“Over and above our own body, spouse, and temporal possessions, we still have another treasure – honor and good reputation. We cannot do without these. For it is intolerable to live among people in open shame and general contempt. Therefore, God does not want the reputation, good name, and upright character of our neighbor to be taken away or diminished, just as with his money and possessions.”
~Luther’s Large Catechism, comments on the Eighth Commandment
This is a post that I have not been looking forward to writing, but it is an issue that needs to be raised. Since coming to the seminary one problem has continued to bother me and it relates to how we, as seminarians and faculty, talk about those with whom we disagree.
Let me explain what I mean. At several points over the past two quarters I have heard professors and students set up straw men when trying to highlight what makes Lutheran theology superior to other strains of Christianity. More often than not the straw man is the “Evangelical”. I’ve heard evangelicals called anti-intellectual, prone to emotionalism, shallow in their theology, self-centered in their worship practices, and overly focused on works righteousness.
Not only are these criticisms harsh, they are not true!!! And I say this as someone who worked for an evangelical para-church ministry for six years. I say this as someone who has attended evangelical churches, received training at evangelical conferences, and studied at an evangelical seminary. In fact, it was the evangelical commitments to discipleship of the mind, deep theological inquiry, Christ-centered worship, and the insistence on salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone that brought me to the Lutheran Church. I have a high regard for my evangelical brothers and sisters and, in many ways, still consider myself a part of that community. So you can understand my personal frustration and distress when I hear members of my own church community insulting and denigrating an entire community of Christians just to score a couple of theology points.
But beyond being unfair and ungenerous, this problem matters for one other reason: we are breaking the Eighth Commandment. This commandment states the following:
“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16).
When we set up straw men and use them to make a point, what we are really doing is judging and speaking against a community based on stereotypes. We are claiming that those who belong to this community say, act, and believe things that, in truth, they do not. In so doing, we are bearing false testimony against them. And we are doing this to fellow Christians, brothers and sisters in Christ.
Not only does this damage the unity of the larger body of Christ, but it actually hinders our witness to the world. When I was studying Islam as an undergraduate student, one of the most frequent charges against Christians by my Muslim friends was that they fought all the time about doctrine and would regularly tear each other down over religious disputes. They said that they could not believe in a faith tradition that was marked by such division and infighting.
Furthermore, straw men not only damage the reputation of our fellow Christians, but these kinds of stereotypes actually do harm to us as well. When we start seeing an entire community of people through the lens of a stereotype we actually hinder our own ability to build meaningful relationships with people who are different from us. The reason is because our perception becomes our reality.
For example, if we start from the premise that evangelical Christians have weak or inaccurate theology, then we build up the impression in our own minds that we have nothing to learn from them. In so doing, we cut ourselves off from the powerful theological insights and contributions that an entire community within the global Church is making in terms of theology and missiology. The truth is that often my own faith is strengthened when I learn from the insights of my brothers and sisters from other branches of the Christian church.
So, if we must argue against people who have differences in opinion let’s be specific. Rather than saying things like, “Evangelicals believe….” or “Catholics think…”, it would be more helpful to say, “When I was at a theology conference, I had a disagreement with a particular presenter on the following issue…” or “When I read (insert specific title or author) I disagreed with (him/her) on the following point….”. Get specific. Address real-life disagreements that happened between specific individuals. Don’t paint broad strokes and don’t label an entire community.
My hope is that we would learn to disagree honestly and with integrity while still leaving the doors open for fellowship and mutual instruction. As such generosity must trump polemics and addressing specific concerns goes much further than condemning entire communities. May we build an academic environment and church culture based on respect, honest inquiry, and humble conviction.