How we speak to another

Like many others in my denomination, I have been following the FOP (Fellowship of Presbyterians) gathering being held right now in Minnesota.  I have been following it almost exclusively through twitter and the hashtag #MN2011. It’s an interesting way to follow the conference because it is a mix of people there who are excited about the ideas being presented and discussed, some who wish they could be there, and a fair amount of people who are anything but supporters of FOP. As I am watching the comments fly back and forth (and writing some of my own), I see a familiar pattern of conversation that has typified this conversation for years.  

Simply put, when progressive Christians and conservative Christians speak to one another they often impune each other’s faith and motivations.

For progressive Christians it often looks like this, “You must not love gay people because you think homosexuality is sinful.” 

A better way to say this might be: “I affirm that you are earnestly trying to follow Jesus command to love all people. That’s not the issue. Where I think you have erred is that you have misinterpreted scripture regarding homosexuality.”

Likewise, for conservative Christians it can look like this, “Because you support GLBT ordination you must have a low regard for scripture and be willing to ignore God’s voice and instead follow society’s norms.”

The better way to say this could be: “I affirm that you take the Bible seriously and that you have the same desire to follow God that I do, but your interpretation of Scripture is flawed and, in my opinion, is leading you to some unBiblical conclusions.”

In both those cases the conversation shifted from denigrating people’s faith to questioning their judgment or reasoning.  For me, I have no problem being in a conversation where people state that my judgment or reasoning may be wrong. I am wrong frequently and for someone to say I might be wrong isn’t threatening.  But if you begin a conversation with me by stating that I don’t take the Bible seriously or that my faith is less than yours then you have made it hard for me to listen to you.

This is why, in my opinion, there is backlash against the FOP gathering.  There are things being said by the leadership and the people attending that go beyond questioning people’s judgment or interpretation of scripture, and instead questions their faith in God, and commitment to taking Scripture seriously.

For example, there was a Presbyterian Outlook article that summarized some of the first day of the FOP gathering.  A couple things caught my attention.

“We’re not mad,” Singleton said. “Our best solutions, we are convinced, will not be made in anger.” Repeatedly, he commended the PC(USA) leadership in Louisville for becoming involved in the conversation. Crosby said: “We are not calling anyone apostate.”

I was glad to hear that. As I said above, it’s hard for me to be in dialogue with you when you are questioning my commitment to God.  But…

Any new entity would include a theological statement of essential tenets that would be evangelical, orthodox and morally sound. “By golly, we’re going to stand on Scripture and its authority,” and not be embarrassed to describe essential truths, Singleton said.

And now you’ve lost me. The implication is that the PC(USA), of which I am a part of and committed to, is not intedning to stand on Scripture and its authority, and is also embarrassed to describe essential truths.  This questions my motives and my commitment to Scripture.  You haven’t just said that I have erred in my judgment (which I am fine with), but that I wasn’t trying to stand on Scripture in the first place.

I, along with thousands of others, will be a voting commissioner when any proposals for new ways forward come for a Presbytery vote.  If you would like me to support something that allows new ways of temporarily or permanently being in the PC(USA) together, then I will need to to know that my commitment to God won’t continually be questioned by my Presbyterian brothers and sisters.    

7 thoughts on “How we speak to another

  1. Thank you, Shawn. I suggest the first step in highly contentious discussion be everyone read/re-read “People Skills” by Robert Bolton (which has been a standard in CPE and Pastoral Counseling courses) and/or Fred Kofman’s “Conscious Business: How to Build Value through Values” (Kofman spends a lot of time on communication and negotiation). Sometimes we have to be reminded that who we communicate either builds avenues of understanding and convergence or silos or mistrust and divergence.

  2. Shawn, I think you are right on with this. I find the difficulty comes with the diverstiy within the various groups. There are those involved in this debate who want genuine civility and discussion. There are also those pursuing a scorched earth policy, who are so convinced of the righteousness of their argument that they will try to ‘win’ through any means necessary, including hateful speech, misrepresentation and sometimes outright deceit. The FOP has so far included both of these kinds of voices. To their credit, there has been far more of the civil voices so far than some previous gatherings of evangelicals, such as the New Wineskins. It will be interesting to hear who sets the tone for them this week and in the future.

  3. Thank you for sharing from your heart. There are obviously a number of perspectives and opinions represented in the FOP as well as across the PC(USA). My sense is that most people in the conversation don’t want to denigrate others (while realizing there are extremes on both ends that speak out of a place of emotion). At times our passions get in the way of first listening to others and second speaking clearly from our perspective. In light of this, I think there is a sincerity of a way forward that focuses on Jesus and his Kingdom rather than politics and institution. My hope is that people in various places on the continuum of opinions and perspectives realize the opportunities and possibilities that may come out of this tumultuous time.

  4. Thank you, Shawn, for this insightful and timely article! I wish it’s being widely spread and read on both sides of the aisle!

  5. Having run a spell check on your theology, I personally find your post sound and compelling. Frankly, I’m glad God doesn’t run a “spell check” on our living…given the way we choose to speak with one another, I’m thinking we’d be found lacking the grace God seems heaven-bent on extending to us.

  6. I agree, Shawn. I find this to be a problem, not only theologically, but also politically. It seems we, as a society, are losing the ability to engage in civil and respectful discourse and instead choose the “nanny nanny boo boo” route. Great for kids, not so great for people looking for meaningful discussion.

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