In Center Church Tim Keller argues that churches in cities should work with each other toward common goals, even across denominational boundaries. “All Christian movements must be characterized by a willingness to unite around commonly held central truths and to accept differences on secondary matters that – in the view of the partners – do not negate our common belief in the biblical gospel.” For this to be healthy, though, Keller admits that the various parties will need to engage in discussion about perceived doctrinal errors. To that end, Keller suggests some ground rules to make these discussions constructive, rather than destructive.
These are great ground rules within the context from which Keller presents them, but I think they are applicable for almost any discussion where there are substantive disagreements between the parties. They are also sorely lacking in our culture.
- “Never attribute an opinion to your opponent they themselves do not own.” This is so tempting to violate, especially when it appears that belief A, which your opponent holds, leads to belief B, which they don’t. Don’t attribute belief B to your opponent if they don’t hold it, though it might be worthwhile to point out the inconsistency of their logic. This principle also applies if your opponent quotes an author you disagree with. Just because they agree with one of the authors statements, doesn’t necessarily mean they agree with everything that author says.
- “Take your opponents’ views in their entirety, not selectively.” You can never say everything you want to say at a given time and neither can your opponent. They may something that appears imbalanced, but may have offered a balancing perspective elsewhere.
- “Represent your opponents’ position in its strongest form, not in a weak “straw man” form. Keller offers a good test here. “Do the work necessary to articulate the views of your opponent with such strength and clarity that he or she could say, ‘I couldn’t have said it better myself.’” As an aside, pretty much every social media meme that I have ever seen violates this rule.
- “Seek to persuade, not antagonize – but watch your motives!” Here Keller observes that we can try to be persuasive for purely selfish motives, to do so out of the pride of winning an argument or defending our turf, without actually honestly seeking the truth. Our motives shouldn’t be self-centered, says Keller, but God-centered.
- “Remember the gospel and stick to criticizing the theology – because only God sees the heart.” We have to be careful that our argument isn’t marked by scorn, mockery, and sarcasm. Our aim should not be to make our opponent look evil or ridiculous, but to honestly engage in their arguments. John Newton instructs us to “commend [your opponent] by earnest prayer to the Lord’s teaching and blessing,” a practice which will teach our hearts to love and to argue in such a way that we show “the compassion due to the souls of men.”
 List of ground rules and all quotations in this post are in Center Church by Tim Keller, pages 372-373.