Have you ever caught yourself arguing a point not because you believed it but because you wanted to win a debate?
I used to get into intense discussions with my friend Will. I remember one specific instance when a group conversation slowly became a debate between the two of us as our friends left one by one to find something else to do. While many of our conversations proved fruitful, some became more like fights than friendly dialogues. I’d play the devil’s advocate, making statements I wasn’t sure I fully believed in order to push back against Will’s points. We both look back and laugh at those times, recognizing how silly we were to get so heated. Yet those bad habits aren’t unique to our conversations.
Jesus was once asked about the source of his authority. Rather than answering directly, however, he responded with a question, asking his challengers to name the source of John the Baptist’s authority. The challengers were halted at this, caught between two uncomfortable answers. Luke records the scene:
And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ all the people will stone us to death, for they are convinced that John was a prophet.” So they answered that they did not know where it came from. And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”
The thought process of this group bothers me. They could have drawn from their training in the Scriptures and from their background of theology. They, of all people, should have been able to recognize God’s hand in John’s life. Yet their deliberation focused instead on the consequences of potential answers, taking into account both how Jesus and the crowd might respond to their decisions. Presumably, pride in their positions as leaders of Israel and fear of being proven wrong by this popular teacher affected their thinking. As they weighed their options, they left out the most important factor: reality. Faced with truth and called to respond to it, they thought only of how to win the argument, finding, to their disappointment, that they must either admit fault or claim ignorance. Surprisingly, they don’t appear to consider what actually happened, nor do they allow their personal beliefs about John or Jesus to play a role in their answer. They think only in terms of winning and losing, and their answers are seen merely as means to the end of victory. They appear to have no real concern for truth.
As a seminary student, I feel the weight of their mistake. This group, made up of priests and scribes and elders, shows us the danger of disconnecting discussions from beliefs and reality. It is frighteningly possible to approach subjects of eternal significance with a merely academic eye, evaluating and critiquing points in an argument with little to no thought of the effects on our souls. And while I wholeheartedly support the pursuit of academic excellence, I also recognize that academic excellence in theological studies is essentially worthless apart from worship and prayer and service. To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with the LORD remain the standards for obedience (Micah 6:8).
So let us pursue the deep things of God, but let us do so as living sacrifices, finding our identities in obedience to Christ and conformity to his image rather than in our intellect or understanding or “correctness.” Let us disagree well, loving people and loving truth. Let us build each other up, encouraging and correcting out of love, that the church may be strengthened. And may we study well because of our love for the God of truth, keeping theology and practice closely connected in our lives.
Thanks to Jamie, Will, and Maci for reading over early drafts of this post and offering feedback.