Dr. Timothy Tennent: An Argument for Non-Argumentative Argument

Pastors need a lot of skills today, don’t they? Pastors have always needed good theological and biblical sensibilities. They have generally needed to be strong communicators, as well as be pastorally sensitive. The sheer scope of a “day-in-the-life-of-a-pastor” can be overwhelming. In a given day you may find yourself in a hospital praying for the seriously ill, speaking to children in a summer VBS program, writing a sermon, filling out some annoying District questionnaire, and preparing budget numbers for an upcoming church meeting. To call ministry a “three ring circus” doesn’t actually capture the pace and scope of ministry, since there is often no planned coordination between multiple events which unfold in a given day. I remember one time driving frantically to make it to a funeral I was leading because I was coming from a wedding (which I was also conducting) in a different part of town. Many of you know exactly what I am talking about. However, today, pastors need yet another skill: How to work and do ministry in a conflicted, contentious cultural context.

Many of you will remember the tragic and senseless beating of Rodney King by the Los Angeles police department in 1991. At the time, King said something which has become enshrined in popular culture: “Why can’t we all just get along?” The answer to that question, in my mind, has deep pastoral implications for where we are today. We are not all going to agree as a society, because we have never agreed about a whole host of things. So, why do things seem so much more conflicted today than in the past? The answer, I think, is probably best summed up by philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, in his classic book After Virtue.[1] MacIntyre insightfully points out that our cultural dilemma is not merely the decline of morals in contemporary culture, but the more fundamental inability to even frame a moral argument. We no longer have sufficient shared assumptions as a culture to reach any kind of consensus on moral questions. Therefore, we are left with little option but to just find new ways to accommodate endless human preferences within an increasingly fractured society. MacIntyre argues that this loss of a moral framework means that our national conversations end up not being conversations at all based on an argument, but staged shouting matches based on nothing more than what he calls “emotivism.” Emotivism is all you have left when, in his words, “all morals are nothing but expressions of preference” and “expressions of attitudes or feelings.” The deeper tragedy is that whatever resolution does occur only happens because one group is able to exert their will over another group through a vote, as in a 5-4 Supreme Court vote. Moral argument has been reduced to what MacIntyre calls the “clash of antagonistic wills.”[2] But, this is an exertion of power and does not bring actual proper cultural resolution to an issue.

Today, in contrast, we need the rebirth of argument. By argument, I do not mean arguing with someone in the way we often use the word argument, as some form of heated or angry exchange. Rather, I am using the word, argument, in the classic use of the word. This use of the word means “a reason, or set of reasons, given with the aim of persuading others that an action or idea is right or wrong.” You see, once we lose the categories of right and wrong as objective categories, we end up just shouting at one another. A crucial role of pastors in today’s culture is to help in the recovery of objective moral categories. We must reclaim the power of persuasion in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

Today, to disagree with someone has become tantamount to saying that we do not like or respect a person. Conversely, to love someone has come to mean that we must agree with everything a person says, believes or does. However, Augustine in 424 A.D. uses the phrase, “cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum” which translates as “with love for mankind and hatred of sins.”[3] The phrase was further popularized by Gandhi in his 1929 autobiography where he used the phrase, “hate the sin and not the sinner.”[4] Today, the phrase has been further simplified to say, “love the sinner; hate the sin.” The point is, we really can love people even when we disagree with them. We must reclaim the capacity to make an argument without it being taken as a rejection of a person who has been created in God’s own image and is someone for whom Christ died and gave his life. So, I am making an argument for a non-argumentative argument. In other words, there is no point in being argumentative, which only increases someone’s pain and raises the temperature in an already heated cultural environment. Today’s pastors must be able to teach their people how to make an argument and how to listen to an argument – to persuade, or be persuaded. If we can model how to calmly “make an argument,” and do so in love, we will have fulfilled Peter’s admonition to us: “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect…” (I Peter 3:15, ESV).

[1]Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd edition, (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame Press, 2007).

[2] MacIntyre, 9. McIntyre demonstrates the vast difference between the statements, “this is good” or “this is right” from statements like “I approve of this” or “I think this is best.”

[3] Augustine, letter 211.

[4] Mohandas Gandhi, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993).


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