How to Pick a Fight

There’s nothing like a good fight.

Growing up in a family with two other brothers, I had fights that were frequent, creative and quite painful. However what made a good fight was the underlying understanding that none of us were out to truly hurt each other.

Demonstrate dominance? Absolutely.

Practice a new move we saw on TV? For sure.

Experiment with avant-garde wrestling locations like trampolines, pools, ice rinks and bunk beds? Best times ever.

Fights become more sophisticated as we grow older. Physical violence is typically exchanged for more subversive techniques. We battle with wits, arguments, claims of authority and citations of experts. Particularly in church we find friendly debates … and not so friendly.

Church fights can be the stuff of legend and can cripple ministry for decades. Yet conflict comes to both biological and spiritual families — so the question isn’t how to avoid a fight but how to have a good one. The Bible tells us, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt. 5:9, ESV). A peacemaker is really someone who picks a fight — by jumping into it with the intention of creating peace and closeness.

That seems wrong, but it’s because we often confuse peacemaking with peacekeeping.

Peacekeepers are those who run away from conflict, just want everyone to be happy and bury hard feelings instead of confronting them. They usually do more to make things worse rather than better. So how do we effectively engage with opposing forces without making things worse? Here are a few suggestions:

Pretend You Don’t Know Everything

This is especially hard for those of us who do know everything. Yet nothing diffuses a situation more than a sincere, self-deprecating comment. Instead of blustering into a conversation with a machine gun full of quotes, qualifications and anecdotes from our personal histories, offer phrases like:

“I probably overlooked something … ,” or “I’m new to this discussion … ,” or even “I haven’t heard your perspective before … .”

They go a lot further than condescending statements such as:

“Well if you just read the Bible … ,” or “If you were a real Christian … ,” or “When you have a few more years' experience … .”

It also never hurts to ask clarifying questions like, “When you said …did you mean … ?” A lot of fights have turned ugly because people ended up talking past each other, defining the other side’s arguments in ways they never intended.

The wisdom of Proverbs still stands when it says, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1). This becomes especially true in online debates where we become bolder in our words because, for whatever reason, we feel less awkward saying things we wouldn’t say in person.

Ask for Help

You can actually make someone win the argument for you when this is used correctly. When I taught a semester of Christian Beliefs at Union College in Lincoln, Neb., I frequently came across viewpoints that differed from mine. One particular day, when a student questioned the presentation of the state of the dead, I employed this technique. After affirming the student’s obvious personal research, I asked him to help me. I said I would love to embrace his viewpoint and that I have several friends with similar ideas, but I haven’t found a way over a few obstacles. I gently shared a few observations from Hebrew thought and church history and then asked for him to help me climb over those intellectual hurdles.

He couldn’t.

He actually acknowledged he had never considered those points before and toward the end of the semester came closer to the Adventist perspective. It’s a way to affirm people's intelligence, disagree and persuade at the same time. Of course this also means you must be open to receive help in the chance they have thought things through better than you.

Which brings us to the final point.

Affirm Good Questions as Opportunities for Further Study

Occasionally our arguments will break down due to someone’s well-placed question. As in healthy team sports, we need to affirm the opposing side for making a good play. A good question is a chance for us to deepen our understanding — or perhaps shed false ideas. We all have skewed viewpoints from time to time, and we should welcome opportunities to tighten our worldviews.

Ellen White was open to asking good questions and dialogue: “The fact that certain doctrines have been held as truth for many years by our people is not a proof that our ideas are infallible. Age will not make error into truth, and truth can afford to be fair. No true doctrine will lose anything by close investigation" (Counsels to Writers and Editors, p. 35). It’s our heritage to ask and seek after truth.

Approaching investigation, dialogues or conflicts in a spirit of fear or anger won’t help the cause of Christ. May you not be afraid of good fights, and may you fight fair, and may your willingness to make peace create closeness in the body of Christ.

March 27, 2014 / Perspective