Transcending: Gracious Argument

I have a lot more to say in this Transcending blog series about what both Science and the Bible have to say about transgender people. But today I want to step back and talk about some things I’ve learned about arguing with grace while I’ve been going through this process of trying to convince my former church not to adopt a new “Christian Living Statement” as part of their constitution.

Let me say right up front that I am not good at arguing graciously. A lot of this was learned from doing it poorly.

However, I do think this process highlighted some principles I want to take away and apply the next time I disagree with someone on a matter of principle.

Like so much else, it goes back to Patricia Evans and her books on Verbal Abuse. I’ve read five of them: The Verbally Abusive Relationship, The Verbally Abusive Man, Verbal Abuse Survivors Speak Out, Victory Over Verbal Abuse, and Controlling People.

The big idea behind those books is that it is verbally abusive to define other people or to tell them they have bad motives or to tell them what they themselves are thinking or feeling or what they should be thinking or feeling.

The bottom-line reason that verbal abuse is so hurtful is that it is nonsense. We have no ability to read minds, and we cannot tell what another person is thinking or feeling or what their motives are.

One thing I like about using it as a standard for argument is that it is about the statements made.  You don’t have to attribute bad motives to the person making the statement.  But if someone says, “You hate America,” that is a verbally abusive statement, saying something they can’t possibly know, since they can’t read your mind.

If someone makes verbally abusive statements even when you explain they have misjudged you or continues in a persistent pattern, you don’t have to even speculate about their motives, but it is a good idea to protect yourself.  Unfriend them on Facebook, stop communication.

Now, using “verbal abuse” about this, although I believe it can be warranted if done persistently, has strong negative connotations that are almost abusive themselves by this definition. So I am going to try to focus on the flip side of it and look at how we can avoid defining and attributing bad motives to other people when we argue with them. When we manage to do this, we come across as arguing with grace.

In the post I called Self-Definition, I looked at how this applies to trusting transgender people to know who they are.  People do it over and over again every time they say transgender people are “confused” or even refuse to use the word “transgender” but instead talk about “gender confusion.”  But now I’m talking about how it applies to arguments about principles.

As I was arguing about my former church’s proposed policy, I found that people responded defensively when they thought I was accusing them of being unloving, but people responded surprisingly well when I assured them that I didn’t think they were trying to hurt anyone.

But there were several times in the interactions when I was told how my thought-processes were wrong or how my motives were bad.

When I look back at the interactions, I think it goes back to the definition of verbal abuse. Or said more positively, it seemed to depend on whether grace was inserted in the conversation — whether good motives were assumed and mentioned or not.

Let’s look at some actual things that were said to me.

This one came from someone outside the church when I posted on Facebook about finding a Bible-believing church that welcomes and affirms LGBTQ people:  “You care more about feeling happy than you do about truth.”

Some verses were cited along with this statement.  But I (and the church I attend now) interpret those verses differently.  And the speaker actually cannot see inside me and know what I care about.  In fact, part of what upset me so much about my former church’s new policy is that I firmly believe it is contrary to Scripture and therefore contrary to Truth.

Others urged me to read the Bible more, as if that would change my views.  I’m not even sure how I could fit more time reading, studying, and memorizing the Bible into my life.  No, my views on this are coming directly out of my study of the Bible.

I do realize, though, that those who disagree with me are also getting their opinion from the Bible.  It is possible to interpret Scripture in different ways.  That doesn’t mean they don’t care about Truth.

There were some hurtful exchanges with the leadership of my former church.  I was told I was making too big a deal of the change.  I was told I didn’t understand the situation.  I was told what I was trying to do.  (It was not what I was actually trying to do:  Show that the policy was unbiblical and would hurt people.)

I was also told that I was using “many, many words” and wanted to use “many, many more” — which came across as telling me I was talking too much and being shrill.  In the same email I was told the writer could hear me “practically screaming” a response.  Putting words in someone else’s mouth in argument is creating a straw man.  Creating a straw man of the person you are actually speaking with is not respectful.

So those were some negative things that happened.  I very much doubt that my own words in that exchange were well chosen either.

However, an interaction that really surprised me happened after the first member meeting where the policy was discussed.

I sent the pastor an email where I said this:

I’m bringing up a very small point, because I suspect you will encounter transgender people in your life, and you would like to be able to minister to them.  The point is this:
Every time you use the word “transgenderism” I cringe inside and draw back.
Because transgender people never use that word about themselves.
So that gives transgender people and those who affirm them a heads’ up that the person who said that has not been listening to transgender people.
Do you want transgender people to cringe when you speak about them?
If not, you should try to avoid using that word.
Thought I should let you know!

What surprised me about it was that even though I wrote it when I was angry, the pastor thanked me for sending it. He said that I would have to have assumed the best about him.

All I said was, “you would like to be able to minister to them.”  But I do believe that about him.

In the next membership meeting I attended, he did not once use the word “transgenderism,” nor did he even once call transgender people “confused” (though an elder did).

And that’s what I’m getting at here.  Assume the best about people.  Try to tell them so.  It injects some grace.

I do believe my former pastor that he does not at all want to be offensive.  I do believe him that he wants LGBTQ people to feel loved and respected when he talks with them.

Yes, I believe that my former church is trying to be loving and caring toward LGBTQ people.  The elders have assured me of this repeatedly.  It’s in the policy statement itself.

I also believe that making up burdensome rules not found in Scripture is the sin of the Pharisees in Matthew 23:4.  However, I don’t think the church is willfully sinning.  I believe them that they honestly think LGBTQ people are sinning — so the loving thing to do, in their eyes, is to respect and love them, but when asked, help them avoid this “sin.”

I disagree with their initial assumption.  I do not think that same-sex marriage is sinful.  And I don’t think that transgender people changing their bodies to match their gender identity is sinful.

But the motives of my former church are good.  They are not being hateful.  They are trying to help people they love avoid sin.  They’re trying to build a relationship close enough that they will be asked for help.

But let’s mention that my motives, too, were good.  I honestly was trying to keep the church body I loved from falling into the sin of the Pharisees.  I thought I had some extra insight into the situation because of having transgender people in my life whom I also love deeply.  I have also studied the Bible in depth on this topic and hoped that would give my words some weight.

And after it was all over, I did get some acknowledgement of that, which does help ease the hurt.  But please, when you’re arguing with me, don’t dismiss my argument because you don’t think I understand or you think I don’t care about the truth.

And I will try hard to do the same about people I disagree with.

Most of my friends have good motives.  Most of them want to be loving and caring in their interactions with others.  We may disagree about how that can be accomplished, but their hearts are in the right place.

When we can admit that about people on the other side of an argument, we’ll cause less pain.  We can insert some grace into the conversation.

And that’s what I’m trying to say in this installment of my many, many words.

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