Setting the Table for a Good Debate

The only lesson from my catechism class that I consciously remember is the one I disagreed with the most.

Some recent articles published in The Banner raised all sorts of jarring questions, sending tremors through some of what many of us consider basic Christian beliefs. As one who loves a good question—and a healthy debate even more so—I see this as an opportunity for some vigorous wrestling that will hopefully lead us to greater clarity.

But how shall we have these conversations? Like many people, my initial reaction when reading these articles was, What were they thinking? The Banner is not the right place to allow an author to throw out such complex and difficult questions.

After talking with some of my colleagues, however, I realized that we don’t have great forums for these kinds of debates in the Christian Reformed Church. Perhaps we need to make more room for this, and then set the table right for such conversations to take place.

We do have a few things to work through: What kind of questions or ideas should be allowed on the table? Should “the answers” be at hand to make the questions easier to digest? What kind of table manners should we expect?

The Banner has put some stuff on the table that has made many readers balk. So how should we receive it—with excitement at the possibility of engaging ideas or with our noses pinched at the odor?

Usually we expect our denominational magazine to serve up questions with nice, clean, packaged answers that will inform our opinions. That makes it easy for us, right? But isn’t this a little like asking our leaders to predigest our food before serving it to us? I don’t know about you, but my jaw works just fine, and having something previously chewed usually makes it a little less appealing.

Maybe we should be asking for more solid or even spicy “food” to test our palates and shake up some things we have been resting on. Don’t we learn the most in those times and places where we experience ideas that jar us and send tremors through all that we have accepted?

The only lesson from my catechism class that I consciously remember is the one I disagreed with the most. It was the one about election. I remember debating the pastor on it and wrestling with the question for a number of years before it was settled in my mind. Perhaps we in the church need to embrace a more dynamic learning process that challenges and stretches us to become more mature and alive with the Spirit and the mind of Christ.

Let me just say that it’s important to get this right. If you are a Christian in the Western world, you’ll face questions and challenges to your faith. Young people likely feel the tension the hardest, but it impacts all of us. We need places to sit and talk these things through with each other.

We’ll need to use our manners, of course. There will be times where the food isn’t spiced to our taste. No questions should be forbidden, but we should certainly ban a spirit of division (Titus 3:10). Someone will say something that sounds arrogant or makes false assumptions. But we can make room for some of that at our table, can’t we?

As God’s people do whenever they sit and eat together, we should take time to celebrate God’s love and faithfulness to the church he loves. That knowledge of God’s love and faithfulness should give us courage, grace, patience, and hope as we are stretched, challenged, and encouraged by the questions we work through together.

Web Questions

  1. Give an example of a time when you read a Banner article, heard a sermon, or engaged in a discussion that caused you to disagree strongly. Looking back, did those experiences hinder or help you in your faith walk? How?
  2. Where should we have the difficult conversations that challenge our most fundamental beliefs? Is a denominational magazine like The Banner a good forum for those? Why or why not?
  3. What is the goal in such discussions: to convince others that our position is the right one? To defeat our opponent? To help us see both sides better even if we continue to disagree?
  4. When we discuss really challenging topics, what are the rules we need to apply to help us come to healthy results? How can we have a frank, open conversation without polarizing or getting into an unhealthy slugfest?
  5. What kinds of topics or positions should be ruled out of bounds from the get-go? Who should decide that?
  6. Can we be truly one in the Lord and still have fundamental differences on faith-related issues?
  7. Van Boom says that “knowledge of God’s love and faithfulness should give us courage, grace, patience, and hope as we are stretched, challenged, and encouraged by the questions we work through together.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

About the Author

Michael S. Van Boom is pastor of First Christian Reformed Church in Edmonton, Alberta.

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