Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What Will You Do While Your Straw Man Burns?

First, credit where credit is due. Thanks Ben Kappers for getting me thinking about this.

The great danger in any "inner ring" is that we talk to ourselves, and thereby become firmly convinced that we are right, and the other guy is not just wrong, but stupid, evil, and a bum.

There is a great danger of this in the gospel ministry. Our friends, sad to say, are all people who think pretty much like us. Even in the ranks of ministers in a denomination with a common and heavily-enforced statement of faith, we subdivide into particular camps, and rarely are friends with the "other guy." There are twin sad results. One is, our rationales for our own positions are weaker than they need to be. The second is, we fail to love the others, and become prideful of our own opinions.

How this might be handled in the church (where reproof, standing up for truth and correction are necessary things) is a subject for another day. The topic for today is the world.

So, a ministerial student or other ardent young Christian has been taught in his Jesus incubator that all atheists are not only wrong but stupid, angry, selfish people, that all homosexuals have deep personal issues, that all secularists and statists are just self-interested fools.

Then, God, in his good providence, puts them in contact with the world. And maybe they meet a real, living atheist who feeds the poor, is kind and generous, and doesn't care much that you are a Christian, if it works for you.

Or, he meets a homosexual who is a decent person, no more "flawed" than he himself is, and pretty likable, diffident, and humble.

Or, he develops a friendship with a liberal who really does think that government is the answer to the worlds problems, and is a sincere, devoted friend.

What then? His whole paradigm crumbles. Sometimes, he starts to question everything he's been taught. If those who taught me are so seriously wrong about this, what else in my world-view is wrong?

I think of two models in this regard. One is my mentor who maintained a close friendship with the atheist minister of the prominent self-described "liberal" church. This was no mealy-mouthed liberal, but a fiery, strong, and very intelligent man, as my mentor is. Yet, they respected one another, loved one another, even as each was firmly convinced of the other's error. The bond was love and respect, not agreement of opinion.

The other model is a pastoral friend in Western North Carolina who, for years, has carried on productive dialog with local abortionists. Does he want to change their minds and practices? OF course he does. Why? Because he loves them as much as he loves the unborn, I suspect. Are they murderers? Well, so am I.

And, this is something we in the church need to learn. Nobody out there is any more particularly evil than we ourselves are, by nature. A homosexual is not a worse person than I am. A liberal is not necessarily mean and nasty --some of them are far kinder and more generous than many who can rightly state every Biblical doctrine.

The point is not that we should abandon our beliefs about any of the above things. The point is that we should love people, even as we disagree with them, and try to understand them. The old principle of debate, so neglected in our current practice, among my own "party" in my own denomination is instructive: know your opponent's position so well, and be able to state it accurately in a way he himself can affirm.

And then love him. Respect him as a fellow creature in the image of God. The only difference between him and you is not you. The only difference between him and you is that you believe in Jesus, and he doesn't. Or, he does, but he doesn't quite see the full picture. Then, ask yourself, "Is it possible there are places where he sees more clearly than I do?" I may be right about morality, but he may be right about generosity of spirit and wallet, for instance.

Our church culture needs to change. We need to know unbelievers, love them as persons, and show Christ to them. We ought not shy away from giving the cause for Christ, but it must be done out of humility, love, and respect.

Why? For we are no better, no better, no better....And such were some of you, but you were washed...Did you wash yourselves? Did you make yourself clean? Did you rescue yourself from erroneous opinion and sinful practice, or did Jesus do that for you? And, if Jesus did that for you, then why don't you think he won't do that for someone else?


  1. I agree with every word so, of course, I think it's brilliant!

  2. Actually, the new documentary "Collision" is great for this. You come away from it actually liking Christopher Hitchins a lot.

    He isn't the typical nasty atheist. Especially poignant is the last scene, where he says if he could convince the last Christian in the world that he was wrong, and change his mind he wouldn't do it. Dawkins took him to task. He said he didn't know why, but added it wasn't because there wouldn't be anyone left with whom to argue.

    He's bumping up against God. He's not so angry as he is chafing at the bit of human autonomy. He keeps saying for a child to grow up, he needs his dad out of the way. A strange argument, that.

  3. Hmmmm. I think often what happens is that the most opinionated and loud people on both sides of all arguments find the platforms -- whether it's liberal vs. conservative, Christian vs. atheist, pro-abortion vs. pro-life, etc. Then, whatever side I'm on, I notice how brash and abrasive the representative of the other side is and am further turned off. That person is just a representative but still to me, they represent all of the others they speak for, and in my mind, I form an inaccurate picture of what everyone on the "other side" is like. What has happened to me as of late, though, is that I notice many who represent "my side" are just as brash and abrasive as those on the other side and they do not represent me well. While I may share some core beliefs in right and wrong, I don't share the thoughts of hatred toward those who disagree. So, the other side must think badly of me as well. The only way around these things is for me (really for those of us who aren't on the platforms) to be loving in my relationships and encounters with those who differ. I'll admit, I'm not the best at this. But I do bear in mind the memory of my uncle who was a homosexual and died of AIDS when I was 15. It was the only encounter with an AIDS patient I've had, up close and personal. But I think the man knew how to show compassion better than many I know who think the homosexual lifestyle is THE unforgivable sin (I do not think it's unforgivable -- just referring to how polarized it tends to be). He was funny and loving, not out to change others to his lifestyle, not out to pervert children -- just out to live what I believe was a sinfully entrapped lifestyle that could never make him happy. How anyone could have ever looked down their nose, I'll never know, and yet I find in myself the ability to look down my nose at other things I haven't so closely encountered. That is the part where the Holy Spirit has to work in me to change. And I know He can and will -- He's done it in so many other things.

  4. Really excellent post, Ken. Is it possible that what you call for is easier to give to an atheist than to give to someone in your own denomination who differs from you?

    Tim Keller

  5. Tim,


    And ouch :-)

    Probably worth another post. But, it's generally true in humanity --we squabble with those we love the most, and sometimes because we love them the most. And, hopefully, because they love us, they put up with the squabbling.

    But also, I think we rightly hold each other to a higher standard, as recipients of the new nature, truth, etc.

    Somehow we need to separate arguments from people, in two ways. First, when our own positions are under scrutiny or criticism, we need to see it as not an attack on our worth, etc. And, second, when we are the ones giving scrutiny, we need to understand it doesn't mean our opponent is the bad guy.

    Years ago, during the height of the Bahnsen era, my late church history prof. Al Freundt preached a sermon that RTS published entitled "Who Is My Enemy?" on just this very thing.

    And, I confess, I fail at this all the time. I think vigorous debate is healthy, but there has to be a coming back together at the end, in love.

  6. Thanks. And I agree--it's worth another post!

    Tim Keller

  7. Still thinking about how we are to both love and disagree with people inside the church.

    I was struck by 2 Timothy 2. In verses 14-17 we are told to warn people against 'gangrenous' false doctrine (strong words!) and yet in v.24-26 we are told that ministers are to never be quarrelsome and angry, but rather we are to be gentle with opponents, seeking not merely to denounce them but to win them personally.

    I don't see much of this balance out there at all in our church. We either never refute and warn, or else we do it without any effort to win the heart of the opponent.

    What do you think?

    Tim Keller

  8. Ken, As usual, you are thought provoking. We, as Christians, must be Christ to non-believers. It is difficult to be Christlike within our homes with people we love and far more difficult to display love to those we disagree with and often find unlovable.

    Mr. Keller...thank you for 'The Reason for God'...our SS class is studying it right now with much discussion.