In a previous blog post, I suggested that sometimes Christians need to argue. In fact, I believe healthy teams must have productive and passionate debate about important issues. We will lose much if avoid engaging in them. But I also noted that Christian unity is very important to Jesus, and in fact is taught throughout the New Testament. So does our commitment to keeping the unity of the Spirit (Eph 4:3) restrain us in participating in these types of arguments? Let’s look at both Jesus and Paul and their posture toward arguments.

Jesus does not avoid arguments

Throughout Jesus’ ministry, we often find him in debate with the religious leaders of the day (e.g. Mk 8:11, 12:28). Generally, these debates were initiated by the Pharisees as they sought to trip up this young, popular teacher who was threatening their power base. But Jesus does not steer clear of controversial subjects or refuse to answer their provocative questions.

Nevertheless, when he overhears his disciples arguing about who was the greatest (Mk 9:33-34, Luk 9:46), he puts a stop to it. These were not productive debates, and reflected a completely wrong idea of what leadership entailed.

Jesus joins an argument

But I would have thought that after the dramatic events of the cross and the resurrection, Jesus would be done with the rough-and-tumble of debate and argument. Somehow I imagined that in his resurrected glory, he would not want to have anything to do with them. Then I read Luke 24. I see that in Luke, Jesus’ first resurrection appearance is to join an argument between two disciples.

Now that same day two of them were on their way to a village called Emmaus, which was about seven miles from Jerusalem. Together they were discussing everything that had taken place. And while they were discussing and arguing, Jesus Himself came near and began to walk along with them. But they were prevented from recognizing Him. Then He asked them, “What is this dispute that you’re having with each other as you are walking?” And they stopped walking and looked discouraged. – Luke 24:13–17 Holman Christian Standard Bible.

Darrell Bock comments,

The discussion seems to have been intense, since the word used (syzetein) suggests strong debate (cf. its use in Luke 22:23; Acts 6:9; 9:29). Perhaps they are disputing the meaning of the empty tomb.1Darrell L. Bock, Luke, The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), 612.

A productive argument

So what does Jesus do when he joins this intense discussion? He does not come alongside as a mediator or peace-maker, but as a knowledgeable and passionate participant in the debate. Jesus does not try to change the subject so as to reduce the tension in the air. Instead, he adds yet another perspective to the argument. He is not afraid to criticize the other two men’s positions. In fact, he calls them “foolish” and “slow to believe”, not words that will typically resolve a conflict. Jesus spends his time trying to help them come to understand the truth, not in stopping the argument.

Why does Jesus not seek to make peace between his disciples? Because this argument is not destructive or mean-spirited. This is a productive debate about an issue that is of critical importance to the entire Jesus movement. Jesus does not want to shut down the discussion until everyone fully sees the truth. Interestingly, Jesus could have stopped the argument by simply revealing his identity. He does not do so. Instead,  he appeals to the Scriptures to show them how their differing perspectives were both incomplete. He wants them to understand that what they have observed over the past few days makes perfect sense. It fulfills what they have been reading in or hearing from the sacred Scriptures throughout their lives.

Paul does not shy away from conflict

Paul also is not opposed to engaging in dispute and debate. In fact, his personality and analytical skills seem to have been particularly well suited for a passionate debate about important issues. Two examples of really important (and apparently really heated arguments) can be found in the first verses of Acts 15.

Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. – Acts 15:1–2

The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. Acts 15:6–7

The question of the importance of circumcision for Gentile believers was a hill Paul was willing to fight for2see Gary Ridley’s blog post on theological triage. He did not back away from this debate, even though he received much criticism from conservative Jews across the Roman Empire for his outspoken opposition to circumcision for Gentiles.

Arguing is not the same as quarreling

But doesn’t Paul tell the Philippians to “Do everything without grumbling or arguing?” Is he condemning himself when he rebukes the Corinthians as worldly for arguing?

You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? 1 Corinthians 3:3

We need to understand that arguing is not the same as quarreling. In Scripture, quarreling is generally associated with jealously or envy.3Rom 1:29, 1 Tim 6:4, 1 Cor 3:3, 2 Cor 12:20, Gal 5:20, Rom 13:13, Phil 1:15 Quarreling is personal and self-seeking, defending one’s own interests, rather than an honest search for the truth in a free exchange of perspectives.

Abdu Murray clarifies this difference in his book, Saving Truth: Finding Meaning and Clarity in a Post-Truth World.

We confuse engaging in argumentation with quarreling. We confuse disagreeing with someone’s beliefs with disrespecting the person. In fact, we’ve confused the difference between people and ideas altogether. Where we once used to be able to challenge a person’s beliefs without necessarily denigrating that person, we now think that challenging certain beliefs is the same thing as denigrating the person who holds them.4quoted in Missio Nexus. EMQ Volume 56 Issue 3 (Kindle Locations 1871-1876). Missio Nexus. Kindle Edition.

Straying across the line

In my previous blog post on “Avoiding Conflict,” I talked about Patrick Lencioni’s conflict continuum. On this continuum, we want to stay in the middle, away from the two extremes of artificial harmony (no conflict) and mean-spirited personal attacks. Conflict ContinuumBut it is difficult to stay in that middle zone where the conflict remains constructive and yet does not skirt controversial subjects when issues are really important. To fully engage in this type of debate unintentionally results in occasional straying over the line. We may need to come back to our colleague after the meeting and apologize for words we said with too much intensity. The other brother may have felt that we were attacking him rather than his idea.

A sharp disagreement

Is it possible that Paul strayed across this line occasionally? Think about when he criticized Barnabas’ desire to take along his cousin on the second missionary journey.

Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. Acts 15:37–40

The Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains says that the Greek word for “disagreement” means “intense argument, sharp contention implying exasperation, i.e., an intense (unreconcilable) difference of opinion.”5James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament), 1997.

In the same chapter where the church comes to a monumental agreement about what to do with Gentile believers, these two apostles cannot agree among themselves. Luke does not tell us who was right and who was wrong in this particular disagreement. Maybe forming two separate teams was the best resolution of this conflict. We do know that this conflict did not result in a permanent rift between Paul and Barnabas (1 Cor 9:6), nor between Paul and John Mark (Col 4:10).

But it is important to note that at three points within this chapter (Acts 15:2, Acts 15:7, Acts 15:39), the brothers have a major argument about issues that they passionately disagree about.  Each time, they come to a resolution that allows the ministry to go on.

Gaining a deeper understanding

Because we are uncomfortable with disagreement, we often avoid arguments and debates, or any conversations that might become heated. I know I do. But Jesus and Paul show us a different pattern. They courageously step into arguments about important issues. They do so because they believe that productive debate leads to greater understanding.

We also should be ready to engage in conflict over ideas. Unlike Jesus, we do not have the assurance that our perspective is always correct. But as Cleopas and his friend experienced on the road to Emmaus, we can come to better understand the truth as we engage in argument. As we freely express our perspectives and listen to the perspectives of others, submitting all of them to the authority of Scripture, we will see what we have not seen before.  We can expect that if we are truly seeking the truth, and willing to enter the discomfort of “passionate, unfiltered debate around issues that are important to the team”6Lencioni’s definition of productive ideological conflict, the Lord will guide us into truth.