I’ve been pretty shocked to see that so many Christians voted for Trump, that Christian leaders have endorsed or failed to challenge him, and that many Christians appear to be deploying a ‘coping mechanism’ by hoping that he is, indeed, ‘God’s’ candidate. Equally, I am sure that there are plenty of evangelical Christians who might be surprised at my Christian stance on matters like marriage equality and abortion.
We live in a world where Martin Luther King can suggest that Jesus was a socialist (though I think it might be fairer to suggest that socialism is quite Jesusist), and Bill Johnson can argue that socialism is the antithesis of Christianity. How can this be? How can people read the same Bible, profess the same faith, and have such radically different perspectives on such critical issues?
The answer is, quite easily. Humans are not necessarily rational or linear decision-makers. How we define, prioritise and live out the values we draw from the Bible are influenced by our personalities (check out frameworks like Myers-Briggs), experiences, cognitive biases, errors and heuristics, and even economic, social and cultural backgrounds. Underpin that with differences in our critical reasoning skills and education, and you’ve got more diversity of viewpoints than Hillsong has podcasts.
‘The Bible, though!’ I hear you shriek. ‘The Bible is clear!’
Well – is it? The Bible presents a huge weight of material. People from every opposing opinion in history have found stuff in it to support them, from the most loving of humanitarians to the cruellest of oppressors. The truth is that every time we read something in it, we are looking at it from a different time, language, culture and country – we are immediately interpreting it just by relating it to our own context and making decisions about what it means and how to respond.
So, with a global church at odds with itself, what do we do now? Here’s some ideas.
Be wary of calling people ‘false prophets’.
The Christian faith has a small set of core beliefs, and many secondary beliefs. To be a Christian, you need to adhere to those core beliefs (e.g. check out the Nicene Creed), but how we work those out can lead to differences in secondary beliefs. Calling each other ‘false prophets’ is often an unhelpful slur unless the individual is directly challenging those core beliefs, and elevating secondary beliefs to the importance of core ones is very dangerous.
Understand your cognitive biases, errors and heuristics.
Sorry reader, neither you nor the people you disagree with are truly rational. Read up on how your decisions are impacted by hidden factors, with authors like David Mcraney, Dan Ariely, Daniel Kahneman and Steve Peters. Once you understand how your critical reasoning might be affected, you can allow for those effects.
Furthermore, one of the reasons that the pollsters got Brexit and Trump wrong may be that some people were ashamed of their voting intentions. In fact, what we say, what we think we think, and what we really think, can be very different things (and we may not even be aware of the third). Try to identify what factors motivate the way you engage with the Bible, and as you meditate on it consider whether they are helpful or unhelpful. Be honest – what is really at the heart of why you think the way you do?
Get contextual with your Bible.
Many Christians really need to spend some time learning. Our faith is 2,000 years old, and what we think the New Testament (and indeed, Old Testament) means should be informed by years of academic disciplines like palaeography, textual criticism, archaeology and historical criticism. How the Bible came to be, how it gets to us, and how to relate to its constituent parts is key to building your understanding of it. Consider:
- Reading books and listening to podcasts that open up the disciplines of theology to you. Consider getting access to resources like the brilliant series of Bible background dictionaries from IVP, the NT Pod, Godpod, and Tom Wright. Look into possible study with providers like Westminster Theological Centre;
- Reading the book, not the passage. Zoom out. What are the overarching themes of a Gospel, a letter, or the New Testament itself? How should this inform your politics, ethics and views? How should it inform how we engage with the minutiae in the Bible?
- That we’re in discipleship, not dictatorship. Engage with teaching, don’t swallow it whole without consideration. Just as we test prophetic words, use the Sunday morning sermon as a jumping-off point. Take those passages and your pastor’s viewpoint, and spend the rest of the week building up your knowledge of the passage’s context. Come to your own prayful conclusions, and share them.
Focus on the person, not their position.
Don’t enter debates – online or in person – just to win. How many Facebook posts read ‘oh yeah, yeah you are right, I’ll shush now. Thanks for correcting me, Yoda’? I can’t think of many times that a Christian has been argued into believing in one thing or another.
Enter discussion, in part, to understand the person with whom you debate. This is not the same as seeking to understand their position, which may be abhorrent.
The sense of ‘other’ and ‘difference’ is dangerous to us as humans. Instead, recognise that we are all products of our experiences and try to understand what experiences have shaped the way the other side is engaging. Once you understand that, you can start to share your perspective in a way with which the other side might more readily connect. Consider taking the matter offline, if it is safe to do so.
Disagreement is not the same thing as division.
The church needs to be comfortable, now, with people disagreeing. Pleas for unity when a candidate with an oppressive election platform has won are pleas for obedience. Some of us will fight Trump’s policies, Brexit, the political and cultural shifts arguably behind both, and other things because we find it hard to reconcile these things with our faith. Other Christians do not agree with some of the ‘traditional’ views on social issues, and they’re not going away. If churches wants unity, then they need to maintain a framework in which we can remain in communion together (which is, of course, entirely possible) and role-model the values of our faith, while disagreeing about secondary beliefs and how our faith is worked out in the public space.
Especially online, where inhibition is reduced. Drop the catty asides, LOLs, teary-laughing emojis, the need to have the last word, the debate tactics (straw-man and ad hominem in particular), the labelling, and the questioning of each other’s Christianity. Only one judge gets to decide whether we knew Him or not, and He doesn’t need your help.
There’s another, gentler way to phrase any point – the satisfaction we feel as we hit ‘send’ should not be because we’ve smashed our opponent with a zinger, but because we’ve found a kind way to query their point and suggest an alternative view.
This is not to say don’t challenge – now, more than ever, we need to be challenging things we think are wrong – but that how we do it matters too.