Some Tips for Better Engagement in Theological Discourse

Many Christians (and non-Christians) want to be involved in theological discussion on the internet, in Bible studies, and in other contexts where growing Christians (and those opposed to Christianity) are engaged in theological discussion. (Note that I’m mostly talking to Christians and talking about Christians discussing theology with fellow believers some of whom, to be blunt, might just know more about the topic under discussion than you. But it might apply to other contexts, as well.)

  1. Be humble. No one knows everything so there’s no shame in not knowing something.
  2. Recognize that having an opinion and having an informed opinion are two different things. Because, no one knows everything (which means you don’t know everything).
  3. There’s no shame in asking questions. So don’t be afraid to ask questions. This will not only help you figure out what the other person is trying to say; you may learn something.
  4. It helps to learn some terms and background if you want to discuss any topic, especially theology. And this will keep you from looking ignorant. An “Arminian” is not someone from “Armenia” and terms like “amillennial” or “universalist” can serve as useful shorthand to greatly simplify a conversation.
  5. Don’t assume you understand what the other person is saying. (See number 3 above: Ask questions!).
  6. Jumping to conclusions is a sure way to start an argument and get nowhere. And it’s just not nice. For example, if I say I’m opposed to something, that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m in favor of the opposite, because there may be more than one perspective on the issue.
  7. Remember what one of my theology professors used to say, “You don’t have to agree with me, but I don’t have to make it easy for you to disagree with me.” This is especially true if you’re arguing outside your area of expertise or just plain don’t really know what you’re talking about.
  8. If you get stumped, or shown up, or don’t know what else to say, don’t start making stuff up and pulling things out of thin air (remember number 1: Be Humble). It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.”
  9. When you don’t know what you’re talking about, people who do know what you’re talking about can tell that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Again, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know.”
  10. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” Especially if you don’t.
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A Prayer for Embracing the Scriptures

I’ve been thinking about this prayer from this past Sunday:

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for
our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn,
and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever
hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have
given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with
you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

(Source: BCP Proper 28, p. 236 in the printed editions)

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The Decline of Christianity in the West: An Observation

Originally posted on Zwinglius Redivivus:

The decline of Christianity in the West is directly proportional to its willingness to embrace the world’s notions of it and forsake its essential nature.

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Every pastor should have a story like this: Beware church visitors bearing gifts

I still chuckle every time I think about this.

Several years ago, two sisters visited the church where I serve as pastor. After the service they spent twenty minutes telling me how I should have preached the text and pointed out everything they thought was wrong with my sermon. (Mind you, neither of them has, by their own admission, ever preached a sermon, taught a Bible lesson, or received any biblical, theological, or homiletical training at all.)

A few months later, as I was calling people who had visited our church to invite them back, I called one of the sisters, not realizing this was who I was calling. This time she spent fifteen minutes on the phone telling me all the stuff I did wrong that she presumably either hadn’t gotten to when they visited before or simply had thought of since then. I tried to be gracious and I invited them to worship with us again since they still had not found a church home (I can’t help but wonder why).

She and her sister returned a couple of weeks later. Since it was around Christmastime they brought me a “gift.” Their gift was…

(and I am not joking here)

a book about how to preach.

They have not returned. And that’s okay. I really do hope they found a pastor who was up to their standards.

The book, however, is a good one. But while I didn’t pay any money for it, I wouldn’t exactly say I got it for free.

You really can’t make this stuff up.

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A Prayer to Let Go the Earthly and Cling to the Eternal

I’ve been meditating all week on this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer that seeks God’s help in letting go of worry and worldliness and clinging to things eternal:

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to
love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among
things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall
endure.

-BCP Proper 20 (Contemporary)

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A Prayer of St. Basil the Great

We bless thee, O God most high and Lord of mercies, who ever workest great and mysterious deeds for us, glorious, wonderful, and numberless; who providest us with sleep as a rest from our infirmities and as a repose for our bodies tired by labor. We thank thee that thou hast not destroyed us in our transgressions, but in thy love toward mankind thou hast raised us up, as we lay in despair, that we may glorify thy Majesty. We entreat thine infinite goodness, enlighten the eyes of our understanding and raise up our minds from the heavy sleep of indolence; open our mouths and fill them with thy praise, that we may unceasingly sing and confess thee, who art God glorified in all and by all, the eternal Father, the Only-Begotten Son, and the all-holy and good and life-giving Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

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What the text means versus what the text meant

What the text means has to come from what the text meant.

Sometimes we are too quick to jump to application in our preaching without even understanding what the text even meant in its original context. What the text means for us today is contingent upon understanding what the text meant in its original context. When we bypass this, or give it only cursory attention, we not only do an injustice to the text, we fail our people by failing to explain adequately the meaning of the text.

For example, I am preaching through Paul’s Epistle to Philemon right now. In the opening verses (1-7, but especially 4-7), Paul talks about Philemon’s dynamic and exemplary Christian character. He explains how Philemon had faith in Christ that influenced how he lives and that Philemon’s faith brought joy and encouragement to the saints, especially Paul.

I anticipated a possible objection from the congregation, namely, how could someone be such a good Christian and own slaves? This is a reasonable question and one that must be address.

Without going into detail, I explained the differences between slavery in the Greco-Roman world and the antebellum American South. But then I let this lead me to my point about this conundrum: Philemon has an opportunity to be counter-cultural in the best sense. I didn’t excuse Philemon but I tried to put the hearers in Philemon’s situation. Philemon has every right in light of his culture and under the law to demand the return of Onesimus and to exact punishment for Onesimus’ wrongs against him. But Paul wants Philemon to demonstrate the love and grace of the Kingdom by exercising forgiveness, the same “good things” that Philemon has himself received from God (v. 6). This is what the text meant.

My application (what the text means) was that we, too live counter-culturally when we live out lives of grace, love, and forgiveness when the world has different standards of behavior. I spelled this out using several examples drawn from everyday life.

Notice three results of preaching the text this way.

(1) By exploring the original context, I was not only true to the text, I was able to explain the background of the NT, information that will be helpful for the congregation in understanding other NT texts.

(2) My application was more grace-driven and Christ-centered than if I had simply preached against slavery or talked about human trafficking or something similar.

(3) I am able to demonstrate clearly how the application came from the text. I drew a line directly from the situation of the text to the situation of the hearer. This means that I avoid any challenge that I have read into the text or placed a legalistic burden on those who heard.

One of my foundational rules for preaching is “Preach the text.” If you don’t do the work to understand and explain the text, then if you manage to properly apply the text, it will only be by accident.

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