The ability to have civil discourse left our society long ago. We malign the presence of “safe spaces” and boo when certain speakers are deplatformed either online, in the real world, or both.
Ironically, many who cry over the fall of our culture’s ability to have discourse are the very same who eliminate discourse in the churches of Christ.
Christianity has long been a religion of logic and reason. The biblical narrative is full of examples of proofs and evidences regarding Christ, His church and Scripture. The same, at one point, could be said of the churches of Christ in the United States, but I’m afraid we’ve left those days behind, or at the very least, will be leaving them behind very soon.
The following is a plea for a return to open dialogue in the churches of Christ.
The Biblical Case for Dialogue
When thinking about logic in the early days of Christianity, one needs to look no further than the book of Acts. Acts is a part two of the letter written to Theophilus (Luke 1:1-4, Acts 1:1), a letter that intends to layout an “orderly account” of Christ, His message, and His church.
Repeatedly throughout the book of Acts the words “witness” (39x) and “hear” (96x) challenge us to think about how we will respond to the “orderly account” of Luke. From the beginning we are given quote after quote from the Old Testament to show how Jesus is the fulfillment of what was foretold (Acts 2:16-21, 25-28, 34-35; 4:25-26; and 7:42-43 to name a few). Through several different chapters, we follow Paul as he heads into the synagogues of the Jews to “reason” with them (17:2, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8 and more). All the while the church is growing.
This same theme of logic is seen throughout the Gospel of John, especially in John 5:31-39 where the word “witness” (used 48 times throughout the book) is used by Jesus 11 times in order to prove that He is indeed the Son of God.
Contrasted with this, especially in the book of Acts, are those who throw dialogue out of the window. Stephen is stoned to death by an audience who are noted as having “stopped their ears” (7:54-58). The Thessalonians are called out for their unruly behavior (17:2-5) and are called less noble than the Bereans on the grounds that the Bereans were willing to listen where the Thessalonians would not (17:11).
Reason and the ability to have open dialogue are not only appreciated throughout the text of Scripture, it is shown to be central to faith in Jesus. Through it the church of Jesus grew both numerically and spiritually. This same truth has even been seen in our more recent history.
The Historical Case for Dialogue
We turn our attention now to a moment in time that played a major role in the history of the churches of Christ: the Restoration Movement.
The Restoration Movement was a movement away from denominationalism towards a unified church and happened as a result of religious individuals taking the time to ask themselves why the religious world around them didn’t look like what they saw in Scripture.
Through dialogue and reason, traditions and practices that men had created were stripped away as people sought to become the church of the New Testament and nothing more. Modern churches of Christ owe a debt to those men and women who asked questions of their denominations and started the walk back to be the church Jesus built. Many still echo sentiments said during the time of the Restoration Movement. We still say “speak where the Bible speaks and keep silent where the Bible is silent” forgetting that it is only through study and discussion that we find out where the Bible speaks and where it keeps silent.
Perhaps the problem isn’t that we fail to realize the importance of dialogue in the restoration process, but that we no longer feel like any restoring needs to take place. We’ve “arrived” and therefore no longer need to leave room at the table for discussion. We’ve figured it all out and now we simply need to hold fast the faith and weed out dissenters. We’ve nearly closed the door on dialogue, and we will soon reap the consequences.
The Consequences of Closed Dialogue
The consequences of closed dialogue are both varied and devastating. They are also not entirely foreign to the churches of Christ, in fact many of them are already occurring! If we don’t turn the ship around soon, these consequences will become a hallmark of who we are.
Name-calling – The moniker “Nazi” has been a staple go-to insult for as long as I can remember. Nazis are the worst group of people we can think of, so naturally when we want to slander someone “Nazi” becomes a succinct way of tearing someone down. The problem? A powerful word has become a casual one. Everyone is now a “Nazi” and when everyone is a Nazi, no one is. The word has lost its power. Actual Nazis can’t be distinguished from the fake ones and a word that once had a very strong negative connotation now doesn’t have one at all.
The exact same is happening now in our churches with the phrase “false teacher”. False teachers truly exist, and have since the New Testament, but the question “who is a false teacher?” is getting blurred more and more every day. Biblically speaking, false teachers were those that twisted and perverted the text of Scripture. Now, false teachers are merely those who hold a view with which I strongly disagree. We’ve taken cues from the culture and taken a word with a very strong negative connotation and removed power from it altogether. If everyone is a false teacher, no one is.
Entrenchment – When open dialogue is shut down, people become more entrenched in their views. We’ve seen this happen already with the topic of marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Instead of talking about the different viewpoints on the divorce passages, we proclaim the way Christians must think about the subject and belittle anyone who thinks differently as being a “false teacher”, looking for an easy way out, or ignoring what Scripture has to say.
People’s minds are changed by the exchange and defense of ideas. When we eliminate discussion on a subject, we indicate to them that we are either scared of discussion, unable to defend our belief, or are just plain stubborn. As a result, people maintain the view they had and become stauncher about it.
Division – Ultimately, closed dialogue leads to serious division. Note the progression of these consequences:
If everyone we disagree with is a “false teacher” then every teaching becomes a “false teaching” that must be combated.
If every teaching is a false one that needs to be combated, there cannot be any room for discussion thus causing people to become further entrenched in their views.
Eventually, people become so entrenched that we form the “Churches of Christ that believes X on this subject” and the “Churches of Christ that believes Y on this subject”.
You may think that I’m being alarmist, but I encourage you to watch for yourself. Pay attention and you’ll start to see that only certain people get invited to certain lectureships. Certain churches or schools will not associate with other churches or schools because they heard someone thinks X on this subject instead of Y. Even in your own congregations there may be topics that are “off the table” for discussion. We are turning every topic into a hill to die on, and, if we don’t stop, we will slaughter ourselves from the inside.
Church, I’m begging you, do not shut the doors of dialogue. We by no means should accept any and every idea that comes through the door, but we ought to allow room for discussion. Our faith and history is one rooted in open discussion. The plea of God to His people through the prophet Isaiah rings out as a plea for the people of God now:
“Come now, let us reason together” (Isa. 1:18).
We have too much to lose if we don’t.