The Theology of Discussion

It has been remarked to me that Protestant Reformed ministers do not discuss together very well. I believe that this is true of all of us generally. 

To be able to discuss things together profitably is a good gift that God gives His people. It is a gift through which we can learn things from each other. It is also a good means of fellowship and encouragement. It is important that we use this gift correctly. 

Within the life of the church there are many opportunities to exercise the gift of discussion. We discuss in our homes as families or when we have visitors. We discuss informally in our various societies and study groups. We also discuss more formally in our meetings of consistory, classis, and synod. 

Discussion is premised on the fact that all truth does not reside in one person. God gives the truth to the church, and He reveals that truth unto us by His Spirit, for the Spirit searches all things, yea, the deep things of God (I Cor. 2:10). All believers are partakers of the Holy Spirit as a real enlightening power. The anointing which you have received of God abides in you, and you need not that any man teach you, but the same anointing teaches you of all things, and is truth (I John 2:27). 

I would like to review some of the Biblical principles that I believe speak to this point. 

First of all we must discuss as brethren. This sounds very elementary, but it is not so easy to do. We need to make the conscious determination that together we are God’s children. Really we are not above one another, but we are all servants of God in Christ. “But why dost thou judge thy brother? Or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:10&12). “Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? To his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand” (Rom. 14:4). 

Secondly we must speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). Speaking the truth in love means speaking the truth according to the characteristics of love in I Corinthians 13:4&5. “Charity (love) suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil.” 

With respect to discussion this means that we will be patient with our brother—even our brother who differs with us or who is slow to understand. We will try to understand where he is coming from in his remarks. If a brother approaches a matter from a different perspective than we do, so often we jump to the conclusion that he is wrong. We can easily become provoked, with the brother and fail to suffer long with him or be kind to him. 

We ask the question why this happens so often in our discussions. The reason is that we are all beset with the sin of pride. Too often we discuss to vaunt ourselves; or we are puffed up with our own ideas or ability, and therefore behave ourselves unseemly, seeking our own. 

Why do we discuss together in the first place? Do we want to learn something from our discussion? Or do we want to share with others some things we have learned, i.e., to teach? In both cases we ought to be clothed with humility. 

We should always be ready to learn something from a discussion. We should be ready to acknowledge that on any given subject there is something that can be learned, no matter how old we are or how much education we have, and no matter how much we have studied the matter. If one will not acknowledge these things then he ought not discuss. 

When we discuss in order to share something we have learned, two considerations ought to be before our minds. The first is the truth of God; the second, the welfare of the brother. 

There is more than one way to teach others. One can make a forceful presentation that brooks no opposition so that by bluster he blows over the brother. Remember we are teaching by discussion. After a blustery blast no one may dare raise a word of opposition. But does that mean that all are convinced and that he has brought forward the understanding of God’s truth? Is there not an old proverb that goes something like this, “One who is convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still”? Even more seriously, a brother may be grieved and offended by such a blast. “A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city” (Prov. 18:19). “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger. The tongue of the wise useth knowledge aright” (Prov. 15:1&2a). 

Other ways to teach in discussion are more suited for those governed by Christian love. Wisdom will tell us that there are different kinds of people. Some are quiet, mild, and reserved. Others are more bold and open. In our discussions we ought to be able to have an atmosphere that will encourage even the mild to participate. 

If love for the brother motivates us, then we will act brotherly. When someone says something that we do not understand or agree with, we will not overreact. First we will try to find out what the brother means. Too often we respond to a brother as if he were an enemy of the truth. Sometime our response to a brother is so severe that one might think his position was coming straight from hell. 

Love for the truth and love for the brother demands a strong answer—no doubt about that. But what is strength and what is weakness? Sometimes we think that the stronger we react the stronger we are. It is possible, you know, to wound or kill a brother with misguided love. 

Is not our strength to be standing upon the foundation of God’s eternal infallible Word? If someone opposes us we do not have to fluster and bluster, but we simply stand. If God be for us who can be against us? God sovereignly maintains His cause and truth. We have responsibility in the defense of the truth. Jude exhorts the saints that they should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto them. There is a difference, however, between defending the truth and being defensive about the truth. 

Is it not really our weakness that causes us to overreact in the face of opposition—weakness, i.e., in that we fail to trust the promises and the power of the Word? If we think that somehow the defense of the truth rests with us, then we will overreact when opposed. But as we stand on the unassailable foundation of God’s Word we are strong. 

We need to convince each other with the Word, because there is a correspondence between the Word and the Spirit within us. It is a clear testimony of that Word that moves us and convinces us. Man’s word by itself is powerless; but when we draw our arguments from the Scripture, then we have the aid of the Holy Spirit to bind our words upon the hearts of the hearers. There is our strength and power! 

Arguments from precedent, tradition, and history have their value, but we do not consider any writing of men, however holy these men may have been, to be of equal value with the Scripture. 

We must labor diligently, for the welfare of the church and of one another, to make clear the truth from the Scripture. I believe that oftentimes we assume too much in our discussions. We expect that everyone knows our line of thinking, or ought to, so that we omit steps in proving our position out of the Word. We must be careful in our discussion to bring out the specific passage or principle of the Scripture that underlies our position. 

One could object that if we always cited the specifics of our position then we would never have time to develop our points. We must be wise in this, of course, but it is never a waste of time to show how our position relates to God’s Word. We must be sure that our arguments are built upon the solid foundation of Scripture. 

As churches God has given us many benefits and strengths, and for these we are thankful; but we have not yet arrived at perfection. We have many things yet to learn from God’s Word. 

We have exercised ourselves in precision of doctrinal understanding and in clarity of expression. These things are good, but I am afraid that this has led us to be more defensive than we need to be. This is reflected in our discussions among ourselves and with those around us. 

Let us now practice ourselves in the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law (Gal. 5:22-23). In doing this we will increase our benefit from the gift of discussion that God has given us