Why (and How to) Argue in Church

February 24, 2013
“Why (and How to) Argue in Church,” Rev. Dick Watts

After Susan invited me to offer today’s Reflection, I told Charline that my subject would be why we should argue in church. She suggested that “maybe you should just say discuss.”  Little did she realize that I had already softened the title from “why (and how) we should fight in church!”  So I owe her – and you – an explanation.

When I went to the dictionary for definitions of argue, the first two I found were “to give reasons for or against something” – no problem there – and “to contend or disagree in words.”  It’s the second definition that troubles us, I’m guessing, with that word disagree.  That’s where we start feeling uncomfortable.

We Presbyterian ministers used to receive a small monthly in-house magazine called Monday Morning.  I’ve never forgotten a letter in its pages from an elder in Nebraska, Jane Marsh, expressing frustration about her church life. These are her words: “There is a gentle taboo in Hastings, Nebraska, an unspoken convention that forbids topics of conversation that are likely to be divisive…[and so] a tight-lipped peace smiles above coffee cups.”

My guess is that we’ve all experienced that “tight-lipped peace,” perhaps in our family or workplace, if not at a church coffee hour.  Most of us are uncomfortable with conflict, with arguing, and so we try to “keep the peace” (which is really no peace at all) by retreating to “safe” topics of conversation.  As one church leader said to me, “We don’t tackle upsetting things very well.  We get along well with each other, but I suspect it’s because we avoid things.”

In my experience, we church people are particularly skittish when it comes to talking about potentially controversial issues.  Besides the usual family and cultural warning to  avoid talking about religion or politics, our church taboo seems especially strong, perhaps going back to how we imagine our founders. We call them Saint Peter, Saint Paul, Saint John, and picture them with haloes around their heads. Surely they were always nice, and never got cross with each other, never argued, and we should be like that.

Well, the Apostle Paul didn’t suppose he was composing Scripture when he wrote to that little group in Corinth. He explained exactly why he was writing: “Some people from Chloe’s family have told me, quite plainly, that there are quarrels among you.”  I hope you heard Chrissy’s Reflection a few weeks ago, because she nailed the situation in Corinth. She explained how they were arguing about the role of women in leading worship, about right and wrong sexual behavior, what spiritual gifts to value, how to handle factions and quarrels over which leaders to follow, how to celebrate communion, and whether the idea of resurrection even makes any sense.  And it wasn’t just the New Covenant community at Corinth: read The Acts of the Apostles. We’re told that the first all-church conference in Jerusalem was marked (in the mild words of one translator) by “no small dissention and debate;” another translator says they had “a fierce argument.”

Arguments, of course, are sometimes signs of just plain orneriness.  But not always. Sometimes we argue because important values are at stake, about faith and truth, about compassion and justice, about violence and peacemaking.  And where important values are at stake, conflict is inevitable and argument is normal…..and a whole lot healthier than “tight-lipped smiles above coffee cups.”

I think that New Covenant Community does better that most churches, but we have room to grow.

This subject feels important to me because I sense that we who are Church (with a capital “C,” not just this congregation) find ourselves in an age of questions that are both troubling and potentially fruitful.  As spiritual beings, many certainties that we grew up with have evaporated, and we’re not sure what might replace them. What does God mean to us now, when “He” is no longer “up there” or “out there” somewhere? What about prayer?  Or the “good life,” if we no longer picture a divine Father handing down the household rules?  And if, as we’ve lately been saying, “the Church is all of us,” how do we and “ministers” do the work of the church together?  And what does it mean to be Christians who are also citizens of an Empire – an Empire that pours more of its resources into military force than all other nations on the planet combined, that imprisons more of its population than any other nation, that lets the homeless roam the streets while a tiny sliver of the population gathers to itself the lion’s share of our resources?  These are tough questions, troubling questions, questions that deserve sustained argument if we are to come even close to “doing in our time what Jesus did in his….”

Supposing that we agree that some value-laden, personally- and socially-significant, and controversial issues should be tackled by the church, we need to think about the how of it.  Because we all know that arguing can be hurtful and unproductive, when it’s poisoned by sarcasm, or hostility, by attacking the motives of others, by verbal bullying…the list goes on.  No wonder we avoid the potential unpleasantness.  But wisely handled, fair and free argument actually strengthens the bonds of community rather than ripping them apart.

I think it takes basically four core commitments to each other, that together assure us of  being able to argue in a “safe space.’

The first core commitment is not only to listen carefully to one another, but to check out whether we understood.  You’ve probably seen the bumper-sticker:  “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”  So we need to “check it out,” as in, “So your point of view is…. Did I get that right?” And we need to “hang in there” until the other can say, “Yes, that’s exactly what I meant.”

The second core commitment is to speak our truth openly and boldly, letting others know where we’re coming from and how we got there.  There’s a cartoon showing a secretary reading the minutes of the last meeting of what I take to be a church committee: “And then we adjourned to the parking lot, where everyone said what they really thought.”  Too true: a habit we need to shake.

The third core commitment is to listen for shared values, for common ground.  The reality is that not every difference of opinion is a difference of faith or values. Unfortunately, our usual habit when dealing with tough issues is to listen just as long as it takes to find what we disagree with, and then jump in to set the other straight.  Everything changes for the better when we listen asking what we can agree with – it doesn’t make differences go away, but builds a bridge we can walk across toward one another.

The fourth core commitment is to take the time that complex questions deserve.  A Sunday morning Reflection and a few comments from the congregation in response are simply not enough. We need to imagine a variety of forums, classes, dialogue groups, where facts can be shared, differences aired, and issues handled in more than “once over lightly” manner. It takes time to develop trust, to appreciate where those we disagree with are coming from, to create safe spaces.

Undergirding these commitments is daring to believe that others’ experience and thinking may actually enrich our own, that, amazing as it may sound, none of us has really got it all figured out just right.  With these core commitments put into practice, the arguing church can be a vibrant, health-giving, problem-solving, mission-engaging body that has a fair shot at “continuing in our time what Jesus began in his, working for the healing of the world as an inclusive, compassionate, joyful community.”