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Yesterday I had the most amazing experience.  My perspective was completely changed on a subject in just a matter of minutes.  Interestingly, it is an issue I have been conflicted over so much lately.  I suppose that meant I was ready to listen.

I have had this long-standing guilt over being argumentative.  I’ve felt it was wrong, un-Christlike, and a bad witness.  But my personality can rarely walk away from a good debate.  Earlier in the day, I had just explained to a friend why I had left various internet discussion groups.   I have grown tired of all the arguing.  Yet I found myself  immediately in two intense conversations.  I was so frustrated that I can’t seem to just turn around and walk away from them.  But during the course of the last debate I realized, to do so, would have been insulting to the other person who genuinely wanted to discuss an issue.  I was left conflicted.  What is the right thing to do?

I have been in arguments where I felt attacked by those who were supposed to be on my side, as believers. My perspective was not even heard, let alone understood.  I appreciate being heard more than being agreed with!  But when someone doesn’t even listen, and gets hostile, then we are wasting words.  Have I been guilty of this myself? Most definitely.

Later in the day after I briefly explained the above struggle with my friend, I picked up reading in a book I’ve been working my way through, and a completely clear answer came.  I saw through this story that it’s not wrong to argue, but we often argue wrongly.  I have to share this excerpt from the book.  It’s hard to get the full impact of the story this pastor is telling about his “church” in a hard core part of Pittsburgh, without having read the book up to this point.  But I hope you can get the idea.

One Sunday after worship, Amanda and Eric approached me. Amanda is a twenty-something with a mix of blond, black, and red hair. Eric has a black and blue tint to his hair that I’ve always wanted and have never had the nerve to get. Both Eric and Amanda are eccentric, artsy, and love old monster movies and rock-n-roll. Eric and Amanda are the kind of people I want to be when I grow up. So, when they came to me on that Sunday morning with an idea, I listened. “Pastor Jim,” Amanda started, “We want to get involved in a Bible study. Is this church going to have any Bible studies?” I quickly got defensive. That’s what we pastors do when it is insinuated that we’re not providing the right products. “We already have Bible studies going on right now,” I replied. “We have a study on Monday night, a study about Ephesians on Wednesday, and a study on Romans on Saturday nights at the coffee shop.” Eric looked at me, politely, but pained, and said to me very gently and kindly, “Yeah, we went to those.” “It’s just not what we’re looking for, Pastor Jim,” Amanda said. “Well, what is it you’re looking for? Maybe we can get something new going.” That’s when Amanda got bold. I braced myself. “To be honest, Pastor Jim, I don’t like those other studies because it’s just a bunch of people sitting around nodding at one other. I mean, everyone is just agreeing with each other. I feel like we’re being brain-washed or something.” “What are you suggesting?” I replied, kind of confused.

“I don’t know. We want to be part of a Bible study where no one agrees.” “No one agrees?” “Sure, why don’t we have a study where everyone comes and we fight?” “Fight?” “Yeah. We fight about the Bible and theology and stuff.” “Uh … All right.”

And Bible Fight Club was born. When we started Bible Fight Club, the purpose wasn’t, and still isn’t, discipleship. The club isn’t meant to be a place where we grow in our faith, per se. The point to the gathering is not to worship, not to study scripture, and not to fellowship. The point to Bible Fight Club is to fight. It is a time for debate, a time for wrestling, and for doubting and questioning the things that we sometimes hold as gospel.

Sometimes this even means the gospel. For our church, it has been a place where atheists, agnostics, believers, non-believers, and believers of other faiths can come and toss in their two cents. To make sure that the argument is valued and that people are valued as well, we made the following rules:

Bible Fight Club Rules:

1. Respect: this means we love and respect each other, but not necessarily each other’s opinions. Also, respect the argument by being a good listener.

2. Say Anything: this means that there is no judging and no holding grudges. The tattoo shop basement is a safe place where anything can be said. This rule has made it possible for people to play devil’s advocate-taking a side of an argument, they might not completely agree with justto see where the line of thinking goes.

3. Fight: this rule means that all those in attendance must participate. No one is allowed to come and observe. Observers and silent on-lookers skew the argument by inadvertently becoming a kind of jury that people try to convince.

4. Get to the Point: there are no speeches allowed. People are to make their point and shut up so that others can speak. Also, a good arguer listens as often as he or she speaks.

5. Honor the Argument: phrases like, “Well, it’s all just a mystery” or “We’ll never know the answer, so why bother arguing” do not honor the argument. Take a side and fight, no matter how mysterious you think the subject is.

6. Admit When You’ve Been Hit: At the end of the evening, we take time to talk about the argument. Everyone must share something that was said that made him or her think. Sometimes this might mean having some humility. But that’s the point.

As the moderator, it has been interesting to see where certain arguments go. We have tackled such topics as hell, the devil, church and culture, politics, healing, money, angels, and on and on. We have people show up armed with books and commentaries. We have people show up who want to defend their territory. All different kinds of folks, with different backgrounds and faiths, have joined the argument. We’ve had Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and people who practice witchcraft. We’ve had Christians who would identify themselves as liberal and Christians who come from a more fundamentalist background.

During one rather heated argument about the Trinity, one guy stood up, red-faced, threw his Bible on the ground in anger and cried out, “What is wrong with you people?! Aren’t we all Christians here?!” At which point, three or four people shouted back at him: “No!” He slowly sat back down in his seat, scratching his hand and looking around the room suspiciously. He had come for a Bible study, not a fight.

… Some might say this kind of study only helps to confuse people and doesn’t send a clear message of what the gospel is. But I would say that Bible Fight Club has been a better forum for sharing the love of Christ than any other Bible study that I have ever attended. Many times, Bible studies can turn into indoctrination sessions, where the goal is to make everyone “be like us.” Doesn’t that kind of stuff turn everyone off? Because the Fight Club is more about valuing the fight than winning the fight, we all walk out invigorated and excited rather than demoralized. We have had many people return a week after a good fight and share how they did more research on the topic. We’ve had others say that the fight caused them actually to pick up the Bible and read it for the first time.

Are we worshipping Buddha? No, Jesus is Lord. Do we compromise our faith by subscribing to some sort of watered-down relativism? No, Jesus is Lord. Are we encouraging people to think for themselves? Yes. Are we practicing the spiritual discipline of listening so that we earn the right to be heard? Yes. Are we creating a doorway through which people can come and experience the kingdom of God? Yes. We have had more people than I can count join us for worship on Sunday morning, where we preach the gospel, because they got to participate in a discussion on faith in the basement of a tattoo shop.

The most important part of the evening comes at the very end. Observing the last rule at the end of the fight, participants must share one thing that someone else said that was not in-line with their opinion and made them think. This has been a powerful time as we go around the room and honor the fight and the fighters. The act of admitting that someone else had a good point or a challenging argument is a gesture of humility. That small gesture can be the vehicle in which the group binds together. Suddenly, everyone is on the same playing field. We become one not because we all agreed, but because we all contributed to the argument.

During this time of humility and encouragement, the Holy Spirit moves among us, and by the time we’re done, we realize that although we’re all coming from different points of view, we have actually shared in koinonia through the fight. Arguing over God and theology and the Bible doesn’t have to be a bitter, hateful thing we try to avoid. Fighting over the Bible, struggling with the real questions of faith, can actually be a time of koinonia, binding ourselves to one another through our differing opinions. This is possible as long as we come to the fight, not ready to win the argument, but ready to value the argument. This is possible as long as we walk into the fight willing to listen, willing to acknowledge that we don’t know everything, and willing to have humility.

Jim Walker:  Dirty Word: The Vulgar, Offensive Language of the Kingdom of God

I have broken the rules of “fair fighting” so many times.  Rules that preserve mutual respect and honor the other person.  But I have seen here the value of arguing… or if you prefer the word, debating.  In the Information Age and post-modern culture, we have to wrestle for truth.  We have to literally fight through so many ideas and beliefs.. because we are told they are all valid.  But I honestly believe in spite of being told there isn’t absolute truth, people are still looking for it.  If Jesus is that Truth, how are we going to share Him if we don’t allow people to wrestle?  Does it mean we have to win?  No.  Winning isn’t up to us.  Listening and testifying are.

Cults and fringe religious movements do not allow anyone to openly question their sacred cows.  Evangelical Christianity doesn’t generally tolerate it well either.  People find it terrifying.   “Truth” must be controlled and protected.  But the Truth is not afraid to be challenged and tested.  If it is true, it will prevail.  Those who come out of closed cult systems do need to wrestle, sometimes for years, with every part of their belief system they once ascribed to.  It’s a messy business.  I have felt drained and frustrated by watching others in this process, and backed away.  I have felt I no longer had anything to contribute.  But I now see that everywhere there is someone seeking truth (ex-cult or otherwise), this messy business will be necessary.  Just as children are messy treasures, so are God’s spiritual kids, as we are born and grow in Him.

So I repent of my “it’s not nice to argue” error and realize it may be the most complimentary thing you can do for someone.  Acknowledge them.  Challenge them to wrestle with the Holy One of Israel.  May we then become “People of the Limp.”  As Jacob was broken and changed, we also can become humble and broken before God and men.   We can even be allowed, to be wrong.

By the way… I cannot recommend this book highly enough!

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