Why Debates Among Christians Often Turn Ugly

Why Debates Among Christians Often Turn Ugly February 14, 2023

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Image Credit: Tycho Atsma / Unsplash

Just like in any other family, there are plenty of disputes in the family of God. Some are things we’ve learned to live with over the years, like disagreements over baptism. But there are plenty of others that still generate quite a lot of hurt and conflict.

In modern times, some of the biggest controversies are those where the traditional position of the church has been called into question… The role of women. How to counsel same-sex-attracted believers. The age of the earth.

When it comes to these topics, debates among Christians can quickly get out of hand. In fact, it usually doesn’t take too long before somebody starts questioning whether his or her opponents are even truly Christians to begin with.

Unfortunately, I believe our frequent failure to have constructive dialogue about these sorts of issues all comes down to a very common pattern of misunderstanding between those who question the church’s historic position and those who affirm it. Specifically, I believe that those in each of these camps struggle to believe that their opponents’ views are rooted in their common commitment to biblical authority. They therefore tend to question their opponents’ motives, accusing them of capitulation on the one hand and abuse on the other.

So, today, I want to outline four common stances on the interaction between biblical authority and the traditional views of the church. I want to show how misunderstanding between two of those stances often undermines our ability to disagree in a loving and constructive way. I want to suggest a few ways we can do better. And then, next week, I want to illustrate how these dynamics play out in the specific issue of male headship in the church and home.

Biblical Authority and the Church’s Historic Views

In my experience, there are four main ways that people approach the relationship between what the Bible says and what the church has historically taught about a given topic. I’ll see if I can summarize each briefly.

Approach #1: Rejecting

The first approach is to openly reject both the authority of scripture and the historic teaching of the church on a given subject. Those who take this stance have no problem with saying that the church’s traditional position on an issue is wrong, that the Bible teaches the church’s traditional position, and that we should therefore ignore what the Bible has to say. This approach is frequently adopted by non-Christians (obviously), but can often appear in certain sectors of the church as well.

Approach #2: Reforming

The second approach is to affirm the authority of scripture, while nevertheless arguing that the church has historically misunderstood what the Bible says about a particular issue. In fact, it’s precisely because of their respect for scripture’s authority that those who take this stance want to overturn the church’s traditional position. They want to reform the church’s traditional teaching to bring it more in line with scripture.

Approach #3: Conserving

Like the second approach, the third also involves those who are committed to affirming the Bible’s authority. However, in this case, they believe that the church’s historical position on a given issue has been correct all along. They therefore seek to conserve the traditional teaching of the church, which they believe is rooted in Biblical principles.

Approach #4: Abusing

The final approach involves those who pay lip service to biblical authority, but only assert the church’s historic stance on a given issue because it benefits them personally. They therefore abuse the concept of biblical authority to serve their own ends or to justify their own hate.

We All Take More Than One Stance

As you read through the list above, I’m sure you saw your views reflected in at least one of these approaches. But I think it’s helpful to realize that virtually none of us takes the same approach to every issue. Rather, we mix and match, taking differing approaches depending on our views of a particular subject.

For example, the vast majority of Christians alive today take a “reforming” stance on issues related to race and slavery. They believe that the Bible has always opposed racism and supported freedom for the enslaved. They therefore think that the traditional position of the church, which excused racism and slavery for centuries, was an error all along. In that sense, then, virtually all of us take a “reforming” view.

Yet, when it comes to a doctrine like the trinity, virtually all Christians alive today take a “conserving” stance. They affirm that the Bible reveals a trinitarian God, and that the traditional view of the church has correctly understood the biblical evidence. Indeed, most would continue to view affirming the doctrine of the trinity as an essential litmus test for orthodox Christianity. Thus, in that sense, virtually all of us take a “conserving” view as well.

Finally, it’s worth noting that we can all be tempted to take a “rejecting” or “abusing” approach to issues at times. Most of us don’t do so out loud, of course. But we can tie ourselves into all sorts of knots trying to justify our sin.

How We Misunderstand Each Other

But how do these different stances on sensitive topics cause debates among Christians to turn ugly? In my experience, most of the heat is generated between those who take a “reforming” stance on an issue and those who take a “conserving” stance. And the reason is that each of them tends to misunderstand and question the motives of the other.

Those who take a conserving stance, for example, tend to assume that those who take a reforming stance are actually taking a rejecting stance. They often accuse the reformers of compromising the authority of scripture and capitulating to the spirit of the secular age. As a result, they frequently fail to engage with the actual substance of the reformers’ biblical arguments—arguments that are based on the authority of scripture, not the spirit of the age!

Those who take a reforming stance, on the other hand, tend to assume that those who take a conserving stance are actually taking an abusing stance. They accuse the conservers of trying to preserve the systems of power from which they’ve historically benefited, and of intentionally mis-interpreting scripture to serve those ends. As a result, they tend to dismiss the substance of the conservers’ arguments rather than engaging them—arguments that are once again rooted in scripture, not naked self-interest.

These patterns of misunderstanding often lead to a vicious cycle of offense. Let’s say a reformer senses that their conserving opponent is questioning their motives and character rather than engaging with the substance of their scriptural argument. It suddenly becomes a lot easier to believe that the opponent is operating in bad faith—and therefore to begin questioning their motives and character rather than engaging with the substance of their arguments. And the cycle repeats from there.

Removing Logs

But I don’t believe that things have to be this way. In fact, I think that there are a couple of steps that believers can take that will help them tremendously in having constructive dialogue about sensitive topics. And the first of these is to follow the advice of Jesus in Matthew 7:5.

“First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

The first thing that we should do, Jesus says, is to check our own hearts and motives to make sure they’re actually as pure as we think they are. And how that plays out will depend on what kind of stance a person takes on a given issue.

Those who take a conserving stance, for example, should make sure that they don’t have any ulterior motives for advocating their traditional views. Those motives will vary by issue, of course. But they should ask whether they have an economic, reputational, or other interest in the survival of their view. They should ask whether they have a love for all people, or whether they’re harboring a form of bigotry that’s clouding their judgment. In short, they should make sure they’re not guilty of what the reformers accuse them of.

Those who take a reforming stance, on the other hand, should make sure that they genuinely believe their arguments are rooted in scripture. They should honestly ask whether they would hold their position in a different cultural environment, or whether they’ve allowed cultural pressures to shape their biblical interpretation. In short, they should make sure they’re not guilty of what the conservers accuse them of.

And there’s two goals to all this. The first is so that we can repent and turn from our own sin and error. But the second, as Jesus points out, is that overcoming our own sin and error allows us to see better when we go to help our brothers and sisters tackle theirs.

Assuming the Best

Of course, removing the log from your own eye means questioning your own motives to make sure they’re pure. But, while questioning your own motives is a good practice, it’s not always helpful to question the motives of others. Instead, we would do well to follow the words of James 4.

Do not speak evil against one another, brothers… There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?

Suppose a fellow believer takes a different position on an issue. Suppose, further, that they profess their sincere belief that their view is the teaching of scripture. In those cases, we have absolutely no business judging their motives and accusing them of capitulation or abuse!

Instead, we should assume their motives are pure. We should assume they mean what they say. We should engage them in discussion on the substance of the issue.

And we should recognize that doing so is actually the best way to convince them to change their position. People don’t change their sincerely held views simply because somebody questioned their motives. People change their sincerely held views when they become convinced through loving argument that those sincerely held views are, in fact, incorrect!

We therefore have not only a biblical command but also a vested interest in proceeding as if our brothers and sisters are operating in good faith. It is only in very extreme circumstances that we should allow ourselves to conclude anything different.


It is an unfortunate reality that debates among Christians often produce more heat than light. But, when it comes to issues where the historic position of the church has been called into question, I believe much of that heat is generated by misunderstanding those with whom we disagree.

May we all learn to exercise intellectual humility, listen attentively to those we disagree with, and engage them lovingly on their own terms. We may not ever agree on some of these issues. But I’m not convinced that’s the point. In fact, I believe our Christian character and witness is at its strongest when we demonstrate our unity and Christ-like love despite our differences. It is there that unity in the body of Christ truly shines.

Got any questions or thoughts about what I’ve said today? Do these patterns I’ve described resonate with you? Scroll down and leave a comment! I’d love to hear from you. You can also reach out on Twitter.

Also, be sure to stay tuned for next week’s post. As I said in the introduction, I plan to examine how the patterns I’ve described today play out in the debates over the role of women in the church and home. I’ve got concrete examples of precisely the kinds of misunderstandings I described today. So, come back to see these issues illustrated practically! I think seeing the examples will give us an even better idea of how to steer clear of divisive rhetoric in the church!

(Finally, if you follow my column at all, you may have noticed that it’s been a few weeks since I posted. I’ve had some personal things come up that I needed to take care of, but I’m hoping to get back into a regular routine of writing every week or every other week here soon.)


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