Lately I’ve been giving some heavy thought to something which should seem obvious to everyone. It’s the notion that people (human beings) are not the same as ideas (abstract belief or thought structures).
Seems like a pretty simple dichotomy, right?
Perhaps it’s not quite as clean cut as it first appears. For instance, a few weeks ago I had a conversation with someone who was raised in a Presbyterian church which leaned conservative and held to orthodoxy. To me, those all seem like good things and I would likely agree with everything proclaimed at this church.
However, the people who were leaders in his particular church abused their power, hurt congregants, and rather than purely teaching Christ and Him crucified, used the Bible to control, manipulate, and take money. What was the person’s response? He decided that orthodoxy was a repressive system of belief and if that was its logical end, he wanted nothing to do with it. He developed a view of the Bible which was substantially lower than someone who clings to orthodoxy and became much more progressive, postmodern and universal in his thinking.
This makes a lot of sense though, right? If someone uses a certain idea—or rather, a twisting of a good idea—to hurt you, you’re probably going to run the opposite direction.
Here, however, is where my friend neglected to differentiate between people and ideas. Rather than recognize the beauty of orthodoxy and the power of Scripture, he associated it in his mind with the abusive people from his upbringing and discarded both. This is what happens when emotions blend with epistemology (the way we construct what we know and believe to be true) and it blinds us.
Because my friend experienced a good idea via bad people, he ran from both when he got the chance. Sadly, his is not an isolated story. I’ve heard this time and time again, and it’s easy for emotional wounds from people to cloud our beliefs, and I can’t hold this against anyone in the least.
This works the opposite way as well. Take, for instance, a bad idea which affects billions of people worldwide. I have no problem declaring that Islam is a bad idea no matter how it is applied and from its foundations, it has no good to give to the world. I can freely discuss Islam as a bad idea without a second thought.
However, this does not mean that I think all Muslims are bad people. The trouble is, in our current eggshell moment, to say anything against a religion (except Christianity…) is considered hateful against Muslim people. Here again we find ourselves at a place where we need to be able to freely deliberate between the two. I am not harboring hatred toward Muslim people, but I am aggressively against the ideas they believe. I have met numerous kind, lovely Muslim people all over the world.
All this can be summed up simply:
Be gentle on people and hard on ideas.
Modern conversation seems to be hyper sensitive to the notion of anyone being hard on ideas, for fear that people will be offended. As a Christian, I invite people to be hard on my beliefs. I myself am hard on my own beliefs, hammering them like a blacksmith in order to root out any impurities and make them stronger. I am not one to blindly believe something that sounds or feels good—I would wager people like that are the same ones who become offended when anyone critiques their beliefs.
Do I want people to come out and attack me as a person? Of course not! But when someone comes with genuine questions or critiques of my beliefs, it’s a chance for both of us to learn and grow and, as YHWH says in Isaiah 1, reason together.
In the gospels, I see Jesus being gentle with most people, save the ones who thought they were more righteous than others, and quick to correct crooked beliefs. Just open to nearly any page of the gospels and you’ll see people spouting off superstitious or heretical beliefs and Jesus simply responds with truth. It’s almost like He’s playing Whack-a-Mole with lies. They keep popping up and he keeps slamming them back down.
Finding this balance of grace and truth as displayed by Jesus (John 1:17) is much easier said than done. I think they key is to always be aware of when you are talking about a person or people, and when you are talking about ideas. Often, this differentiation will be harder than it seems. Learning how to love people who think differently than you is difficult, but not impossible. When disagreements arise, always remember to root out the ideal differentials rather than attack the person (in philosophy, this is called the Strawman Fallacy).
If more people in the world adopted this dichotomy, I think there would be much more peace even in our disagreements. We need this in mind when discussing current topics like abortion or homosexuality. For example, I am staunchly Pro-Life, but would never alienate or shame a woman who had an abortion. When discussing anything, especially deeply personal ones like these, it’s important to not forget the humanity of all people, regardless of how your beliefs or lifestyles differ. Alienating or dehumanizing anyone is absolutely contrary to the heart of God, going all the way back to Genesis 1: We are all made in God’s image.
One caveat I’ll make, though, is this: Christian leaders form a unique category here. I have a hard time accepting people like Creflo Dollar, Joel Osteen and Stephen Furtick because of their leechlike abuse of Scripture. Because they rob people in the name of Jesus. Their ideas are harmful and toxic, and I don’t know if merely critiquing their ideas is strong enough.
We see Jesus and Paul coming down hard on religious leaders who were misleading people in His name. Paul went so far as to wish they would emasculate themselves, and Jesus called them ‘whitewashed tombs.’ I would have a hard time extending grace to my friend’s pastor from the beginning of this post because of the damage done in the name of Christ.
Of course, if they were to repent and acknowledge their missteps, all would be forgiven, but as long as a Christian leader goes on deceiving and stealing from people, they need to be confronted.
Outside of that, and especially with those outside the Body of Christ, we need to be loving, gentle, and seek understanding. Let’s build bridges to people while seeking to spread truth in what we believe.
May we be hard on ideas and gentle on people.