I talk a lot about tact in communication on this blog. I use the fancy term “irenic,” which is the opposite of the word “polemic.” To be irenic means that we approach things with peace and patience, taking into account the importance of not merely what we say, but how we say it. To be polemic means that we approach things in a more warlike manner, often with emotional expressions of belligerence. I try to be irenic in most of my dealings with people. After all, my business is one of the most explosive subjects in the history of the world: theology. In neutral, theology always tends to a warlike posture, defensive and ironically hateful, even in Christian circles. People justify their ungracious engagement in many ways. Often it is assumed that right theology trumps tact to such a degree that it is virtually lost. Yet the Bible is clear about this, right? After all, we are to proclaim our faith with gentleness and respect (1 Pet. 3:15). We are to “gently” correct those in opposition, in hopes that God will lead them to the truth (2 Tim. 2:25).
Since the Bible seems so clear that we are to engage each other (especially those who oppose) with such a careful and kind tone, why is it that the majority of theological writings seem to ignore these commands? Well, of course we can call to account the anonymity of online interaction. After all, if we can hide behind emails, blogs, comments, and Facebook interaction, our sinful nature can get the best of us.
However, I have seen people seek to justify their polemics not by hiding behind the internet but behind Jesus and Paul. And it is true. There seem to be examples in the Scripture where the prophets, Apostles, and even Christ do not behave irenically. In other words, they often seemed to engage people with a fierce resolve, respecting the truth more than the person with whom there is conflict. Which example do we follow? Do we follow the explicit statements given by Paul or do we gain encouragement from his sometimes less-than-gracious interaction? Let me try to deal with Paul and Christ one at a time.
1. Should we defend the faith like Christ cleansed the temple?
We often think we should speak with the authority of Christ. In defense of our attitude we will appeal to Christ’s attitude toward the pharisees or his cleansing the temple. After all, didn’t he call the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” (Matt. 12:34)? Didn’t he call them hypocrites and white washed tombs (Matt. 23:27)? This does not sound too kind and charitable, does it? Did Christ forget to read 2 Timothy? Oh wait, it was not written yet.
However, to refer to the example of Christ in these instances can be problematic, seeing how Christ’s actions are not always intended to set examples for us. I know this sounds odd, but think about it. He worked great miracles in order to demonstrate his unique authority; he engaged people with divine introspection, knowing their thoughts, motives, and intentions; he was the ultimate divine judge who has every right to judge all people. To compare how Christ engaged people’s waywardness to how we engage them is like my older daughter saying she has the right to ground my younger daughter because she is supposed to follow in my example. Christ is God. While we are to follow in the footsteps of his example in many ways, we do not follow his authority.
Not only this, we need to remember that this was not the modus operandi of Christ. Do you ever notice that he was only polemic toward the self-righteous who arrogantly believed they had all the answers and were a step above all the rest? This ought to tell us something.
2. Defending the faith like Paul interacted with the Galatians.
Many times we will appeal to Paul’s example. His polemics, especially to the Galatians, are often used to defend our own less gracious encounters. But this has problems as well.
First, Paul was an apostle who carried the authority of an apostle. Being such, he had both divine authority and the divine ability to speak to a situation with infallible guidance. This is something that most of us we cannot claim. Can we?
Second, Paul primarily spoke in such a way to those who were under his authority. He was their leader and had the right and obligation as their leader to engage them candidly. He was their pastor. Pastors may, and sometimes should, speak in such a manner to their flock.
Third, like Christ, Paul did not always engage people in this way. In fact, as noted above, he encouraged his people to be gracious, humble, and respectful in dealing with those with whom there is disagreement. In 1 Thess 2:7 he describes his own ministry as one of gentleness, comparing it to a mother caring for her children.
Sadly, it often seems as if some of us not only think we are apostles, but we also think we are talking to our own congregation. Some even seem to enjoy polemic engagement in an unhealthy manner. In fact, I think a lot of ministries would not know what to do if they did not have someone to fight.
This attitude is frequently found more in my own conservative Calvinistic circles than in any other. For this I am sorry and ashamed. Sometimes Calvinists make the worst Calvinists. But, of course, it can be found in any group. Some of the most popular Arminians I know are losing their influence among all but their own due to their polemics. And you Baptists, put your nose down. You have a knack for it as well.
Why do we sometimes act this way?
I am not sure.
Maybe it’s because we are so confident in the particulars of our faith that we feel we have the right to shout the loudest. We have the greatest message. We feel our polemic will force the truth into the minds of those who oppose.
Or . . .
Maybe we think we have to set an example of the truth to those who are listening from the outside. Like in a debate, we don’t really think we are going to convert our opponent, but we hope to solidify our position among those who are listening.
Or . . .
Maybe it is because we are so insecure in our position that we think the louder we are, the more true our words are. As I tell students, if you are not confident about what you are saying, you can first speak deeper, second speak louder. And if both of these don’t work, speak with a British accent!! Or to put it another way: the less confident we are in something, the harder we pound the pulpit. In truth, I have found that the most fundamentally uninformed believers are often the most polemically militant because deep down, they don’t really know why they believe what they believe. Their only recourse is not a gentle engagement, but a raised voice.
What part of gentleness and respect don’t we understand?
I am certainly not perfect with this issue. Believe me. This is self-therapy. But let us all try to be more gentle, humble, and respectful when defending the faith. It will take more time, patience, and tact, but it is worth it. Rashness never births anything good. If we do this, not only will we gain a wider audience, but our message might actually be heard! But, if nothing else, let’s not hide behind Jesus or Paul in justifying our sin. In this respect, they are not role models for us.