Winning the war or winning the people?

I never cease to be amazed at the kind of language that floats around the “Christian” comments on blogs and twitter debates on certain topics. This week has been a particularly bad one, though that may just be because I’ve paid more attention to conversations surrounding two particular items of news. The first item was the news that World Vision USA had revised their policy about employing gay Christians which was followed within 48 hours by a retraction of the new policy in response to the storm of protest from some individuals and churches. The second item was the news that the first (civil) same-sex marriages had taken place under new UK legislation.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, both items generated a lot of traffic on social media from people on both sides of the debate. What I find disturbing (though I am no longer surprised) is the tone of many of the “contributions”. which were sometimes violent, but frequently amounted to personal attacks. One particularly disturbing image was tweeted by several people to a female theologian and commentator who had made a modest plea for people to live with differences of opinion. Others who protested this were treated to their own personal attack from the perpetrators and their supporters.

Some time before I began ordination training, I attended my local deanery synod with my then vicar. That evening the synod was debating issues of sexuality. Contributions were made on both sides of the debate, but the more vehement ones came from those advocating a more traditional response. Although at the time I agreed with that viewpoint I remember remarking to my vicar on the drive home that their contributions had seemed more concerned with winning arguments than winning people. Sadly, he agreed with me.

I get that this issue in particular rouses strong emotions, that people get upset and angry, that people feel threatened and afraid. Nevertheless, if we are to make any progress at all (in whichever direction) we need to ask ourselves what we are trying to achieve. Do we want to justify our position to ourselves, or do we want to engage with others. The latter, of course, can be dangerous. We might find ourselves changing our position, if only slightly, if we truly listen to what others think and tease out the reasons why they think that way. We may find ourselves being presented with new information that we hadn’t considered before. We may even find ourselves understanding and sympathising more. But unless we do listen first, we stand little chance of influencing others in a positive way. For all their occasional robustness (and I think it is far less than some would have us believe) both Jesus and Paul had as their primary concern the winning of people. And that should be our concern too – not so that we can tally heads or feel good about ourselves, but so that we win others to Christ rather than simply to our own point of view. And yes, these are different things!

Ultimately, disciples of Christ are not called to win knock-down arguments but to fish for people, which requires far more subtlety. I sincerely doubt that anyone has ever been truly saved because someone called them a heretic or sent them an abusive image. Rather, we are commanded (yes, commanded) to treat others the way we would want them to treat us. And that wins people.

When have you changed your opinion on something? What most influenced you to do so?