What We Mean When We Say We’re Holding to Our Convictions

Yesterday Everett Piper, the president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, presented a position paper to his faculty and staff, elaborating on why he feels justified in threatening to pull OKWU out of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities if the CCCU does not expel Goshen and Eastern Mennonite by August 31st. Why would he not want that consortium even to take the time to consult its members’ presidents before responding to the two Anabaptist schools’ decision to hire employees in same-sex marriages? Let’s quote:

Everett PiperPut concisely: There are times when the discussion becomes the offense.

Presumably there are some things within any organization that are not—and should not be—subject to deliberation and any discussion to the contrary simply betrays a telling lack of conviction.  For example, would anyone expect the Anti-Defamation League to “discuss” whether or not Jews are human beings, worthy of the same dignity and rights as Germans or Iranians?  Would anyone dare challenge the NAACP for its predictable reluctance to “deliberate” the Dred Scott decision’s definition of a black man?…

And so forth… The upshot is that, for Piper, “any organization claiming the adjective ‘Christian’ should consider certain ideas so far outside the boundaries of any definition of Christianity that they would simply say: ‘Some things are just not debatable, the discussion is over.'”

If readers would like to respond to Piper’s argument, the comments section is available. Just don’t expect me to join in. I’ve said enough on the particular topic of marriage and its status as an issue of primary or secondary importance for a Church that is made for unity. If I don’t agree with another CCCU president that our view of marriage “is at the heart of the Gospel,” I’m certainly not going to agree that opposition to same-sex marriage is so central to Christian identity that questioning it is akin to the ADL questioning the humanity of Jews!

But offensive as I find the line of argumentation here (a barely veiled Holocaust allusion!), let me pull apart one of Piper’s rhetorical questions, since it unfortunately pits against each other two words that actually belong together:

Could it be that the CCCU’s openness to dialogue has actually become the offense because its ambivalence demonstrates an apparent lack of conviction in favor of consensus?

Now, I need to acknowledge that I instinctively incline to seek consensus — and that instinct is fallible. Indeed, I’m sure that I occasionally confuse conflict-avoiding with consensus-seeking.

Martin Luther statue in Worms
Statue of Martin Luther in Worms, inscribed with his most famous words… that he never said — Creative Commons (Kim Traynor)

So I’m probably the kind of person Piper has in mind when he thrice complains about Christians who lack conviction. As Protestants we ought to know that there will be moments when we need to say — against the consensus of the present, and perhaps the past — that our convictions, like our consciences, are captive to the Word of God. Here we stand. We can do no other. God help us.

But knowing that those moments are few and far between, let me suggest a few theses — not 95, just thirteen — about what it normally means when Christians talk about holding to their convictions:

  1. Consensus is not the enemy of conviction, for
  2. convictions are not meant to be held in isolation, but in community.
  3. (My Latin is virtually non-existent, but doesn’t convictus imply something like “living with”?
  4. Also, the verb from which it descends means first “to convince” and only secondarily “to conquer.”)
  5. We hold convictions about what is true not as private property, to be protected from threats, but as public goods, to be shared as part of life together.
  6. Holding convictions defiantly might feel more emotionally satisfying than seeking the subtle, slow-arriving, and inevitably compromised joys of consensus — but that feeling isn’t always trustworthy.
  7. (As Yeats wrote, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” when “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Too many people who think they’re holding convictions courageously are really just full of “passionate intensity.”)
  8. To hold convictions as a way of “living with” others requires more conversation than declaration.
  9. Conversation requires time, but what’s the hurry?
  10. Shouldn’t a deeply held belief sustain more, rather than less, patience?
  11. A dialogue might reveal what you’ll rarely realize in the middle of a monologue: that your belief is misheld.
  12. Which should remind us that we use the word “conviction” far too often to label a strongly held belief and too rarely in the sense of being convicted of our own shortcomings (including shortcomings of understanding and belief).
  13. So finally, conviction is less something that you decide to hold to and much more something that happens to you, a sinner.



8 thoughts on “What We Mean When We Say We’re Holding to Our Convictions

  1. Let me begin by saying, I would also count myself in the camp of those who hold strongly the belief that marriage is between a man and a woman. In light of your call for more patience, and less “declaration,” what would you suggest as an alternate course of action for OkWU? How does one hold firmly to essentials, and allow for disagreement in the non-essentials?

    1. Let a process proceed without very publicly threatening to leave. Value discussion and don’t deride it as “offensive.” In other words, do what the vast majority of CCCU presidents – who all agree with you and me on marriage – would do.

  2. I like how you have delineated your 13 points. Especially 5 and 6: we work out our convictions together. And again. And again. To draw a line around a conviction as off-limits for discussion is counter-productive and ridiculous. Not to mention impossible, it will be discussed: whether Mr. Piper joins or not. In ListenTalk, I worked with a concept from the late Wayne Booth. He advocated “listening rhetoric” as opposed to “win rhetoric” or “bargain rhetoric” as a means of moving discussion forward to commonalities, versus just trying to beat up someone else’s argument or bargaining toward the lowest common denominator. For the Christian, can’t there be a kind “reconciliation rhetoric” or Reunion rhetoric where we discuss together our shared passion for walking with God—and asking what that means for today? Such discussion should energize us, but Mr. Piper seeks to shut that down.
    Your 13 theses provide a guideline for this very thing and I am also heartened by #10.
    Thanks for writing this.

  3. Thanks Chris. When you say that for some a desire for conversation is equated with lack of conviction, I think its similar to when tolerance is equated with endorsement (applied to a variety of issues). This interpretation is often made despite the fact that inherent in the definition of tolerance is difference of conviction. (We don’t need to tolerate someone who shares our convictions.) “So I’m probably the kind of person Piper has in mind when he thrice complains about Christians who lack conviction.” Me too, and the more mature I get, the more comfortable I am with the fact that this will always be misunderstood by those like Piper as weakness. What Piper doesn’t understand is that to suspend judgement often takes more courage than to take sides.

  4. Just to play the devil’s advocate (or not), I’ll ask this about the issue at hand: Hasn’t the discussion gone on for a very long time? Is there anything really new to say about it–on one side or the other? I’ve been following this conversation among Christians for at least thirty years now and I am not hearing anything new except volume (“intensity”). Does there not come a point where you have to say–within an organization–we decided that issue a long time ago and while we respect your right to differ from what we decided we don’t feel the need to go over it all again now? Is it always necessarily unloving, uncharitable, unkind, non-dialogical, to say that unless a dissenter has something new to offer by way of explanation and defense the time is to leave? Let me give an illustration from my own life. When I was still Pentecostal–many years ago now–I tried to start a new round of conversation among Pentecostals about the distinctive doctrine of speaking in tongues as “initial, physical evidence” of Spirit baptism. I was not surprised, even if I was dismayed, when they said, more or less, that is settled and if you can’t bring yourself to agree you need to leave. I left. Recently a Baptist pastor–of a major city’s First Baptist Church–baptized an infant. It seems to me that’s a conversation Baptists don’t need to have all over again. He should become Presbyterian, shouldn’t he? I think I can respect an organization that says “Here we stand; we can do no other. God help us” and ask those who disagree to leave without rancor or invective or bitterness. But, then, I’m a person who holds back from wedding myself emotionally to institutions and organizations. I can leave more easily than some. And I don’t always understand why, when an individual or group finds itself in strong disagreement with the organization’s ethos or beliefs, they can’t just say “goodbye and God bless.” Of course, in all of that, I’m assuming a good will effort has been made (before the separation) to understand each other. Too often these departures happen before that effort has been made.

    1. And I’m very much a person who does invest emotionally in institutions, which is no doubt conditioning my response to what’s happening.

      I think you raise several fair points, Roger. While I’m sure that the topics of human sexuality and same-sex marriage have been discussed in many and various ways for a long time now, the fact that there’s been a major change in civil law (which potentially affects schools like those of the CCCU, even if we want to distinguish between civil and religious marriage) and that it has already prompted a significant change in policy by two member-schools of long standing seems to suggest the need for renewing that conversation, if only to clarify the status of this issue in relation to the “historic Christian faith” clause of the CCCU’s membership requirements. And if some schools can’t view this as a secondary matter on which we can disagree and yet still partner (as Union has been doing for several years now as a member of the Lilly Network, whose membership includes Catholic and mainline Protestant schools that hire non-celibate gay faculty and extend benefits to spouses of same-sex marriages)… Well sure, I’d like to say fare them well and God bless them; and I’d hope they’d say the same to those schools that stay. I guess I’m just not sure, judging solely on the tone of the communications so far, that “good will effort” describes the conduct of those departing.

  5. I think there’s a slight misunderstanding here and it’s my fault. I was writing from the perspective (“devil’s advocate…or not”) of someone who would wish the CCCU to expel institutions who hire faculty and staff who are engaging in sex outside of traditional marriage. I can certainly see where someone would/does consider this a major defection from “historic Christian faith”–regardless of what the civil law is saying. From the traditionalists’ viewpoint, anyway, “marriage” is heterosexual and monogamous regardless of how civil society defines it. Sure, before expelling institutions from such an organization devoted to the “historic Christian faith” it ought to engage them in dialogue, but I can see where that has to come to an end in some cases. What if a member institution decided it would hire as faculty atheists? Okay, I know, that’s an extreme example. But sometimes we need to go to the extreme situation and back up from there and ask where the line of acceptable diversity lies. Pentecostalism expelled me. Or I left because they were about to. But, in spite of my damaged emotions, I really could understand the necessity of it. I think if the CCCU tolerates member institutions hiring as faculty (especially) persons engaging in sexual relations outside of traditional marriage, it should expect people to ask what it means by “historic Christian faith.” Every organization comes to these crisis points at some time and has to decide what to do. Our default social policy is toleration of diversity, but is that always the best, most right policy? I feel quite conflicted about this situation but just want to register my opinion, as someone usually regarded as “progressive” among evangelicals, that this is not the direction in which we should go because, I fear, it signals cultural accommodation of a dangerous order. But, as I have said on my blog recently, we can only blame ourselves because we accommodated with the civil order on divorce–generally accepted as true dissolution of marriage any such judicial decision. That was a turning point that happened during my own lifetime. Some years ago two older Bethel faculty members (now both retired) informed me that the “gay issue” among evangelicals would eventually be settled on the pro-gay side, welcoming and affirming, because evangelicals softened on divorce to the point of accepting all judicial orders dissolving marriages as valid uncritically. I think they may have been right, but I hope not.

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