On Disputing Disputable Matters

I had to laugh when I saw Ben Witherington's recent blog post on a "gun rights" appeal from Senator Rand Paul. Timothy Dalrymple vectored me onto it with this Facebook comment: "Although my political instincts are conservative, I must say that I share some of Dr. Witherington's indignation when it comes to Christians fighting against what seem to be very reasonable gun controls." Reader comments poured in. No one, it seems, is neutral on this topic.

I laughed because I seem to be on at least six email lists that forwarded warnings to me last week about the same issue that was exercising Rand Paul. Deploying all manner of scary adjectives and punctuation marks, the emails urgently informed me (!) that President Obama (!) had banned a whole class of guns!!! I usually just delete these communications, but I was curious. Clicking through to the original reports, I discovered the same thing Dr. Witherington did: the kerfuffle was over Obama's decision not to allow South Korea to send antique military-issue rifles back to the United States for resale.

I found the manipulative appeals as irritating as he did; their focus was on evoking sentiment for the old M1 rifle, which frankly is a silly reason to demand the repatriation of one million firearms. I don't ultimately share Dr. Witherington's side of this argument, but the gun-rights flyers filling my inbox were a sad representation of the political philosophy behind the lobbying pitch. The emails didn't sour me on the constitutional precepts involved in gun rights, but they did cause me to say "Oh, please" out loud, and delete them with a certain crisp annoyance.

I explain this because it's a superb example of what the apostle Paul likely had in mind when he warned against "quarreling over disputable matters" (Rom. 14:1, NIV). The Bible is not a handbook with explicit instructions on every modern political issue. Just as there were disputable matters relating to ritual observance during Paul's day, so there are disputable matters relating to political ideas today. Christians can have very similar reactions to the tendentious framing of certain issues, but still disagree on their basic meaning and import.

I don't think it's un-Christian to be vigilant about the slippery-slope threats to Americans' Second Amendment rights—but neither do I consider it un-Christian to see the matter differently. Christians can differ on this issue in good faith. I regard my concept of natural rights and small government as grounded in New Testament principles, but I can understand that other Christians might dispute its elements or some of the positions to which it logically leads. The principle of gun rights, which applies to a tool wielded in the specific, contingent context of a technological era, is not a first principle but a derivate one, and derivative principles are almost always "disputable matters."

Of course, the reason we dispute disputable matters is because they are important. Who can think about topics like abortion, child-rearing, divorce, fatherlessness, welfare dependency, illegal immigration, the "proper relations" of men and women, or the role of firearms in society and not have strong feelings and a personal stake in society's solutions?

Yet as close to the quick as they cut us, each one of these things, as an issue of public policy, is a disputable matter. There is no scriptural dictate on how to make policy in accordance with Christian beliefs about them. And recognizing this leads naturally to Paul's advice in Romans. As Christians, we are not to think of ourselves first as correcting, overriding, or voting against each other in disputable matters. Paul puts it this way:

The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall . . . Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.

You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God's judgment seat . . . Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister (Rom. 14:3-4, 6, 10, 13, NIV).

Personal conviction is not disallowed; it is encouraged. We are not required to accept each other's opinions on disputable matters, or to disavow our own. Given today's concept of consensual government and political participation, we are certainly authorized—in my view—to try to persuade one another. Yet we are called to accept that God has accepted those whose views differ from our own, and not to judge one another or treat one another with contempt.

If there were a single, indisputable "answer" for each of these disputable matters, and if having it were essential to our lives as Christians, then God would have given us something He did not: an answer sheet.