Critical Conversations


Historic divisions within the church are well documented. Arminianism versus Calvinism; Pre-millennialism versus Post-millennialism; Protestantism versus Catholicism are among the more prominent ones. Paul in the early chapters of his letter to the church at Corinth labels the division caused by sectarianism as a symptom of carnality.

And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; 3 for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? 4 For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal?

1 Corinthians 3:1-4

Paul, for the church, makes aspirational that its members “all come to the unity of the faith”1 Chuck frequently reminded us, “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity2.” This rhythmic reminder begs two questions:

  1. What are the essentials?
  2. How do we discuss facts and defend beliefs when we discuss non-essentials?

These two questions are further complicated when we move from the theological to the political where issues about women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, transgender rights and so many other “poison pill” topics abound. Some cannot separate the theological issues with political priorities while others disdain and dismiss any theological reasoning or tradition. The public conversation has lost common facts, traditions, vocabularies and agendas except among our social media friends who are ever faithful to give an encouraging thumbs up or an angry emoji.

In most conversations there is little time to unpack each other’s worldviews. The one who is looking for God’s law and wisdom will reach wildly different conclusions relying on a completely different set of evidences than the person who wants to defend either “group think” or personal freedom and thought. With so many different issues, backgrounds, perspectives, experiences and teams, how can we engage in effective conversation as we complete our daily “to do” lists. Few of us have a debate stage or a website to defend our beliefs. And so our opportunities devolve into some tried and tired slogans and memes which play far better to like minded people. Have you ever considered how many familiar slogans are three syllables – “Four more years.” “H. R. 3.” “I’m with her.” “Lock her up.” We reduce outrageously complicated and contentious issues to slogans and bumper stickers.

No article is sufficient to address thoroughly even one of these issues or engagement therein. Instead I hope to provide a useful mechanism for you to consider and to construct persuasive conversations around its framework. For at the end of the day, an effective conversation is one that persuades its participants to consider and to reconsider assumptions, facts, reasoning and conclusions.

I regularly describe myself as having my left foot in my work week and my right foot in my weekends. My workweek requires interaction with good people whose political and philosophical leanings fit what is usually referred to as the leftist agenda. My weekends offer interaction with family at home and friends at church whose values and priorities are better described as fitting into the agenda on the right. How do I proceed in these two divergent worlds that increasingly misplace its best behaviors and noblest intentions? I follow this three step process:

  1. Ask a question.
  2. Share a story.
  3. Make your case.

bACKGROUND – During December 2019, I had a conversation with a work colleague and friend who I admire and whose company and conversation I enjoy. As we chatted, the conversation turned to his profound disappointment in the forty-fifth president of the United States of America. Specifically, his ire was up regarding the details of the emoluments clause case3. I expressed surprise at the intensity and focus of his wrath and I asked him, “That is the thing about this president that most upsets you?” He began to explain some of his thinking although my question had taken off the emotional edge in the conversation. I listened with genuine interest and respect and at an appropriate point in the conversation I shared a story. “When I was a child, there were five things that generally pointed to the government doing a good job or not – low unemployment, low inflation, low gas prices, stock market gains and GDP growth. I am unclear why things look so bleak to you.” My story is … well … my story and it turned the conversation in a different direction than it started. From that point, we discussed various indicators and information and I think both of us learned from the other. The point is that this was a far more persuasive approach than some war of words or monologue of memes.

Does that example illustrate my strategy? I wrote in a previous Personal Update about the example of Jesus in Luke 24 with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. He listened; He asked questions; He gave others time to speak; and only after asking and listening did He “expound to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.”4

This article gives attention to effectiveness or persuasiveness, not to being right. That is a topic for another day. Let’s start with the premise that each reader is well versed in truth and reasoning and the fear of the LORD which is the beginning of wisdom. The Rhetorical Triangle – typically described as “Logos, Pathos, Ethos” – is a formal approach to argumentation proposed by Aristotle. It codifies the relationship between:

LOGOS: the connection to facts and logics

PATHOS: the connection to the audience and its values

ETHOS: the connection to your credibility and authority

Are you a fact machine that can recall dates and statistics and quotes and details with which you dominate a conversation? Are you an empathetic person who finds connecting with the emotions and circumstances of your listener far easier than a point – counterpoint debate? Are you most comfortable relying on your experience or education along with your reputation to give your arguments weight and result? The rhetorical triangle formalizes the trilateral relationship between these and recognizes that persuasion is based on an appeal to reasoning, an appeal to beliefs and an appeal to character. Rarely do I “win” an argument and instead let’s be content to plant seeds. We started this article with 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 and we will end it with verse five:

“(Paul) planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.”

Let’s do our part in the process of persuasion rather than in the competition of conversation. God will be glorified; others will be edified; and Truth will win.