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How the Golden Rule Can Help Us in Controversy

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 Near the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). This profound statement, which came to be known as the Golden Rule, needs little detailed explanation or knowledge of Greek to understand its meaning. The point is abundantly clear: do unto others as you would have them do to you, and in this one keeps the commands of Scripture.

The Golden Rule applies so broadly to every area of life that a limitless list of anecdotes and principles could be used to explain it or apply it. This is, of course, part of what Jesus means when he says, “for this is the Law and the Prophets.” This extremely simple principle applies to all the interpersonal aspects of the Law.  

So, while there are an infinite number of paths to follow when thinking on the Golden Rule, I want to focus on how it applies to Christians engaging those with whom they disagree. Whether it be with other believers or with those outside the faith, the Golden Rule should shape how we engage in debate. 

Applying the Golden Rule to controversy seems especially pressing in our current cultural environment. Whether it be theology, politics, social issues, or any other number of contentious debates, there is no shortage of topics under discussion. Unfortunately, in our social media-driven discussions predicated on soundbites and tweet-length points rather than sustained argumentation, debate has denigrated to digital mudslinging and unhelpful non-sequiturs. The potential anonymity provided by social media seems to have impacted the way Christians debate.  

Following the Golden Rule in argumentation can solve many, if not all, of these issues. I can think of at least four ways to apply the Golden Rule in conversations with people that disagree with you:

  1.     Read (interpret) others in the best way possible.

How often can you remember saying, “I didn’t mean it that way!” when you hear how someone interpreted your words? Personally, I hate it when someone interprets what I say in the worst way it could possibly be construed. Therefore, to apply the Golden Rule, I have a Christian duty to assume the best in what someone says. Even if I find the statement problematic, I must try to interpret it in the best way possible (the same way I would want to be treated). One of the easiest ways to de-escalate a conflict from the outset is to say, “Maybe they didn’t mean it that way.” 

So, for instance, not everyone who calls for “social justice” is a Marxist sold out to Critical Theory. Likewise, not everyone who pushes back on Critical Theory and the language of social justice is a racist who doesn’t care about the plight of other people. Some undoubtedly will speak in ways that are wrong or deeply problematic, but to assume that from the beginning is to fail to apply the same standard we would want used on our own words. 

  1.     Represent your opponent’s argument as accurately as possible.

Few things are more frustrating than having your argument twisted before being rebutted. Often, by the end of someone’s rebuke of your position, what you initially argued (or at least wanted to argue) is unrecognizable. To follow the Golden Rule in debate we must represent the position we are arguing against as accurately as would the person with whom we are arguing.  

Christians should not be knocking down straw men. In addition to being faithful in following the Golden Rule, pragmatically speaking it makes your argument more powerful. Beating a  caricature of someone’s position is not kind or persuasive.

This means Christians must take the time to fully understand what the other person is saying. Asking clarifying questions like, “When you say this, what did you mean?” or “I am hearing you say ­­______, is that right?” can facilitate better understanding before you critique their position. 

  1.     Avoid sarcasm in serious debate.

I hate when I am taking something seriously and the person with whom I am engaging treats it like a joke. Websites like Twitter thrive off put-downs and sarcastic responses to important issues. It is often easier to be funny and dismissive than it is to be persuasive and compelling. Christians wanting to follow the Golden Rule should avoid this temptation.  

Using a sarcastic comment or witty put-down is often rhetorically powerful. It simultaneously makes you look smart and light-hearted while making your opponent or their position look silly. But Christians should embrace a loss of rhetorical power for the purpose of treating others how they want to be treated. Prioritize kindness and civility in debate over pithiness or rhetorical flourish. 

  1.     When we inevitably fail, confess and repent.

I rarely have greater respect for someone than when they admit they were wrong. Admitting we are wrong is a universally hated and difficult thing to do. It damages our pride and our ego thoroughly. Applying the Golden Rule, however, means that we must do just that. Conversely, it also means that we should not gloat when we find ourselves on the right side of a discussion. When we are wrong, the right response is to acknowledge it. 

This also means, however, that when we have failed at following the Golden Rule in our discussions, whether it be through an unkind interpretation, misrepresenting someone’s position, attacking them personally rather than debating the merits of their argument, or resorting to clever quips rather than sound debate, the only good response is to repent and ask forgiveness.

The Golden Rule does not mean that everyone should agree and no discussion should happen, but for Christians it should set the rules of engagement. It should encourage a more gracious and kinder debate that respects the other person, even if we still (sometimes strongly) disagree. 

Applying the Golden Rule to Christian controversy also means doing all of this even (and perhaps especially) when it is not reciprocated. The Golden Rule should not be followed merely when someone deserves it. Thankfully, Jesus didn’t treat us how we deserve to be treated. Instead, he showed us how to love the unlovable. We should, therefore, treat others how we want to be treated, not how they treat us. 

Ryan Johnson is a New Testament PhD student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a member of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.
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