a good argument. Edwards had no respect for ministers who wanted to set all issues aside for the sake of unity as if the differences didn’t exist or matter. Such unity is artificial and empty. So don’t hesitate to voice your thoughts. But exert your energies into building a good case rather than tearing down your opponent. “Ridicule,” said Edwards, “is cheaper than solid argument, though much less worthy of a gospel minister.” Don’t waste your intelligence on mockery, even when it’s subtle.
- The cause, rather than your personality, should motivate why and how you argue. Of course personalities are involved, but people are too often driven more by public image than by the cause they promote. This results in immature and tasteless expressions and actions that never ultimately benefit anyone. Use your personality not to boost yourself but to contribute to the welfare of others. Edwards wrote, “Don’t let us, reverend sir, try who can conquer at scoff and jeer, but let our arguments fight it out; not that we glory in the strength of our reason, but we glory in the goodness of our cause.”
- Be sober rather than a belligerent aggressor or smart aleck. Show some class. Edwards was forceful in his controversies, but he was also sober about it. As the Apostle Paul tells us, Christian leaders should be sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, gentle, and dignified, and these traits should characterize all Christian controversy (I Timothy 3:2-3).