In any disagreement or conflict, the most difficult task is getting to the bottom of the issue and finding out what the real problem is between the accuser and the accused. Usually by the time the shouting begins, there has already been a long period of silent build-up, during which offenses are collected and catalogued with tabs for quick reference. Then, when the moment is right to “get it all out into the open”, you almost never hear the whole story unless you have the patience to do a great deal of digging. Arguments become so obscured and muddled by all of the peripheral issues that parties can easily forget what it was that started it all. We have all been there.
We ought to take this bit of experience into consideration when we observe the theological disagreements which pop up from time to time between Christians, especially when those disagreements turn nasty and are carried out with a whole lot of shrill rhetoric and very little calm discussion. You have to stop and think, “What is the real issue here?” In many cases a theological matter is only a veil for a deeper, more personal matter that is seeking expression. Whether an individual has nurtured a deep bitterness, or has an unresolved offense and is looking for an opportunity to lash back, or whether he is seeking the perfect occasion to draw attention to himself, a theological debate is always a handy way to carry out one’s agenda.
The way this works is, if I have a personal beef with you, it would appear very unspiritual and extremely petty to bring charges against you because I think that you are getting more attention than I am, or because your kid smacked my kid one time three years ago, or because you told someone you didn’t like my wife’s green bean casserole. If I am going to make sure that you get what I think you deserve, I have to make a stink about something bigger than the problems I have allowed to stew in my own head—lest I reveal to everyone my lack of humility and my inability to repent and to forgive minor offenses. I have to find something of a theological nature to get all bothered about because first, everyone with a pulse and an NIV qualifies as a theological expert—no one will doubt my credentials, and second, I can gain a lot of sympathy and convince a lot of people of my integrity if I can transform my personal issues into a holy crusade for truth. “Defender of the Faith” sounds a whole lot better than “guy who got his feelings hurt and won’t get over it.”
Moses dealt with this very sort of thing in Numbers 12. His brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam did not like his new wife, an Ethiopian woman. So they brought a complaint against him, but oddly enough, they didn’t go to Moses and say, “We don’t like our new sister-in-law.” Here’s what they said: “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us also?”
Now look closely. Where do the words Ethiopian, woman, and sister-in-law appear in their complaint? The charge that Aaron and Miriam bring against Moses has nothing to do with what the Scriptures tell us was their actual disagreement with him. Why didn’t they come right out and express the real gripe? Had they done so, they could have resolved it with little more fallout than perhaps some uneasy moments of silence when the family was gathered around the dinner table. But the personal problem was just too small. In order for them to make sure their grievance against Moses was heard, and to give it some substance, they had to crank it all the way up to theological-dispute-level. They turned their personal dislike of Moses’ wife into a question of divine calling and doubted God’s exclusive choice of Moses as the leader of the people. As it happened, what could have been simply a minor family spat was turned into a big dispute carried out in front of the whole congregation of Israel.
God did not take lightly the way that Miriam and Aaron cast a shadow of doubt over Moses’ leadership before the people of God and He pronounced in no uncertain terms the place that Moses held both in the nation of Israel and in redemptive history (Numbers 12:6-8). God struck Miriam with leprosy and sent her out of the camp for seven days. The entire forward progress of the people was halted until Miriam’s time of exile was up. God didn’t let this slip by, but vindicated Moses and reminded everyone of his position. Maybe his brother and sister had a point. It could very well be that Moses had bad taste in women, but they went about the business of addressing that issue in completely the wrong manner and were punished for it.
The desire of some folks who, like Miriam and Aaron, wish to drag things out into public and make a grand spectacle of things when they could be dealt with discretely, is simply baffling. Why wouldn’t you want to spare yourself and your brother or sister the stress and embarrassment of a public dispute—especially if there is even the slightest chance that you are wrong?
We can take a few simple lessons from Numbers 12. The first is, don’t do this. It is imperative that we always be very honest with each other, especially in the way that we deal with each other’s sins and faults. Matthew 18 and Galatians 6 teach us that this is not something that ought to be taken lightly or that it is so inconsequential of an undertaking that we can afford to be even slightly insincere or duplicitous with our brothers in this regard. If a brother, or a spouse, or a family member has offended us and we simply cannot let it go and let love cover it, we must address that issue and that alone with them. We are prohibited from letting it snowball, or from turning it into another matter altogether.
Second, in order to prevent issues from getting bigger than they need to be, or taking longer than necessary to clear up, we must run, not walk, to clear up conflicts. The longer you allow them to sit, the more they fester and the more peripheral issues end up getting all wadded up together. In Numbers 16, Korah, Dathan and Abiram raise the same kind of complaint that Miriam and Aaron raised, only this time, Aaron is the accused and the consequences are much worse. Of course, they are only following Miriam and Aaron’s example here. Seeds of discontent and rebellion bear fruit in unexpected and unintended places. Preserving harmony among the brethren and in our households requires constant diligence to seek forgiveness and to pursue peace all the time. It isn’t something that we can put off until a more convenient time or until the problems get big enough to justify raising a racket.
Finally, always, always, always assume that there is more to the story before rushing to judgment. Remember Proverbs 18:17, “The first one to plead his cause seems right, until his neighbor comes and examines him.” This is true especially with conflicts in which a lot of theological terminology is being thrown around. You must ask, “If this is only a theological matter, why are these people being so bad-mannered?” Is everyone being fairly represented? Are there deeper personal issues in play that I can’t necessarily see or discern off hand?
Don’t be fooled. Heated and heavy theological debates are almost never all about the theology.