Friendship, Loyalty, Honesty, and Theological Controversy

In my little corner of life recently there’s been some controversy over the firing of a professor, what part another professor might have played in that firing, and What It All Means for everybody involved. I don’t feel like litigating those issues here, mostly because I don’t know enough or have even strong enough feelings to make such thoughts profitable, but also because I have personal friendships and relationships that might be strained unnecessarily, one way or the other. That raises a question for me: How important do I see friendships, partnerships, and personal loyalties when it comes to navigating controversies, especially within evangelicalism?

The issue can become complex for me personally because I have friends and relationships with people representing many different “tribes.” I have young, restless, and Reformed friends, and I have friends who read post-evangelical blogs. I have Presbyterian friends who hate Baptist political theology and I have friends at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. I have friends who believe in Biblical counseling and friends who believe in Christian psychology, friends who believe in Roger Williams’ soul freedom and friends who believing in a truly Christian public square. I have friends who believe in just war and friends who are pacifists, friends who voted for Donald Trump and friends who could not. My “loyalties” runneth over.

This can be awkward, because sometimes things are said by tribe A that tribe B interprets as uncharitable, or tribe C will announce something tribes A and B agree is heretical, or–even better–tribe D will come along and ask who in the heck all these tribes are to go around labeling stuff. There are many who would call this tribal brouhaha a tragedy of American Christianity, a symptom of a broken, dysfunctional religious identity. Maybe it is. Most of the time I find myself thankful to know and associate with Christians who really do take ideas and truth seriously enough to articulate it in a specific way. Yes, tribalism can easily turn toxic, but it needn’t. Often I find that those who complain the most frequently and loudly about Christian “tribalism” are those who always have something to sell me instead.

Anyway, back to the question. What’s a fellow to do? When Facebook becomes an overnight blog battleground, and people I respect and admire and want to keep in my life are taking opposite sides, what should I do? Should I play politics and calculate which friends I *really* want to keep and calibrate my response to satisfy them? Should I try to prove to myself and others my own ideological purity and start saying things that will let my friends know they don’t “own” me? Should I make the bad theology into a t shirt that the offended party wears? Should I do nothing?

On the one hand, personal relationships don’t determine what is true, and therefore shouldn’t have an ultimate say on what I believe. Many churches and religious institutions have prioritized unity and solidarity over reality, and many times the results have been heretical, abusive, or both. Jesus wasn’t persuaded to relent when the rich young ruler walked away sad. Paul did not determine that Peter’s refusal to associate with Gentiles was fine just because they were partners in the gospel. Relational flourishing is not the supreme good. God is.

On the other hand, an arrogant dismissal of those who have helped  and served me is wrong too. When reminding Timothy to hold fast to the gospel, Paul reminded him of the trustworthy people who had taught it to him (2 Tim 3:14). Human beings aren’t merely thinking machines that just churn after propositional truth at all costs. Truth is enfleshed and embodied, first in Christ himself, then in the gathering and practices of the church. Christian friendship is not an obstacle to truth, it’s an expression of it.

Conservative evangelicalism has oft been so zealous for right “knowing” that it has, unwittingly and otherwise, denigrated the relational character of Christianity. I grew up believing that friendship was a bad reason to go to church. One went to church to worship God, individually. It wasn’t for many years that I realized the problem with this mentality is that it doesn’t explain why believers shouldn’t just stay at home and study the Bible on Sunday. Other people are not accessories to the church, they are the meaning of it.

So I don’t want to slough off friendships in the name of good thinking or theology. Nor do I want to outsource my convictions to in-groups and exchange honesty for belonging. So where does that leave me?

I think it leaves me with ears to hear. My instincts need to be questioned, because, like everyone else, they are fallible, biased, self-interested, and incomplete. That doesn’t mean curling up in an oven like Descartes and erasing everything I know. To be oriented toward trust in some ways and suspicion in others is to be human. We are formative creatures. I can hear someone say X and immediately think, “Knowing what I know about that person, I’m not sure I can believe X.” That’s a human instinct. But when that instinct empowers me to make up my mind in ignorance, to shut down the conversation and proceed with judgment, then I have probably cost myself friendship and mutuality. When the tingling sensation of distrust emerges, I want to be able to listen well.

When people that I know, love, and trust are accused or criticized, my striving for truth does not mean I assume that the accusations are true. It doesn’t mean tossing out the love and good faith that is so hard to build and yet so easy to destroy. I’m willing to venture that if it’s easy for you to believe bad reports about everyone, you probably love yourself more than anyone. It is the nature of love to dam suspicion. It hopes all things–and rejoices with the truth.

We are all sinners, and no sin is impossible for the best of us. Finite creatures as we are, we are almost always bereft of exhaustive knowledge. So we have to proceed in trust–trust of the Word, trust of each other, and trust in the sovereign hand of God. Trust is fragile. It doesn’t just break, it shatters. That’s why listening well and remembering our own frailty and sinfulness is important. But just because trust is fragile doesn’t mean we ought never handle it. Even when it comes to theological tribes, war, and rumors of war, a disposition of trust–bordered on all sides by humility and self-awareness–is a healthy thing.

Author: Samuel D. James

Believer, husband, father, acquisitions editor, writer.