Rules of Engagement

IMG_3792How can we hold a reasonable conversation on a controversial issue?

There are many issues on which reasonable, dedicated, and devout Christians disagree. The form and intent of the Lord’s Supper (communion or Eucharist), the appropriate age for baptism, the mode of baptism, appropriate roles for women in the church, politics, economics, the age of the earth, evolution, and much more. In some cases there may be clear “better” answers, in other cases the biblical evidence is entirely ambiguous. Some questions are probably better ignored than engaged (in most cases I’d put politics in a category that churches are better off ignoring),but others should be engaged. I am particularly concerned with the last two – the manner in which the church can engage in a profitable discussion of the issues at the interface of modern science and the Christian faith. These are questions that shouldn’t be ignored, at least not in a church where the questions are active in the community – as in the University community where we worship.

I suggest the following rules of engagement for discussion of origins.

  1. The question of origins is one on which reasonable, devout Christians disagree.

All Christians agree that God is creator, but there are genuine disagreements over young earth, old earth progressive creation, and old earth evolutionary creation. To put names to some general positions, Ken Ham, Hugh Ross, and Francis Collins are all genuine devout Christians. It is not appropriate to impugn the motives or devotion of fellow Christians even while arguing for the truth of a different view on the question of origins.

It is seldom helpful to describe Christian thought on origins in terms of discrete positions. There are a continuum of views held by Christians (and non-Christians) when it comes to origins. We need to appreciated the continuum and the uncertainty.

  1. Ad hominem arguments are to be avoided at all costs.

Arguments emphasizing persons and personalities simply drag the argument into the mud and give Christians everywhere a dirty name. It is never appropriate to accuse a Christian scientist arguing for an old earth and/or evolutionary creation of bowing to the pressure of colleagues in order to get ahead Nor is it appropriate to accuse a biblical scholar of bowing to the pressure of either liberal colleagues or conservative colleagues, donors, or pastors. Respect the intellectual integrity of others and argue the issues.

  1. Guilt by association and slippery slope arguments are inappropriate.

We can only make progress if we discuss the issues and do not allow the conversation to deviate in unproductive directions. Personally, I think that “slippery slope” arguments add wax to the floor and jack up one end … without options or the ability to discuss complex issues the floor becomes slippery and sloped.

  1. Avoid ridicule.

This should go without saying, but I remember returning from graduate school to my home church one Sunday to a movie (one emphasizing apologetic and defense of the faith) encouraging the faithful to resist the the scientists portrayed as white coated buffoons doing weird things in a lab. This didn’t help my faith any and would have been disaster for a technically trained unbeliever.

Of course it goes the other way as well. It doesn’t help at all when a scientist (especially a Christian scientist) ridicules fellow Christians for their beliefs. Focus on the ideas and the issues.

  1. Don’t assume your neighbor holds the same position you hold.

The mob mentality of many groups and presentations – with “us” versus “them” and inspirational propaganda – hinders both evangelism of non-Christians and deeper growth for many Christians with real questions.

  1. Discussions are better than lectures.

There are some powerful presentations that can open up the possibility for significant questions. It isn’t necessary to avoid lectures altogether – but always leave time for questions and discussion.

  1. Work to understand the other person’s point of view.

Until you can explain the other’s position in terms they would agreement you cannot truly engage with the issues.

  1. Start with Scripture, but avoid “proof-texting.”

Biblical authority requires us read Scripture carefully (and often) and to dig into the intent and meaning of the text. Genre, historical context, and authorial intent must all be considered. It isn’t a matter of conforming the text to “modern science” but of being faithful to the intended message of the text. Respecting the authority of Scripture also requires us to consider all of the text in context. Proof-texting is one of the great weaknesses of evangelicalism.

Differences in interpretation do not necessarily mean a lower or higher view of Scripture.

  1. Distinguish between scientific categories and biblical-theological categories.

The point here is that Christians should look to the questions that the author was attempting to address in the text. The questions are often not the questions that we bring to the text … and thus the answers taken from the text are some ricochet off from the intended meaning. The author of Genesis was not addressing issues of modern science. The point of the text is theological. Thus we shouldn’t expect modern science in the text. As John Walton has argued “Genesis is written for us but it isn’t written to us” and “in the Bible there is no scientific revelation.”

  1. Take the science seriously.

Science isn’t a deeply flawed and agenda driven pursuit. There is a general openness to question and correction. Of course, it is important that we learn to distinguish scientific theories, laws, and data from metaphysical conclusions. Often scientists, being human, will mix the science with metaphysical and philosophical beliefs.

Science is a study of God’s creation. Belief in God as creator means that we should have respect for the information contained in God’s creation.

  1. Don’t forget worship.

The discussion needs to start with the who (God) and the why of the text – the theological agenda of the author. In his essay in Reading Genesis 1-2, Kenneth Turner notes that Gen 1 “is a doxological narrative,” which reads with a certain cadence (even in English) that attracts the reader and invites reverence and wonder.” This is also true of the other passages that invoke God as Creator, in the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Isaiah. The Old Testament passages challenge the ancient Near Eastern view of many gods confined to creation, gods with human foibles engaged in divine struggles and often in sexual conquest. The Bible presents God as an awesome and transcendent creator. This should evoke an attitude of worship.

It can help a great deal when a discussion of these sticky issues includes a time of prayer and worship alongside conversation, even when in disagreement.

What would you add to this list?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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