We have all been there. We have had a discussion with an unbelieving friend or relative on some aspect of the faith and come away thinking that we really screwed it up and utterly failed to present a coherent Christian position.
When reflecting on the discussion later, we come up with all the sharp answers, all the convincing responses. Every discussion I have ever had about the Christian faith I have won brilliantly, but only in hindsight. Unfortunately the reality is different. But there is groundwork we can do to become more effective.
Be Prepared Very few of us enter into a set piece debate; discussions usually ambush us out of the blue and leave us floundering. The apostle Peter tells us to get ready for such events so that they don’t take us by surprise. We should ‘always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have’ I Peter 3:15.
Recognise that approaches from progressives usually come in the form of accusations. At present same-sex marriage is a hot topic. ‘How can you, a Christian, be so unloving and intolerant as to reject same-sex marriage?’ When confronted in this way, especially when taken by surprise, it is natural to reflect the tone of the person making the accusation.
At this point we must remember the rest of I Peter 3:15,16 where he tells us to make our defence ‘with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander’.
Consider the person to whom we are speaking. They may be in a same-sex relationship or be struggling with same-sex attraction. They may have loved ones who are in that position. We are to respect the other person even if they don’t respect us. Christians are not in the business of winning arguments by any means possible.
Intolerance It is unfortunately true when in discussion with progressives that Christians are considered intolerant if they don’t agree with progressives but progressives are not intolerant if they don’t agree with Christians.
As soon as the accusation of intolerance comes up ask them, ‘Do you consider yourself a tolerant person?’ They will be forced to reply in some form of the affirmative because progressives pride themselves on their tolerance. Even if they begin to prevaricate, press them on their tolerance.
This gives the Christian the opening to make a pitch for mutual tolerance: ‘Good, that means that if I express an opinion opposite to yours you will tolerate it, right? After all, toleration is when people who don’t agree still respect one another.’ As well as undermining any assertion that the Christian is uniquely intolerant it hopefully sets a tone of mutual respect for the discussion.
Boundaries Don’t allow progressives to make sweeping generalisations. An assertion which is supposed to floor Christians is: ‘You say, “God is love”. If God is truly a loving God surely I can love whoever I want to love?’
Although commonly put forward no one really believes this. We all draw lines around love. We cannot love close relatives in the way they mean. We cannot love little children in that way. No one really believes that we can love whoever or whatever we want in that way. We all have boundaries; the only question is where those boundaries lie and where they come from.
Challenge them: ‘By what standard do you judge that what you are doing is good and right, where do you get your standard from?’
If they are atheists there is no external standard, merely their choice of standard. They may make a judgement based on what they think is for the good of society, what occurs in nature, what accords with their feelings or simply what the majority think. However they arrive at their position, their ideal of good is what they will it to be, and they wish to impose their choice on everyone else.
Love If they claim that the standard they adhere to is love, which is the standard by which Christians live their lives, we should ask them how they define love. Does love demand total acceptance, or can we love whilst rejecting certain aspects of the other’s behaviour?
Ask if they love you as another human being. As this whole argument is based on love they will have to affirm that they do. Then ask if they approve of the position you hold on same-sex marriage. They must reply that they don’t. Doing so undermines their whole argument that Christian love demands approval of same-sex marriage.
Love is not giving approval to whatever someone else wishes to do. Loving parents don’t allow their children to do whatever they want. Parents will place restrictions on their children’s behaviour because of love. If a parent gives automatic approval to whatever their child does that person is not a loving parent.
Love does not mean blanket approval of the loved one, but that we protect the loved one. Love requires that we point out where we think the loved one is going wrong or doing damage to themselves and others; anything less is unloving.
Result This is just the groundwork and does not mean that the unbelieving progressive will suddenly approve of the Christian position on same-sex marriage. However, we stand a chance of removing the charge that Christians are intolerant and opening the way for a more reasoned and respectful discussion.
It is hard. Don’t expect that by giving a reasoned defence of the Christian position on same-sex relationships or anything else you will win friends. Those who pride themselves on their tolerance and commitment to diversity find it difficult to tolerate diverse opinions. Our task is not to win arguments but to give a reasoned and respectful defence of the faith. Although it is nice when we win.