Please allow me to share three anecdotes before making some comments about how our assumptions can affect our interactions. All come from the early 1990s when I was working on a DMin at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS).
How Long Did It Take…?
One day, during the lunch break of a day-long class, another student and I ended up at the same table in the snack shop. As we exchanged greetings and a little bit of bio, he asked where I did my undergraduate studies. When I told him I went to Bob Jones University, he immediately said, “How long did it take to get over that?”
Only One Guy?
I had just finished preaching in a conference service and on my way down from the platform I was met by a well-known Fundamentalist pastor and leader. He had heard that I was taking classes at TEDS and wanted to talk to me about it. His last comment was something like “I took some classes there and I think there was only one professor there who was on Jesus’s side.”
I Have Never Thought of That Before
During one course I found myself sitting next to a United Methodist Pastor (it’s almost like the start of a joke about a Fundamentalist Baptist and a United Methodist walking into a New Evangelical school!). As we talked throughout the week during class breaks I learned this man’s “story,” and it was fascinating. Through a combination of life circumstances and ministry burden, he found himself serving as an evangelical pastor in a liberal denomination. The ministry burden, in a nutshell, was that he grew up in the UMC and never heard the gospel preached, so he wanted to fill that gap. Toward the end of the week, we had lunch in the snack shop together and I asked him about the texts of Scripture that prohibit the kind of theological entanglement in which he was involved. His answer was simple and sincere, “I have never heard this explained or thought about it before.”
Each of these anecdotes illustrates how one’s assumptions can affect one’s interactions with other people. The two poles represented by the first two stories are very common. They both assume something deeply flawed about those who hold an opposing position. In other words, the disagreement can’t be rooted in differences of interpretation; it must be rooted in something sinister about the other person. And, if we’re honest about it, we are convinced that “our” side of the disagreement is on the side of the angels and reflects greater godliness. That is completely acceptable if the issues at stake are fundamental in their very nature—the Apostles Paul and John did not extend fellowship to those who denied essential doctrines of the Christian faith. But the comments made to me were by Christian brothers over matters less than fundamentals of the Faith. Both sides had adopted stances controlled by very negative assumptions about the character of their brothers in Christ.
I share the third anecdote because it illustrates how important it is to try to understand before drawing conclusions. Frankly, my first internal reaction when I heard that this brother was a UMC pastor was not positive at all. I immediately assumed that he was ecumenically minded and committed to compromising on doctrinal matters. Obviously, I didn’t agree with the choices he had made—that’s why I talked with him about the texts which prohibit fellowship between those who hold to the doctrine of Christ and those who deny it—but my assumptions about why he made them proved very wrong. Instead of assuming that he knew the truth and had rejected it, I realized that he had never had anyone explain biblical separatism to him. He seemed genuinely disturbed by the texts of Scripture we looked at. They were confronting his entire approach to ministry. It was a fascinating discussion.
What I’ve written here applies to other realms of life as well. Part of the folly in not listening before we answer (Prov 18:13) springs from the assumptions we make which keep us from truly understanding what we are hearing and seeing. Pre-judging like this causes a lot of damage in relationships, churches, and ministries. Instead of approaching disagreements as matters worthy of sincere effort to understand and apply the Scriptures, motives and actions are judged harshly. As the judgments deepen the other side is turned into villains (not being “on Jesus’s side”). In verbal wars villains are best defeated by pejorative labels (e.g., legalists or liberals).
If you are only interested in defending your position or discrediting someone else’s, then crank up the label maker. If you are interested in the truth and real unity where it ought to prevail, then pursue conversations that help you understand where the disagreements are and how to resolve them, if possible. Not all conflicts can be resolved, but we should “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom 12:18).