Thoughts on talking to non-Christian relatives and friends during the holidays

So, suppose you have a relative or friend who grew up as a Christian but now they’ve fallen away and they are in some sort of situation where they are in continuous rebellion against God – e.g. – regular hooking-up, cohabitation, same-sex lifestyle, etc.. Although you might not see this person regularly, you may see them during the holidays at family gatherings, so let’s take some time to define goals and develop a strategy for those encounters.

I want to focus on two parts:

  1. What are you trying to communicate to this person?
  2. How much should you invoke Christian concepts with a non-Christian?

Let’s take a look at the plan.

Respect your opponent’s dignity and value

So for the first topic, I think that you need to accept the person as a person made in the image of God and therefore valuable and deserving of being treated equally. That does not mean you have to agree with them and celebrate their views when you disagree. They have equal dignity to you, but you don’t have to agree that their ideas are equally correct. It means that they have value because God made them and because he cares about them and wants to be reconciled with them. Whatever you say and do cannot set back God’s goal of being reconciled with them. When you speak, you don’t want to push them away from God. When you act, you don’t want to push them away from God. So you are striking a balance between respecting their dignity, but also not affirming them in their views. You can’t affirm something that is immoral just because they will like you, because you have to think of what God wants you to say to that person. You are his ambassador and that means you do your job for him first and foremost.

Christians often talk about the slogan “hate the sin, but love the sinner”, and I think that can be overused. You are obligated to love your family and your relatives. But the problem is knowing what the definition of love is. Love doesn’t mean affirming whatever a person wants to do whether it is right or wrong. Love doesn’t mean standing by silent while people do things when their beliefs about what they are doing are all false. To love someone means to tell them the truth, gently. And it means to be present and engaged in building them up in their relationship with God, however that might look given what stage they are at with God. Loving the sinner means investing in the sinner, and not wrecking the relationship by being unnecessarily hurtful while we can still have an influence. It’s a good idea when you disagree with someone about what they are doing that you keep in mind all the ways that you have rebelled against God in the past, and continue to rebel now, and will continue to rebel. If you keep in mind your own struggles, it will be a lot easier for you to hit the right note when discussing lifestyle with someone else!

Don’t answer “demarcation questions”

I was listening to the Dennis Prager show recently and he was talking about how people on the left are not really good at rational discussion because they are not able to state the views of people who disagree with them in a way that is respectful. He cited Jewish traditions on debate and argued that real debate requires that each side is able to outline the position that the other side holds and the reasons why they hold to it. And not in an insulting, straw-man sort of way, but in a way that the person on the other side can assent and say “that is my view, and those are the reasons for my view”.

People on the secular left seem to like questions that are really more like ad-hominem arguments, so that they can shut down debate. Prager’s example was “you do believe the Earth is warming, don’t you?” This question is designed to stop the discussion of global warming socialism by labeling you a nutcase for denying something that the questioner thinks is obvious. This is despite the fact that the IPCC has now admitted that there has been no significant warming in 15 years. They don’t want to hear your evidence, they want to humiliate you and dismiss you.

The one I hear around my office is “you believe in evolution don’t you?” This is how secularists in my office try to quickly dismiss me because I am not in their “tribe”, so they can cut short any serious critical thinking about their presupposition of naturalism. Thinking about the progress of science and questioning their assumptions is too much work for them, which is why they resort to these “demarcation” questions. Dividing the world up into “sensible us” and “crazy them” is very important to secular leftists – they would rather be divisive, dismissive and condescending so they can keep on sinning. After all, if you’re a total cretin, then they don’t even have to consider whether they are mistaken or not. If you believe in a flat Earth, then they don’t want to have to listen to the evidence for the Big Bang or the fine-tuning or the protein sequencing or the Cambrian explosion. They want to separate the world into black and white so that debate becomes unnecessary. Don’t fall for it.

Free expression of intelligent disagreement

My goal in dealing with an ex-Christian involved in a bad lifestyle is that I want to be their friend, but they must be aware of my view. That is a condition of me being their friend. And I want an opportunity to discuss these things should they come up naturally. I don’t want to be the initiator, but if the topic comes up, I want freedom to state my view, and respect to complete my thoughts and state my evidence. My goal with this person is not to give tacit approval to what they are doing by just acting like one of their normal friends and keeping my mouth shut so as not to offend them. My goal is to be present in their lives as someone who they know for sure disagrees with what they are doing and is intelligent and informed about his disagreement. In short, I am willing to trade spending time with them and doing activities with them (what they want) in order to get the freedom to intelligently and respectfully disagree with them about their lifestyle ( what God wants me to do with them, as his ambassador to them).

Moreover, if the opportunity never arises to state and defend my disagreement with their lifestyle, then I’m going to allocate less and less time to that relationship, since God is not being allowed into the relationship. I work for God, and I want him to be a factor in everything I do. In what I say, in how I spend my time and money, and so on. When I started my first job, the atheists used to offer to discuss spiritual things with me if I had a beer with them. I agreed to that, because they knew that I would only give them what they wanted – friendship – if I got what I wanted – the opportunity to be myself and be given time to explain my beliefs and my reasons for holding them without being interrupted or mocked. They were willing to let me do this, though, because they knew what I was talking about, so that’s on me to prepare to sound intelligent in order to deserve the opportunity to be heard. You have to decide if this person is going to allow you to be an ambassador. That is the criterion for deciding whether to have a relationship with them or not.

Should you bring up the Bible and sin?

It depends. I think if the person is claiming to be a Christian, and under the authority of the Bible on moral issues, then you should investigate how they square their views with the Bible. You might have to pull in Robert Gagnon or Scott Klusendorf or some other expert to make the case that their behavior is against the Bible. But in my view, their claiming of the Bible as support is likely to be a smokescreen. Sinful people choose their behavior first, and the Bible is not going to be relevant to their decision making once they are into the lifestyle of sin. Labeling their behavior as sin, citing Bible verses, citing Christian leaders… that’s all going to be as useful as you citing a Hindu or a Mormon to convince me of an eternal universe would be. I don’t care about religious opinions when it comes to the universe, because I have a prior commitment to science. A smart ambassador knows not to use authorities that are not accepted by their audience. People who are habitually sinning do not accept the Bible as an authority. You can clarify what the Bible says if they bring it up, but don’t rest on the Bible to make your case.

The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in battle

So what can you do to make your case? Well, your goal is to be allowed to express your disagreement and to state your reasons for disagreeing without being silenced or sanctioned. When they give you your opportunity to speak, you need to have prepared to sound as intelligent and relevant as possible. That means that you need to hit the books before you are asked, and find the reasons and the evidence for your view first. If the issue is binge-drinking and hooking up, you need to hit the books so you can find the peer-reviewed papers to deal with that. You might talk about oxytocin to counter casual sex, or you might talk about the cohabitation-instability link, or you might talk about how children are harmed by fatherlessness, etc. The point is that you want to have the perception among non-Christian peers that you are competent and informed apart from religion – which they don’t even accept. I find it amazing that Christians seem content to invoke their supposed righteousness in debates with people who don’t even accept the Bible. We need to not be so insulated in our own little Bible-cliques that we are no longer able to understand how to be persuasive to people who are outside the faith. You can’t invoke superior piety (alone) as an argument to someone who isn’t pious and doesn’t want to be pious.

Smoking is bad for your health

Basically, you want to make a case using mainstream sources that is equivalent to the case that you might make against their smoking, if they took up smoking. Your approach should be along the lines of “you don’t accept Christianity, and that’s fine, because I have a million non-Christian reasons why you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing, too”. You want to get to the point where you can show them that it’s not just a case of opinion against opinion, but a case of rebellion against evidence. Don’t be afraid to encourage them to look at the long-term effects of what they are doing either.

For example, if they are in a same-sex relationship and they want to have or adopt kids later on, have them defend why it is right for them to intentionally deprive a child of a mother or a father. If they are in a cohabitating relationship and have not yet gotten pregnant, have them defend having an abortion or raising a child fatherless. It’s amazing how people in these sorts of sinful lifestyles get blinded by their feelings and cannot think about what comes next. That’s your job – to be the sober analyst who asks “what comes next?”. And don’t forget to consider whether what they are doing is not only bad for them, but bad for people around them, and society as a whole. For example, if society has to pay increased health care costs for sexually transmitted diseases or for social programs to deal with the breakdown of the family and fatherlessness.

Please leave your comments about how you are dealing with ex-Christians in rebellion in the comments, and what you think of my approach, too.

UPDATE: I got some advice from a well-known Christian apologist. His point was that if all you have is the family meal, then it’s better to spend most of your time listening and just ask a few questions. That’s a good defensive strategy suited to the situation you are in at a family meal.

15 thoughts on “Thoughts on talking to non-Christian relatives and friends during the holidays”

  1. This is actually a really good post just as general instruction on how to argue (discuss or debate) opposing views without arguing (fighting). Something in startlingly short supply.

  2. Love you approach, WK, but couldn’t you have released this sooner?!? Some of us are already with our relatives. :-)

    I especially like to take the non-Biblical approach on same sex marriage, because it is amazing to me that so many left-leaning Christians seem to think that what the Bible says on this subject is not relevant. Plus, there is a wealth of secular information out there on this topic – on this site and others.

    On other issues, like abortion, I always use secular sources at first – but I do like to show how the anti-abortion position is fully articulated from a Biblical perspective once I have established a secular base. If we make the secular case, and then leave out the Gospel, just how is their eternity any better? They are correct on the issue and on the wrong side of God for eternity. Randy Alcorn does a particularly nice job in this area.

    Now, I know that you and I will disagree on the value of “going Biblical” with left-leaning unbelievers, but I have noticed that announcing that one is a Bible-believing Jesus freak CAN serve as a sort of shock treatment to these types, as it is so rare for them to actually observe a “dinosaur” in the wild. :-) It also has the added benefit of clearing the room of unbelievers and nominal Christians when the football games come on, and it is foolproof at freeing one’s doorstep of Jehovah’s Witnesses. :-)

    Finally, never underestimate the effectiveness of a good hearty “shame on you for believing that!” That might not make STR’s all-time list of favorites, but a lack of shame is something that dominates our post-modern, and often post-Christian, world.

    When I was an unbeliever, hearing this was like splashing cold water on my face, and I have had a LOT of success with this approach. In a world where so many people think that morals are all relative, and where unbelievers think that their secular rational approach is just as good as yours, shaming at least lets them know that there is one person left who feels otherwise. It can shine a light.

    Happy ThanksGiving!

    1. Actually, I wanted to get some feedback from the woman I spoke to about this, because it was that conversation that led to this post, but she was busy so I delayed it for a few days. In the end, she was too busy, so I just posted it. Hope you can still make some use of it now.

      I like your comments about letting people see a dinosaur in the wild. It reminds me of a line from a Walter Bradley lecture where he is giving his testimony and he talks about letting his secular friends see a real “fire-breathing fundamentalist go non-linear”. LOL! It has a place. I know that non-Christians are impressed if anyone stands up for Biblical Christianity any more with some boldness.But I think what they are looking for is *authenticity* not *arrogance*. So always aim for that.

  3. I had a “Friendsgiving” this last Sunday, basically, many friends getting together for a Thanksgiving meal before everyone does it with family. One of them is a professing Christian, and another is heavily into tarot reading. Against my protest, my wife allowed her friend to give a reading to our professing Christian friend.

    I had a discussion with the friend later on and because she is going through a really rough divorce because her husband is leaving, she was feeling a bit undirected and was really into it. I dont k now what else I could have said to her, but she really wanted to continue with further readings.

      1. I find women in general are more open to mystical spirit is than men. But Christians have no business doing it. One of her replies was “there’s mystics in the bible”. Yeah! And God had them stoned!

  4. WK – Great article and VERY timely for Canadians getting ready for the REAL Thanksgiving celebration. We have almost 11 months to prepare for Oct 13, 2014 ;^)
    One aspect of the discussion that bears more thought IMO is the fact that any family has “history” that individual family members naturally view from their own personal perspective. Oft-times a family’s history is fraught with unresolved emotional tension. As Christ followers it is incumbent upon us to approach these tensions thoughtfully, lovingly, and prayerfully and then be expectantly sensitive to the working of the Holy Spirit as we converse around the table. Sometimes the best said and timeliest communication is inaudible.

  5. Great article. I like the final “edit” you put in at the end. I think the listen/question approach will be what I’m forced to take, since Thanksgiving will be relatively short for me (being married means multiple dinners… for better or worse).

    One thing that may come up this year is the “word-faith” movement. My wife’s family is into it a little, and the friends they have over are into it even a little more. It is all a bit charismatic and new-agey, and I don’t even know how to start the conversation (it usually doesn’t come up on Thanksgiving I’ve noticed). I guess I’ll see how it goes and report back!

    1. Josh, just break out Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” one of my all-time favorites. That will clear up any new-agey dispositions. :-) (He also gave a Thanksgiving Day Sermon, but I haven’t read that yet. This is all long before post-modernism kicked in and men became women.)

  6. Excellent blog post WK. This was a very helpful post for me. With family and some friends I often use “…questions that are really more like ad-hominem arguments, so…(I) can shut down debate.” I shouldn’t do that because it isn’t helpful for them or for me in the long-term view of things.

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