"Unity without verity is no better than conspiracy." - John Trapp

Friday, October 09, 2015

Fruitfulness and Debating

I love to debate. At an old job, a co-worker and I would frequently debate trivial subjects just for the sake of debating. Someone, usually me, would make an off-the-cuff remark and the other would challenge the statement. Not that we necessarily disagreed, but just for the sake of the debate. I would be lying if I said I was good at this or won many of these (he was good at it).

Based on what I've seen on the internet, from forums to Facebook to Twitter, we aren't the only ones who do this. The problem with the internet compared to my old work debates is it is much more difficult to judge intensity. With my co-worker, as he backed me into a corner in the debate, I could see the laughter and lightheartedness in his eyes. People in the next aisle might assume we were having a serious discussion, but we knew otherwise.

I was thinking about this because of a couple of things this week. First, for a few weeks I've been part of a Facebook group whose purpose, at least in part, was to discuss theology. While there were some good discussions there, I made the decision earlier in the week to leave the group because, as far as I could tell, there was too much strife. They debates were too serious.

Let me pause to say the topics discussed there were of more importance than the debates I had many years ago with my co-worker. We were debating things like electric versus acoustic guitars; the Facebook group was debating views of baptism and other matters of importance to the Christian faith. So I would expect the debates to be more serious. But, even so, shouldn't we expect the debates to be characterized by love and a genuine concern to understand one another, not merely to impose our views?

This was driven home because, secondly, I've finally gotten back to studying Galatians. Providentially, I've been in chapter five this week where Paul is switching from his (very serious) discussion about theology to what it means practically in the lives of his readers. Many of the sins of the flesh that Paul enumerates in Galatians 5 are relationship sins; they are things that separate us from each other. Most of the fruit of the Spirit deals with how we relate to one another as well.

The problem I saw, and unfortunately see too frequently in these kinds of discussion, is that we are not heeding the Scriptures we claim to be defending. For Paul condemns rancorous debate in Galatians 5 saying:

For the whole law can be summed up in a single commandment, namely, “You must love your neighbor as yourself.” However, if you continually bite and devour one another, beware that you are not consumed by one another. (Galatians 5:14-15 NET)

But we frequently bite and devour another. We show teeth not in a warm smile be with snarling.

Some will argue, of course, that Galatians is four chapters of serious debate before these remarks. That is true, and Paul's condemnation of those who are leading the Galatians into error is strong indeed. But Paul was dealing with a gospel issue in Galatians. Many (most; maybe nearly all) of the debates I see online are about secondary issues at best. Yes, these are important issues and I'm not saying we shouldn't be discussing and debating them. We are called to work towards unity and that will require discussion and debate. The question is about how we are discussing them and what is our motive for discussing them.

For the first part, we shouldn't be, according to Galatians 5:14-15, biting and devouring one another. What I saw in many posts was more like a noisy gong or a clanging symbol (see 1 Corinthians 13:1). Even if the person posting was right in their position, what came through was a need to be right, not a desire for us all to be united in the truth. Which gets to the motive of why we post, and means I need to offer a word of caution. It's entirely possible, because of the nature of the internet, that I misread many of the posts there. Motives are difficult to discern, even in face to face conversation, let alone when all you have are written words. That's why I will not name the group or any of the individuals involved; because I may have totally misread the situation.

But that it occurs is not a question. Paul isn't warning us about a hypothetical. He's concerned that these things will occur. In verse 26, Paul summarizes what he has been writing for the last couple of paragraphs in a single sentence. To get a good feel for what it says, here it is in several translations:

Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. (ESV)

Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another. (NASB)

Let’s not become arrogant, make each other angry, or be jealous of each other. (CEB)

 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, being jealous of one another. (NET)

The translator notes for the NET Bible help in understanding what these three things are. Of the first term, translated conceited most often but also boastful or arrogant, the translators note that the idea behind the Greek word is "falsely proud." The second term, provoking or challenging or making angry, the translators note has the idea of being "irritating." For the third, envy or jealousy are sufficient.

So Paul is saying that we can become falsely proud (conceited), perhaps because we have, or at least think we have, an understanding of some area of doctrine, that will lead others to be irritated with us creating envy and jealousy between us. Clearly the intent is that we should avoid this. The question is, how?

Paul has told us how. We walk by the Spirit. What does it mean to walk by the Spirit? It means we display the fruit of the Spirit; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are the traits we should be displaying in all our interactions, with believers and with non-believers (see Galatians 6:10). By all means debate; study; learn. But remember that if it only affects our heads and not our hearts we have missed the point entirely. Because Paul, along with Jesus, says that law can be simply summarized as "Love your neighbor as yourself."

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