Belligerent pt. 9: How Can I Learn From You If You’re Wrong?

Twice a year I offer free coaching to the first ten pastors who sign up on Facebook, Twitter, or by my monthly newsletter. Even though coaching is how I make my living I believe that you need to always give something away. Call it Christian Karma, What goes around comes around, or Whatever a man sows he will reap (Gal. 6:7). So, twice a year I give away six one hour coaching sessions to ten people.

A couple of years ago a young pastor made it into my group of freebies (yes, that’s what I call them). With about fifteen minutes left of our introductory call the conversation took an abrupt turn.

Dave, could I ask you a question?
Sure.
What’s your theology?

(Keep in mind that I have about fifteen minutes left of our phone call.)

Well _____, that’s a pretty big question. I don’t know that I have the time to explain to you what my theology is. I bet there’s something specific on your mind, something that’s important to you. If you want to ask me specifically about that you can but to tell you the truth, I’ve never been asked that question before by a pastor I was coaching. Why is this important to you?

 Well, he said, I don’t want someone counseling me who does not think the way I do.

(I’m glad my friend could not see my face because I’m not that attractive with a dropped jaw.)

Well let me explain that I am not going to be counseling you. Coaching is different than counseling. I have no desire to talk about any differences we might have theologically nor to change you over to my way of thinking. When I coach pastors, theological distinctions between us never come up.

Oh, I see, I guess you’re right. Sorry.
No problem.

I was surprised by how much my friends words, “I don’t want someone counseling me who does not think the way I do.” saddened me. I couldn’t help but think what this young pastor was poised to miss out on if all he ever did was surround himself with people who thought the way he did.

***

If I have decided to be a learner then everyone and everything becomes my teacher.

In 2005, at the age of 47, I returned to college to complete a degree I had put on hold in 1978. After two years of ministry training at San Jose Bible College (It’s not there anymore. The school is now north of Sacramento, California and is called William Jessup University) the church I was serving at offered me a full time position. My academic Dean thought I should take the job even though it meant I would have to postpone my education.

“Dave”, he said, “you’re young. You can always go back to college. This is a great opportunity. I think you should take it.”

So I said goodbye to college and hello to full time ministry. I did come back to finish my education but it took 27 years. I was part of a newly developed accelerated degree completion program. One night a week. One class at a time. Each class lasted five weeks. I was part of a cohort, a small group of students who stayed together throughout the entire program.

Over the years my college had morphed into a Liberal Arts Christian University which meant my small group of fellow students made up a wide range of theological thought. Each week I interacted with those from the far right to the far left. Some were more patient with those they disagreed with and others were not. Some seemed eager to learn new things and understand different ways Christians interpret the scriptures and then there were those who seemed threatened by such differences.

William Temple (Archbishop of Canterbury 1881-1944) said, “In our dealings with one another let us be more eager to understand those who differ from us than either to refute them or press upon them our own tradition.”

You can learn a lot when you are willing to explore outside of your own group. Your group is made up of people who think the way you do on important political, societal, and theological issues. What concerns me is how some (not all, but some) Christians and how some, (not all but some) Pastors respond to those they disagree with belligerently, refuting them and attempting to press upon their brothers and sisters in Christ their own tradition. There is no humble, respectful, teachable, open-minded dialog representing genuine interest in learning the perspective of the other person. Our opinion-door is closed, locked tight, and has pinned to the outside a sign which reads “Do not disturb. Trespassers will be shot.”

***

In pt. 8 of this series I mentioned the changes I’ve made in some of my theology over the years. For example, for many years I was very confident in what I felt the Bible said about women in the ministry. I taught my position and implemented my position in the churches I pastored. When the subject of ‘women in ministry’ became a hot-topic in my group, when I discovered that there were some in my group that interpreted the scriptures differently than I did, I decided that I was going to revisit the topic and try really, really hard to be objective. It’s really, really hard to be objective when you already feel that you are right. But I tried really, really hard. I read position papers from fellow pastors in my group. I read books by theologians who believed differently than I did. I wanted to be open, even though in my mind my understanding of women in ministry was a closed issue.

Do you know what happened? You guessed it. I changed my mind. I still think that my old position has some strong points but I feel my current position has more strong points. That’s usually how it is. Usually we have to choose the better of two good arguments. We have to make that choice for ourselves. Someone else will make a different choice. One will feel an argument is weak and the other that it is strong. Over the years I have discovered that my positions on controversial topics have their own weaknesses in them.

I wish there were one person designated by God to be the debate-fixer. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone could tell us authoritatively whose interpretation of the scriptures is right and whose is wrong? I wish we had someone like that to turn to but we don’t.

I doubt that any of us will get 100% on our theology exam when we get to heaven. I wonder if in heaven all the issues we strongly disagree about will be cleared up? I wonder if we will care? Imagine the heavenly scene…

Hey, I didn’t expect to see you here.
What?
Nothing. Did you hear that Paul is gong to be giving a lecture at two on ‘Who was right and who was wrong?’
Really?
Yeah, wanna go?
I think I’ll pass. Besides, John is giving an introduction to the harp at two-thirty and I don’t want to miss that.

If I have decided to be a learner then everyone and everything becomes my teacher. Don’t be afraid to learn from those you have serious disagreements with. Everyone has something to add to our faith if we are willing to look, listen, and learn. And it is at that point where we allow our lives to be enriched by someone we disagree with that our hands are joined together rather than separated and forming fists.

Coming up next: Belligerent pt. 10: The Bible Does Contradict Itself