When it comes to controversy, avoid these two extremes...

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
'I Don't Know What We're Yelling About!' photo (c) 2010, Martha Soukup - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

In “real life,” when you have new friends over for dinner, you don’t usually begin by passing the potatoes and asking about their views on gay marriage. (If you’re at my house, we at least wait until dessert!) 

But online, we get right to it. Whether it’s through a Facebook status, a blog post, or a tweet, we shout our thoughts from virtual rooftops, where they are met with questions, affirmations, pushback, or outrage. 

I believe both forms of communication are important and can be life-changing. In my travels, as I’ve met so many of you face-to-face, I’ve come to see that “real life” and “online life” should not be regarded as separate spheres, but as connected. I’ll never forget the church that beautifully integrated words from my blog posts into their liturgy one Sunday morning, or the painter who rendered a chapter from my book into art, or the young man who composed a song around this post, or the pastor who made last-minute adjustments to his Easter service to ensure that women had a voice in proclaiming the resurrection, or the church that changed its policies regarding abuse because of our series on the topic, or those of you who have sponsored children, worked the blessing of “eshet chayil!” into your life in creative ways, or finally had that breakthrough conversation with your gay son or daughter— all because of conversations we’ve had here on the blog.  I am especially grateful for the ways in which online dialog has helped bring the issue of gender equality in the church back to the forefront, sparking a wave of new writers, new publishing deals, and new perspectives every day. 

It is precisely because words have real-life consequences that, occasionally, a post or a speech or even a tweet is regarded as controversial among Christians. Since I write fairly often on the topics of gender, doubt, the Church, and biblical interpretation, I’ve been through my fair share of controversy within Christian circles, and in those experiences, I’ve noticed two extreme responses that I think we should avoid: 

1. “This is controversial, so it MUST be wrong.” 

This response is often generated in the name of preserving Christian unity.  

In my experience, it goes like this: Someone writes something at the Gospel Coalition or Desiring God about the importance of preserving hierarchal gender roles in the Church. I write a post outlining my disagreements with that position. People on both sides weigh in, and things get a little heated. I get a bunch of angry or tearful emails about how I’m sowing disunity in the Church and how “The Enemy” must be loving every minute of this because all this controversy is ruining our Christian witness to the world. I should have left well enough alone. 

Now, I absolutely believe that Christian unity is important, and I would break the bread of communion in a heartbeat with folks like Mark Driscoll or John Piper whose views on gender roles I oppose. But unity does not mean uniformity. And while some controversy may in fact indicate unhealthy friction; it is just as common for controversy to indicate the sort of healthy friction that emerges from positive change. 

The early Church was not without controversy, precisely because of all the uncomfortable change associated with bringing together Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, male and female, rich and poor, as partners in experiencing and sharing the Gospel. One thing I love about the epistles of Scripture is the way in which the writers negotiate these tensions without calling for absolute agreement, but instead calling for absolute love in the midst of disagreement. 

A brief survey of history reveals that controversy within the Church often arises during times of social, political, and scientific change.  Was Martin Luther King Jr. “sowing disunity” when he wrote his powerful, piercing letter to fellow clergy from the Birmingham Jail? 

I have found that the response, “this is controversial so it MUST be wrong” is most effectively invoked by those with an interest in preserving the status quo. 

Those most threatened by calls for change are those who benefit from things staying as they are, so look out for people in positions of power who dismiss any sort of dissent or disagreement as troublemaking. (Sometimes things indeed need to stay as they are, but sometimes things need to change.)

Of course, for controversy to be helpful and productive, it must emerge from conversations that are fair, reasoned, charitable, and thoughtful, not from conversations that involve vague accusations or personal attacks. (More on this at the end of the post.) But controversy does not necessarily indicate an absence of the Spirit. In fact, sometimes it indicates the presence of the Spirit. 

2. “This is controversial, so it MUST be right.”  

On the other hand, folks embroiled in constant controversy can also fall into the trap of overconfidence. 

Sometimes folks will encourage me by saying, “You’ve generated a lot of controversy; you must be doing something right!” While there is certainly some truth to this, (if you take a stand on anything, you will likely face criticism), we have to be careful of taking it too far by assuming that any pushback or disagreement we receive is an indication of our righteousness. 

Christians often frame this in terms of persecution. A pastor will assume that the negative responses to a controversial statement he made in a sermon or through a Facebook status cannot possibly be worthy critiques of his position, but rather the kind of “persecution” Christians can expect to receive for saying and doing the right thing. (Note: Being uncomfortable is not the same as being persecuted, but that’s a topic of another day!)  So he refuses to entertain the idea that any of his critiques might have a point, and instead interprets any pushback as only further confirmation of his rightness. 

This is an unhealthy attitude toward controversy because it closes us off to constructive criticism. The reality is, an overwhelmingly negative reaction from readers/parishioners/friends may in fact indicate a misstep or mistake. This is why I created an entire category for apologies and corrections. Because sometimes I’m wrong, and often you guys are the first to correct me on it! 

This is not to say I’ve mastered the art of responding well to healthy, constructive criticism. I haven’t. But I’m learning, from experience, that just as pushback doesn’t automatically mean I’m wrong, it doesn’t automatically mean I’m right. 

Some Guides: 

So how do we know when the controversy we’re generating is healthy and when it’s unhealthy?

There’s no formula, but there are some good guides to help us as we navigate these waters:

First, I recommend surrounding yourself with a group of friends and family you respect and trust, and when you find yourself embroiled in controversy, ask them for advice and guidance. Those who know you best will know when you have veered off course. And if someone you really respect (including a reader or a fellow writer) is offering pushback, it’s best to suck up your pride and listen because they probably have a point. 

Second, check your privilege. If I’m writing about homosexuality, for example, I make an effort to consult with LGBT folks ahead of time, and I try to remain especially open to their advice, perspective, and critiques as I venture into territory with which they are much more familiar than I. As a white, Western, middle-class woman, I enjoy some privileges that others do not, and I am often blinded by my own cultural assumptions and biases. Realizing this has convicted me to listen more carefully to the input and critiques of those whose ethnicity, orientation, background, or life experiences are different from my own…especially if these voices are coming from the margins, from the “outliers.”  If you are a blogger, be especially open to guest posts, interviews, and book discussions when tackling topics like abuse, mental illness, gender issues, homosexuality, poverty, and injustice...because some stories just aren't yours to tell. But you can use your platform to give someone else the chance to tell theirs. Also, if you are a man writing about women’s roles in the home and Church, please, for the love, at least entertain the idea that you might not know exactly what it's like to be a woman. 

Third, fight fair. For tips on this, I recommend checking out an older post,  “How to write a controversial blog post with no regrets.” There I talk about the importance of keeping critiques specific, avoiding personal attacks, watching your tone, and waiting before responding to a conversation that elicits an emotional response.  I’m still learning, and I still make mistakes, but these principles have helped out a lot. 


No doubt you have experienced one or both of these extremes: “This is controversial, so it MUST be wrong!” or “This is controversial, so it MUST be right!” How have you responded to them? How have you been complicit in them? How can we better avoid them? 

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