I once had a friend who often referred to what he called “one-man arguments about non-issues.” Another friend used to echo the common cliché; “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” Lao Tzu, a sixth century BC Chinese philosopher said, “A good man does not argue; He who argues is not a good man.” There’s at least some truth in all of those statements – and some error.
If a person is willing to argue for a given position, it must at least be an issue to him or to her. The person with whom he is arguing may see it as a non-issue, and therefore avoid any discussion of it. That reduces it to a “one-man argument” which is the conversational equivalent of one hand clapping.
The fact that a man is convinced against his will doesn’t mean that he is right. Nor does it mean that he is wrong. It simply means that no amount of argument will persuade him to move off the dime. We all know of people who were wrong about something, but who refused to change their opinion for reasons of pride or stubbornness.
If a good man doesn’t argue, then we must conclude that Peter and Paul were not good men, for they argued with each other. At the same time, chronically contentious people are a pain in the rear. “Dissensions” are included in Galatians 5:19-20 as one of the works of the flesh.
Like everything else, there is an appropriate time to argue, and a time to shut up.
The Politics of Arguing
The process of arguing within the culture of the Churches of God is freighted with a unique kind of authoritarian politics. As a typical argument progresses, the issue seldom remains the issue; it becomes who has the right to have and to express an opinion on this? A person’s correctness or incorrectness in an argument is often perceived to relate to his or her position in the church hierarchy – or his former position. An “evangelist” (or former evangelist) is perceived to be more likely correct than that of a “pastor” or a “preaching elder” and a “preaching elder’s” opinion carries more weight than that of a “local elder.” I can even remember certain employees refusing to follow orders from “lower ranking” ministers because they had been told that they were, though unordained, “the equivalent of an evangelist.” In this kind of arguing, the content of the argument is lost in the shuffle of positional posturing.
In a male-dominated authoritarian church culture, a man’s opinions are frequently perceived to be more valid than a woman’s arguments. Yet how many wives do you know who believe that their husband’s opinions are more often correct than their own?
In other words, in authoritarian cultures one’s perceived correctness is based on position in a hierarchy, rather than on facts, evidence, and strength of reason etc.
All of this illustrates one of the intrinsic weaknesses of authoritarian cultures. In such environments, true objectivity is all but impossible. All arguments carry authoritarian baggage. The facts or the logic cannot, in such circumstances, speak for themselves or prevail in their own right. In such circumstances, arguments, no matter how well framed only carry weight if authority sanctions them.
The Old Attitude Ploy
Another factor that interferes with objectivity in authoritarian cultures is the issue of attitude. Those who argue against the sacred Status Quo are almost always viewed as being in “a bad attitude” – otherwise, why would they argue against the position taken by “those in authority”? A good attitude is defined as obedience, compliance and subservience. Ironically, the frustration of arguing with people who insist on authoritarian posturing and attitudinal judgment is often the very thing that gets the arguer into a bad attitude. Once that happens, the discussion shifts focus to the person’s attitude, and again the substance of the argument is lost in the maelstrom of posturing about attitude that follows. (The same thing happens when husbands and wives argue. The content of the argument is often lost in the more emotional discussion about who’s “shouting” or “yelling.”)
Authoritarian cultures are designed to spike the process of arguing. Epistemology is not based primarily on reason or sound evidence, but on external authority. One “knows” because the person or persons in authority say it is so. For centuries, this mentality kept Europe from progressing scientifically. If the Magisterium of the Catholic Church had said that the earth was flat, it was flat, no matter the evidence to the contrary. For arguing against that idea, Galileo almost paid with his life.
Adolph Hitler injected his ideological poison into the minds of Germans on authoritarian grounds. His Mein Kampf is full of illogical, specious, insupportable, even idiotic notions, yet people came to believe them because he asserted them with unbending authority. One such idiocy was “Mankind has grown strong in eternal struggles and it will only perish through eternal peace” (Mein Kampf, Ch. 3). How’s that for a devilish thought? Hitler convinced millions that it was true.
China’s Chairman Mao wrote a Little Red Book that for years became China’s Bible. It was full of communist drivel. Yet people had no choice but to read and believe it. Those who challenged it were viewed as subversives and severely punished.
Authoritarianism is both weakening and sickening. It holds back progress. It spikes constructive discussion. It has no rightful place within the Churches of God (Matthew 20:25-28). This is a clear case of where we should not “do as the Romans do.” Yet authoritarianism persists, and many love to have it so. Those who do have been weakened to the point where they can’t take responsibility for working out their own salvation (Phil. 2:12). They have to have someone tell them what to believe, what to do, and where to go to do it. When one of the spin-off churches of God was first formed, one man who joined himself to it was asked, “Well what do you believe about such-and-such?” He responded, “I don’t know. They haven’t told us what we believe on that yet.” This perfectly illustrates the point. Too many are still checking their brains at the door when they go in to church services. They rely on someone in authority to tell him or her what they believe.
Not Encouraging Contention
Contrary to what some may think, I am not here encouraging a spirit of contention. Rather, I am saying that anyone, at any level in the Church, ought to be able at any time to challenge any given doctrine, position or status quo without fear of reprisals. So long as the challenge is made “decently and in order,” respecting whatever “dignities” are involved, there’s no reason not to proceed. If a doctrine is defensible, it will emerge intact. The issue is not who’s mounting the argument, or what are the implications of the argument if correct, but whether or not the argument is sound on its own merits.
Truth Is No One’s Exclusive Property
Truth is truth. It is what it is, and no one has exclusive rights to it. We all have the right to discover it, embrace it, live it and teach it. A protective hierarchy of ecclesiastical leaders has no right to dole it out piecemeal, or to suppress it for political reasons. Truth should not be politicized. It is the heritage of all of us. If we follow truth wherever it leads, we can never end up in the wrong place.
At the same time, within an authoritarian environment, argument – even constructive argument — is largely an exercise in futility. So why bother with it? The only arguments that will be welcomed will be those that support the status quo.
So long as leaders of the Churches of God take an authoritarian approach to issues that concern the entire membership, there will continue to be splits in the Body. It can be no other way. Why? – because there is no clearinghouse for processing dissenting opinions. There is no way of addressing alternative approaches to anything. It’s a hierarchical “our way or the highway” situation — a closed shop. New and better understanding is required to run an impossible gauntlet.
Is there any solution to this impasse? – Realistically, probably not. Hierarchies, like individuals, change only when the pain of remaining the same exceeds the pain of changing. For a new approach to be adopted a “felt need” will have to emerge. In order to get a hearing for an argument; one would first have to suggest a benefit to hearing it. If there is no perceived benefit to accepting the argument, it will be rejected. For example, consider the issue of tithing as it is commonly taught in the Churches of God.
The Tithing Dilemma
To suggest, as have many in these pages, that tithing is not Biblically obligatory on Christians is, exegetically speaking, a valid argument. Yet in certain circles the validity of it will not be considered, let alone accepted, simply because too much is at stake. Many church and organizational structures would unravel completely were it not for compulsory tithing. (Look what happened to the Ambassador Colleges when tithe moneys could no longer be used to subsidize them.) Consequently, the tithing doctrine is endlessly reinforced, shored up, and authoritatively preached – no matter what the Bible actually says and means on the subject.
Other arguments, if accepted as valid, have similar consequences. If someone stands to lose power, status or wealth by embracing the truth of a given argument, it is unlikely that he or she will even consider it.
Put simply, if you want to understand why your argument will, or will not, be given a hearing, consider the consequences to the person you want to accept it. Where we stand on issues is usually determined by where we sit in relation to them. (Where you stand is where you sit.)
The Problem with Inspiration
Once a leader has been characterized as “inspired,” he is in a bind. If the leader buys into the idea, then he comes to view himself as infallible. Once infallible, he cannot make mistakes. If what he says declares, or pontificates is inspired and infallible, it can’t be wrong. If in the light of new circumstances or expediencies, he wishes to change his statement on an issue, he is faced with explaining how he can change an “inspired” truth.
If an inspired or infallible leader “sets” a doctrine on something, he’d better be sure it’s defensible. For example, which day is the correct day on which to observe Pentecost – Monday or Sunday? Either one or the other, or neither is correct. Both cannot be correct. If he is right about one, he is wrong about the other. It is illegitimate to suggest that he was right in both cases. This idea causes the concept of truth to disintegrate into gibberish. As Beckwith and Koukl explain, “If a thing cannot be distinguished from its opposite, then the distinction between the two is meaningless.”
Of course turning the Pentecost discussion into a Sunday vs. Monday issue limits the range of it. Other questions could be asked. Can it be demonstrated from Scripture that non-Jews are required to observe Pentecost (Shavu’ot) at all? If not, could not its observance by the Gentile church be optional? If it were optional, then any day the Church chooses would suffice. It becomes a matter or tradition rather than law.
Within the context of the Churches of God, a third layer of discussion could be added to the discussion: who is Israel? If the citizens of the United States are really Israelites, then it should be clear that they should be observing all of the applicable laws of Torah found in the Mosaic covenant.
Of course there are those who will argue that the Mosaic covenant is no longer in force – even for Jews.
Do you see how Byzantine this discussion can become? One thing leads to another. And it is only one of a myriad of doctrines that could come under discussion!
Christians have been debating doctrinal issues since the Church was founded. They will probably be debating them the day Christ returns. To the degree that authoritarianism exists within the Body of Christ, those debates will be singularly unproductive. “Truth” will be defined politically, not objectively.