The church is divided as never before.
Okay, that may be an overstatement. But I think most Christians would agree that, from personal conversations and from social media scrolling, it certainly feels like the divisions are as bad as ever, and only getting worse. The church has been divided over doctrine before—sometimes for bad reasons, often for good reasons. That is to be expected. What seems new in our day is how Bible-believing Christians who share almost all the same doctrine on paper are massively and increasingly divided over non-doctrinal matters, torn apart by issues the Bible does not directly address.
Think of the three most contentious issues in the church over the past year: racial tensions, Covid restrictions, and the presidential election. On each of these matters, Christians have disagreed not just on interpretation or strategy or where the slopes are most slippery. We have fundamentally disagreed on the facts themselves, and because we disagree on the facts we disagree even more profoundly on the appropriate response.
Is America deeply and pervasively racist? Are people of color routinely and disproportionately in danger of being killed by police officers? Is virtually every aspect of our society hostile to the presence of black and brown bodies? If you answer yes to all these questions—that is, if you believe the facts warrant all these conclusions—then how can you not be engaged in (peaceful) protest? For the church to ignore injustice on this level is to be guilty of indifference at best and moral turpitude at worst. But if our society and our policing is not fundamentally racist, then much of the social justice movement is motivated by false premises.
What about Covid? If the facts tell us that this is a once-in-a-century pandemic, that we are facing 300,000 excess deaths, and that masks are a simple and effective way to limit the spread of the virus, then extreme care and caution are important ways we can love our neighbors as ourselves. If, on the other hand, coronavirus is hardly more dangerous than the seasonal flu, then the worldwide restrictions look rather onerous, if not outright nefarious.
And what about the election? Setting aside the question of whom to vote for, we are now divided over who people actually did vote for. If the election was stolen, perversely overriding the will of most Americans in an act of unconscionable thievery, then we should be marching (peacefully) until we are blue in the face. But if the facts do not support that conclusion, then we help no one by pretending that the loser of the election actually won.
In each set of issues, you can see why the stakes are so high and why the emotions run even higher. If things are as dire as some purport (on race, with Covid, and with a disputed election), then to do nothing displays a cowardly and colossal failure of nerve. But if, in each situation, things are much less dangerous and less insidious than the doomsdayers say, then taking a full-body chill pill would be the better part of valor.
So what are Christians to do?
First, let us be humble, understanding that few of us are experts on these issues. A little epistemic humility—in our hearts and toward others—can go a long way.
Second, let us be measured. This doesn’t mean our default has to be the status quo, but it does mean we should keep our passions in proportion. We should be religiously dogmatic about our religious dogma and not much else.
Third, let us reason together. It is the profound irony of our age: never has there been more information at our fingertips, and never has it been harder to know what information to trust. In most things, whether we realize it or not, we have no choice but to rely upon the expertise of others. We simply don’t have the time or ability to properly investigate every disputed claim. That means it is more important than ever before that we are discerning about the voices we listen to.
And how can we be discerning?
Read widely—not just from different voices online but from different voices across the centuries. Reading Calvin or Augustine won’t tell you what to think about Covid, but they will help you think better.
Listen to those who know you best and love you most. Of course, parents and pastors and friends can be wrong too, but there is something unhealthy about putting ourselves under the influence of distant personalities while neglecting those who will have to give an account for their care over us.
Where possible, look at the fruit of someone’s life. To be sure, bad people can make good arguments. But in general, if you are honest with other people, honest with yourself, and honest with God, you tend to be honest with facts and ideas. The opposite is also true.
Run through a series of diagnostic questions in your mind. Questions like:
Does the argument I’m reading deal in trade-offs or only in the categories of all-good/all-evil?
Are the terms and definitions clearly defined?
Can the person fairly state the argument he is arguing against?
Is he willing to acknowledge any fair points on the other side?
Does the person I’m listening to seem unhinged and unstable?
Is the argument full of emotive reasoning and ad hominem attack?
Does the force of the argument rely on hard words and high passions or on rational arguments and sound evidence?
Does this person have a track record of being fair, accurate, and well-researched?
Does this person have any credentials or experience that would make him worth listening to?
Does the argument make sweeping claims based on personal anecdotes?
Does the argument require me to believe what is non-falsifiable?
Does the argument require a level of highly elaborate clandestine scheming such that only the most disciplined, organized, and intelligent people in the world could pull it off?
Does the argument confuse correlation with causation?
Is the person a jerk on Twitter, constantly self-congratulatory on Twitter, seeking victim status on Twitter, or otherwise living online in a way that seems imbalanced?
Are these questions a magic elixir that will solve all our disagreements? Of course not. But perhaps they can nudge us in the right direction. I’m sure I’m getting things wrong. In fact, I hope on these non-biblical matters in particular that I’m always open to being corrected and learning something new.
For my part, while I believe there are many ways that the relationship between African Americans and police officers can improve, I don’t think the evidence suggests that racist cops are disproportionately killing unarmed black people. I don’t think Covid is deadly for the vast majority of people but it is very dangerous for some. And while I am sure there were irregularities in November’s election, I don’t think there is evidence of voter fraud so widespread that it could have changed the presidential outcome.
I hesitate to share these convictions because that’s not what I want this post to be about, but neither do I want to pretend that any of us can so rise above the fray that we don’t have to reach any of our own conclusions. My larger and more important point, however, is to urge us as Christians to lead the way in thinking carefully, and in carefully engaging those who think differently–especially on these disputed factual matters that can’t be answered (as I would prefer) by reading our Bibles alone.