Why doesn’t anyone understand me?

Archie Poulos

There were many great things I learnt from the church planting conference that I was involved in running at Moore College a couple of weeks ago, but one unexpected thing particularly surprised me. The conference had delegates from just about every Protestant denomination, as well as independent churches. Attenders came from four states and there were a variety of theological positions. I thought this would be a recipe for disaster and discontent. I was wrong.

What amazed me was that the reformed evangelical position was clearly taken by our presenters, and occasionally some positions were bluntly condemned, but every delegate continued to work with and discuss the issues with people they disagreed with in good Christian charity. I am guilty of, and normally see that we throw hand grenades at people we don't agree with. Not so at this conference. We stood shoulder to shoulder, Bibles open and discussed the areas of dispute.

It then dawned on me. What united us was a desire to see God glorified by his church growing. So we were in the same trenches, on the same side. In that setting we could discuss things. I see the same sort of thing happen in youth ministry too. The common goal is to reach children with the gospel of Christ, and so we will work together.

Thinking more widely on the subject of disputes I have a few scattered thoughts.

1. Choose the setting: Often the setting of ministry affects who we think is friend and who is foe. Friends in other parts of Australia tell me that their closest allies are people they would not trust in a more evangelical situation. If the foe is ominous, then there a unity of purpose is forged. I often hear this story from missionaries serving in gospel oppressive cultures.

2. Identify the issues: The issue of dispute is often misunderstood. Last week I was arguing with a friend about the impossibility of being reformed and charismatic. We kept agreeing, but he would not come to my conclusion. Finally we worked out that his issue with my position was that he assumed my position required that I hold that all New Testament gifts have now ceased since the canon is complete. For him the issue was cessation or continuation of the New Testment gifts. That was a far smaller (even insignificant) issue in my argument. I have learnt to make the issue of contention clear.

3. Sometimes the big issue is dismissed: This is almost the reverse of what I have just said. About 20 years ago I had a dispute with a Greek man who I love and respect deeply. He said that our Greek ministry was about justification by faith only, and that was a fight between Roman Catholics and Protestants; and one that should not be brought into the Protestant-Greek Orthodox discussion. The problem is that this issue, in a slightly modified form, is the issue that is always at stake - how does a person get right with God? But my friend refused to discuss this because he thought it was not an issue. We need to show why issues are issues if we want to dispute.

4. We are known by the friends we keep: Everyone draws early conclusions about another person and one of the ways we do this is by seeing who they are friends with. It makes it possible to have meaningful and deep conversations. If you don't know what areas to talk about there can be no narrowing of issues and so no deep conversation can be had. I have no problem with doing this, but we must always be careful of leaving another in the initial box we put them in. We need to listen to the other person.

5. Beware inclusiveness: There is the danger of wanting to avoid conflict, and so we only affirm what we have in common. The apostle Paul calls on Titus to both teach truth and refute error. The humble presentation of the truth, so that people may know God as he has made himself known, is far more important and helpful than being nice and inclusive.