Number One Sin in American Churches?

My fellow UMC blogger John Meunier just posted this.

Trying to Decide How to Apply This

Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will. (2 Timothy 2:23-26, NIV)

I decided to reply to John Meunier here for y’all.

For me, the most important first step is to begin with myself.  I’m not concerned with someone else’s foolish and stupid arguments, but my own.  Fortunately I’m old enough to own up to my ample ability to be foolish and stupid.  Got nothin’ to prove to nobody no more.  (“Yeah, right” says the little guy in the corner of the cartoon.) 

Spending a fair amount of time among the threads, I have read many exchanges, and participated in a few, where people love to pick apart every word you write. I once learned to stay on track, avoid extraneous tangents, and ignore personal attacks. Then I learned when to avoid engaging, when I can sense there’s no sense in such an engagement. 

But there are some people who really delight in arguing for the sake of arguing. For them, it’s a game, like fencing. Debate is sometimes called verbal fencing, with a thrust, a parry, etc. I try to avoid arguing over words.

Paul wrote this:

Anyone who teaches something different is arrogant and lacks understanding. Such a person has an unhealthy desire to quibble over the meaning of words. This stirs up arguments ending in jealousy, division, slander, and evil suspicions. (I Timothy 6:4)

Now the problem with the first sentence is that it smacks of arrogance itself.  It’s a dangerous verse to cite, since the one who cites it may be the one who lacks understanding.

The important question to ask ourselves is, “Do I have an unhealthy desire to quibble over the meaning of words.”  If any of us enjoys quibbling over words, it follows that we may have some emotional investment in the resulting jealousy, division, slander, and evil suspicions. I am more familiar with jealousy, division, slander, and evil suspicions than I feel comfortable sharing right now. If any of us want to invoke “sound doctrine” to support our talent for doing careful word analyses, we need to examine our motives for these verbal battles.

“Do I have an unhealthy desire to quibble over the meaning of words.” I have had to face this question and have concluded yes, very often. This is like the disciples’ question to Christ, “Is it I, Lord?” Before we teach or preach on any text, we should generally conduct a diagnostic self-check to see how the “bad” qualities described in scripture characterize ourselves.

Some questions that flow from 2 Timothy 2:23-26 are, “Lord, am I quarrelsome? Am I resentful? Am I gentle when instructing? Why am I quarrelsome? What is it I resent, someone challenging my interpretation? Do they threaten my position? Why am I not gentle? Is it because I want to bulldoze my opponent or challenger, and prove my superiority?”

These questions were easy to generate since I have had long seasons of being quarrelsome, resentful, and rough on people. I wanted to qualify the previous sentence just now with the words “in my youth,” but unfortunately sin still lies crouching at the door. Even now, in my blogging, I find myself unconsciously gassing up my verbal bulldozer. Sigh.

These “why” questions are very important to me.  For decades I listened to all these general exhortations to do this and that–to pray, to witness, to read my Bible, to give, ad infinitum. The problem was, I already knew I should be doing all those things. So stop telling me to do it, and explain how, explain why it’s so hard to, or why it’s so hard to stop!  If you simply harangue me to do what I already know I should be doing, then you are literally laying heavy burdens on me, without a little-finger of effort to show me how.

Speaking of showing me how, have you seen or heard the wonderful example the Pope is showing us? I don’t know much about his writing, but he sure demonstrates humility and love. With him its not talk, talk, talk, but there’s a lot of doing.  

This following passage mentions “wrangling over words,” but embedded in the exhortation itself is an example of why we pastor-teacher types find words such a temptation.

Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth. (II Timothy 2:13-14)

We are exhorted to rightly explain the word of truth, but we are also told to warn “them” against wrangling over words.  There is an inherent tension here. I think we’re in the “spin” neighborhood.  But there I go again, quibbling over the words “wrangling” and “rightly explaining”!  The talent for “analysis” that is highly prized in some institutions of higher learning, but then becomes an institutionalized justification for wrangling and quibbling over words. Anyway, “we” are exhorted to “explain” the truth to our audiences, which (as I see it) arouses envy in “their” hearts. Correction: “my” heart.  

Ouch — this hurts! So much envy in my heart, coveting my pastor’s lecturn. I probably wouldn’t have been able to write this six months or a year ago.  But with my pastor’s retirement just beyond the next rise, I think I’m over the coveting that’s focused on him.  I can return to being friends with him instead of being the “loyal opposition,” as he puts it. 

About Ron Goetz

My first wife used to say, "There's nothing so sacred that Ron won't pick it apart." My desire to be a pastor -- that was a temperamental mismatch. She was so patient. If my birth mother had lived somewhere else, maybe I would've become a cold case detective. But I would have had to be J instead of a P, I think. And that mid-life reevaluation, starting adolescence as a GARB fundamentalist and transitioning to a non-theist, that gave me an unusual skill set.
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4 Responses to Number One Sin in American Churches?

  1. Sometimes words do need to be explored. Two people speaking English from two different parts of the world will have different understandings of words or phrases, sometimes completely opposite understandings. And you don’t have to be from the other side of the planet. Just the next county over will have regional variants. I have seen vicious arguments erupt when two people are saying the same thing, but the regional variants are getting in the way of understanding.


    • Ron Goetz says:

      Agreed, Patricia. When an argument seems doomed, I’ve seen a person say, “I don’t really think we’re that far apart. We both agree that A, and agree that B, the only thing we seem to differ on is C, which . . . And suddenly the conflict vaporizes.


  2. noelgoetz says:

    Wow. That about sums up most of what I can be accused of on the net. Good Word. Helpful. Instructive. Need more.


    • Ron Goetz says:

      Well, we both grew up in the same conflict-riddlen family. Diane used to say (and still mentions) that we never talked to one another, that we measured communication by the decibel level. She credits meds for making the difference.


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