Today’s church leaders are facing greater polarization and threats to church unity over an increasing number of arguable issues. In the midst of this discord, it is helpful to remember that there are really only three possibilities with any argument.
This observation was made by John Stuart Mill and stated in 1859 in his treatise “On Liberty.” It was written as an argument for free speech, but his insights can be helpful to any leader trying to navigate arguments. A key insight is that each argument is strengthened when we allow discourse, inquiry and are willing to listen to each other, especially to opposing viewpoints.
Mill’s observation is that in any argument there are only three possibilities: being wrong, being partially wrong, or being wholly correct. Summarizing Mill, Greg Lukianoff states the three possibilities (the parenthesis are mine) as follows:
- You are wrong, in which case freedom of speech (dialogue with/listening to others) is essential to allow people to correct you.
- You are partially correct; in which case you need free speech (dialogue with/listening to others) and contrary viewpoints to help you get a more precise understanding of what the truth really is.
- You are 100% correct, in the unlikely event that you are 100% correct, you still need people to argue with you, to try to contradict you, and to try to prove you wrong. Why? Because if you never have to defend your points of view, there is a very good chance you don’t really understand them, and that you hold them the same way you would hold a prejudice or superstition. It’s only through arguing with contrary viewpoints that you come to understand why what you believe is true.
Take-A-Ways For The Church Leader
- The biblical maxim found in Proverbs 15:22, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed” is more important now than ever. Leaders must surround them with advisers who will challenge their thinking, who are wired and experienced differently than them, and have different viewpoints.
- Listening skills must be highly developed and honored. Applying Erich Fromm’s Six Rules of Listening is a good place to start. Understanding how the early church leaders listened in Acts 15 provides an excellent outline on who to listen to.
Church leaders must realize that they are rarely 100% correct, and in fact no one is anywhere near 100% correct with everything they believe. History will prove us wrong about an endless number of beliefs we currently have as evidenced by our past when Christians were on the wrong side of countless wars and persecutions, slavery, manifest destiny, colonization, and women’s rights to name a few. If we have never dug deeply enough into a belief to understand why it is true and seriously considered the possibility that it is not, then we tend to protect them by censoring contrary viewpoints and casting aside those who don’t believe as we do. Often, over time, censorship fails, and those ideas or beliefs are exposed as wrong.
As animosity rises and civility in discourse falls in our culture, pastors and denominational leaders cannot censor, expel or shout down the way to peace, much less unity in the church. We can, however, deprive our detractors and those who would challenge our beliefs of the respectful dialogue and the exchange of ideas and viewpoints they deserve. In short, church leaders should value the open exchange of ideas and perspectives, not so much because they are right and others need to hear from them, but rather because they are very often wrong and need to hear from others.
Posted on March 1, 2022