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Fostering Conversations that Count: The Biblical Basis for Discussion

April 19th, 2007 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

But is it biblical?

Such an issue is of probably no interest to most educators or businessmen, but to those who work in Christian ministry (or Christian education in general) it is essential. I have interacted with some more conservative adherants to Christianity (including this exchange!) who have argued that “open-ended” discussions are against the teachings of the Bible.

While we don’t see Jesus engaging in Socratic type discussion with people, he does use a lot of questions. When the rich young ruler asks Jesus what he must do to be saved, Jesus draws him in by questioning his greeting: “Why do you call me good?” It is a technique he frequently uses (see Randy Newman’s Questioning Evangelism for more). But that clearly isn’t discussion.

Luke 24: Probably the closest we see Jesus to using discussion as an educational method is in Luke 24. Jesus has been crucified and has risen again, but the two disciples who are walking together on the road to Emmaus do not know that all has been made well. Luke records that as the disciples were talking together–which is the word Plato uses for “dialectic”–Jesus came to them and travelled with them. Rather than reveal who he is and answer their questions, though, Jesus intentionally hides his identity from them and asks them what has happened. He engages in them in conversation, during which he opens the Scriptures to them. At the end of this conversation, he acts as though he going to leave them. Why? Presumably to draw them out and see how much they want to follow him. Only in their fellowship—as they eat together—does Jesus reveal his identity before disappearing again.

The “hiding” of Jesus is, I think, very similar to the difference between discussion and a lecture or a sermon. In my classes, I would “hide” what I thought the truth was from students in order to find out who among them wanted to see it. The goal, after all, is not simply knowing what the truth is but understanding why it is true and what the truth means. Finding the latter, though, requires work and patience, at least if such revelations are going to last.

John 4: In John chapter four, Jesus engages the woman at the well in conversation. Like the passage in Luke, I can only offer a stunted interpretation. When the woman misunderstands Jesus’ statement, Jesus pushes through her misunderstanding by pointing out her adultery to her. Throughout the discussion, the woman repeatedly deflects his advances, putting up what she thinks she knows as a means of keeping him close enough to keep talking, but far enough away that he would not expose her shamefulness any further. Jesus’ goal, though is to help her achieve understanding, not simply correct her bad beliefs. Along the way, he systematically destroys the barriers she puts up between them, and at the end reveals His identity. Here, Jesus uses the process of conversation to destroy the woman’s emotional barriers to the truth by destroying “what seems to be true” for her.

The Covenant: Discussions depend upon a covenant, at least if they are going to last. One person makes a comment, and if the conversation is to go forward, that comment must be acknowledged and accepted, or left aside. If the person is going to stay engaged when their comment is left aside, they must believe that it is better for the whole and for themselves that it was not acknowledged. In other words, the community must be for each other–it must be a community built upon “yes’s” to each other. At the core of great conversations is a fundamental commitment to each other and to the process of growing together.

But here is the basic theological foundation of discussion: Jesus is the Word who enters into conversation with us. He speaks, we listen, and then we talk back. He makes a comment and it is upon us to either accept or reject. If the conversation is to continue, we must make it clear why we are rejecting it and then allow him to respond. (I think at some point, we would probably have to accept his comment, though it seems from Moses’ interaction with God in Exodus that sometimes he says things to test whether we will respond in a certain fashion). The covenant that he has with us, though, will not be broken because of the silly or sinful things that we say and do. Instead, at the core of His relationship to us is a fundamental commitment to His creation, and to the process of helping us grow. God is the ultimate discussion partner.

Conclusion: Is there a Biblical basis for discussion? There are no explicit verses, but I would contend that the relationship between God and the world could be conceived of as a discussion, where God has the answers and hides them from us in order to sanctify us and make us comfortable with our limitations. As such, I think Christian educators stand on solid ground in employing discussion within their educational program, even discussion that completely hides the truth from students.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.