When someone asks the controversial question

Every fortnight I meet with the Nueva Vida team to help them think about some of the issues and decisions that come up. This week we talked about how to respond when someone comes along and asks a challenging question or disagrees with you.

This is important for Nueva Vida because

a. Whenever you have a gathering, people will come with questions. Some will be easy to answer some difficult.

b. Particularly at the start of a new church or congregation, people are sussing you out to find out where you stand and whether or not they will fit in.

c. A new congregation has some advantages. They are starting from scratch and are able to shape the approach of the group for the longer term. In an existing congregation, people have had time to settle into assumed positions without really thinking through why the believe what they believe.

So it is good for a newish group like Nueva Vida to think through what the believe and how they will answer right at the start. Now in some cases, Nueva Vida’s approach will be shaped by their relationship to Bearwood Chapel, but not always. Sometimes there will be some variation within our congregations, sometimes the Chapel will not have thought about an issue yet and so will benefit from Nueva Vida’s input.  Also, even when there is a “BC position” it’s good for Nueva Vida to have thought the matter through so they are comfortable with their relationship with the wider Chapel community.

Any new church plant will of course have to think these things through for themselves.

Types of controversy

We saw that there were two main types of controversial question. Some questions will be controversial because whilst there is a clear and commonly agreed Christian position, this is sharply at odds with what people from the surrounding cultures believe. For example:

Is Jesus God? What is the Trinity(in a Muslim cultural context)?

Did the Resurrection really happen?

What do you think about same sex marriage?

Other questions will be controversial because different Christians and denominations take positions which they passionately hold to.

For example:

Do you baptise babies?

How do you do corporate worship? -e.g style of music, liturgy etc.

Which version of the Bible do you use?

How should churches be led and organised (plural elders, hierarchy of bishops, vicars etc, linked to a denomination or independent)

Can women preach and be ordained as vicars/pastors/elders?

Divorce and re-marriage

Gifts of the Spirit

Can Christians support a specific political party/position?

What do you think about the modern State of Israel and how this relates to the fulfilment of end time prophecy.

How do we respond?

The first thing we said we should do was to ask questions back. This would help us to find out a bit more about what they believed about the subject. It also helps to find out what they think you believe because sometimes people assume you believe something you don’t!

Secondly, we said that it helps to know how important an issue is. We suggested three levels.

  1. This is a Gospel issue. In other words, it is vital that we know the right answer because it affects salvation. For example, if someone does not believe that Jesus rose from the dead then this cuts to the heart of the good news.
  2. Some issues are important for a congregation. You have to make a decision about how you will approach the issue. For example, will you be part of a denomination or will you be independent? Will you use guitars and drums. For things to be orderly a consistent approach is needed. This does not mean that every church member will necessarily agree with everything you say and do but the leaders need to be in agreement.
  3. Some issues are for individuals to decide and it’s not worth worrying too much about. For example, we are not going to be deciding whether or not people should raise their hands in the air when singing.

Now, those positions mask some subtleties. For example, something may on the surface look as though it is not essential to the Gospel but becomes a Gospel issue either because of its implications or because of the way that someone holds to it.

An example of the first case would be when Paul has to confront the Galatian church about who they have dinner with. Views about food, circumcision, dinner guests, Gentile & Jew relationships become Gospel matters because how people live can be traced back to a faulty view of the Gospel.

An example of the second type might be (as happened to me) someone comes along and demands to know why you did not pray for the offering. It could just be a matter of tradition but we’ve found that sometimes questions like this include a belief that if a certain prayer is not said then the tithe is unblessed and this means that the rest of the person’s money is unblessed to so they will not prosper.  In other words they are trusting superstition.

Thirdly we said that we would look at what the Bible says. We would do this together with the enquirer. This can help to make things less confrontational. However, you do need to do some upfront thinking and it is helpful to put things into writing.

Now sometimes the application will be straight forward. The Bible says “do this” so you do it. Sometimes there’s a second level. The Bible may provide room for a variety of practices in line with the teaching. For example many conservative Anglicans, FIEC churches and Brethren hold the same basic understanding of  what the Bible teaches about men and women in leadership but differ on how to put it into practice.

Thirdly we should follow the principle  “play the ball not the man!” In other words deal  with the issue in hand gently and respectfully. We should normally assume that the other person’s motives are good, even if we disagree with their view. I say “normally” because sometimes  you will know either from additional  information or a  gut sense in your spirit that the person has their own agenda. In those cases I would not waste too much time with them.

Feel free to pitch in with your own experiences and advice for young congregations below.