How to Effectively Dialogue on Matters of Belief

February 10, 2020 🕑 30 min.


The following was written as a proposal to the leadership of my church for how to go about addressing some potentially contentious doctrinal issues within the congregation. It has been adapted for wider distribution.


“‘For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.’ (Matthew 18:20, NASB), but then you have the problem of having two or three gathered.”

—Jason M. Gates

Life in community is hard. Conversation in community is hard. Effective dialogue about beliefs in community is hard. So how do we go about it? How can we discuss deeply held beliefs and convictions, where others likely disagree, all the while extending love, grace, and understanding to our brothers and sisters in Christ? Really good questions. Short answer: carefully. Long answer: read on.

With a local body of believers with more than say a dozen or so families, there are bound to be significant differences in viewpoint across the congregation. Such diversity of belief on secondary matters is to be expected, perhaps even encouraged. However, when such an issue is cause for significant consternation within the congregation, what should we do? Here are some example issues that may be floating around under the surface within the congregation:

What is the purpose of the local church?

Is it to be a “service oriented architecture” of sorts (sorry if my software analogy doesn’t make sense), where we can plug in a “service” (ministry) for any given demographic group (young adults, senior adults, newly married folks, gardening enthusiasts, the argyle sock community, etc.)? Is it to glorify God by multiplying transformational churches among all people? What is it? Our answer to this question has significant implications for who we are and what we do.

What are the roles and responsibilities of deacons, directors, pastors, elders, overseers, etc.?

How do these positions differ? In what areas is there overlap? What are our expectations of people in these positions? How should these different roles interact? Our answers here have implications for our church polity and how our church functions.

What are appropriate roles for women in ministry?

This is a question that church leaders are often unwilling to touch for fear of “poking the hornets’ nest”. What do we believe here? How should women be involved in the life of the church? Can they be deaconesses? Can a woman lead the deacon board? Can women speak from the stage during Sunday services? Can a woman preach the sermon? Can women lead ministry areas? Can we have female pastors? Questions abound—what do we believe and why?

How do we go about answering any of these questions? This document is a walkthrough of how I’d go about it if it were up to me. I’ve tried to map this out as generally as possible, such that you can insert anything as the question for consideration. Is this the only way to try answering such questions in a congregational setting? No. Is it a good way? I think so. Is the methodology set in stone? Nope. I’d encourage tweaking things depending on the topic you’re tackling and the people involved in the conversations.

But who on earth am I, such that I have so many thoughts and opinions on how to approach topics such as these? My name is Jason Gates, and I’m a teacher. Now when I say “teacher”, I don’t mean that I’m the subject matter expert who has all the answers, which I will then impart to you—far from it. When I say “teacher”, I mean one who comes alongside a group of learners to aid in the learning process. It’s about helping people investigate, ruminate, discuss, learn from one another, consider multiple viewpoints, and arrive at conclusions. When I’m teaching I’m operating in the intersection of my skills and passions, where I’m most naturally motivated. It’s who I am; who I’m meant to be.

What experience do I have? In terms of official teaching experience, I taught first- and second-graders in the Bible Study Fellowship International children’s program for two years. After that I taught everything from College Algebra through Advanced Engineering Mathematics at the university level for five years. (Turns out college students aren’t terribly different from first- and second-graders.) During that time I devoured any book on pedagogy and andragogy I could get my hands on, and took part in whatever classes or focus groups on education were available. After transitioning to software engineering, I still look for opportunities to help others learn to improve. (Turns out adults aren’t terribly different from college students, except I can’t motivate them with grades or pizza any more.) I also coach Eldorado’s speech and debate team, where all of these same skills come into play.

What do I know about learning? For that you can check out the appendices. Appendix 1 has a write-up of my philosophy of learning—how I think it works best. Appendix 2 contains some background information on the concept of scaffolding, which undergirds how some things are structured in Section 3.

Looking forward to fruitful conversations together,

Jason M. Gates

1 Summary

Time is precious and you likely don’t have time to read through this whole document right now. No worries—here are the highlights:

  • Invite anyone from the congregation who wants to dive into the subject to take part in a study group. (Section 2.1)

  • Make sure they know there will be significant work required to take part (at least an hour of discussion, an hour of reading, and an hour of writing per week). (Section 2.2)

  • Establish some ground rules: (Section 2.3)

    • Be punctual.

    • Prepare in advance.

    • Love it for a minute.

    • Others agreed upon by the group.

  • Start the practice of quarterly fellowships for the sake of growing together in relationship.

  • Determine the starting point: (Section 3)

  • Study the Bible. (Section 4.1)

    • Have the group suggest passages.

    • Ask questions of the book:

      • Who’s the author?

      • Who’s the audience?

      • What was the cultural context?

      • What was going on in the church?

      • What was the author’s purpose?

      • How does it fit in context?

    • Ask questions of the passage:

      • What does it say?

      • What does it not say?

      • How does it fit in context?

      • What’s the particular meaning?

      • Does it address the question at hand directly?

    • Take your time.

    • Consult commentaries only after personal study and group discussion.

  • Study history using the same principles used for Bible study. (Section 4.2)

  • If needed to draw conclusions in your current study, take some time to answer related questions. (Section 4.3)

  • Determine the ending point: (Section 5)

2 Preliminaries

2.1 Forming the Group

A first step in having a conversation about what we believe will be determining who will be involved in that conversation. What voices do we need to hear from? Who should be doing the investigative leg-work?

My personal preference would be to open up the group to anyone in the congregation who would like to be involved. If you have the Holy Spirit of God in you, I figure I’d better listen to what he might be saying through you. If we’re trying to figure out what we believe as a local body of believers, the membership of that body should be involved.

Beyond the open invitation to the congregation, I’d also strongly encourage church leadership to participate. I don’t think we can make it a requirement, just due to scheduling logistics, but if you’re available, it’d be good for you to be involved. Does that mean the leaders do all the digging and everyone else is along for the ride? “May it never be!” We’re all in this together.

2.2 The Group Rhythm

I’m picturing the group having a weekly gathering for about an hour at a time. Between meetings participants would be expected to spend about an hour doing some reading or other investigation, and about an hour doing some writing, in preparation for the next get-together. Three hours a week should be manageable, but as with most learning, the more you put into it, the more you’ll get out of it.

A natural time to hold our weekly meetings might be during the Sunday school hour, but I get the feeling meeting some time other than Sunday mornings will require some extra committment from folks from the get-go, and that’d be worthwhile. What day and time would be ideal? That bit’s negotiable.

In addition to the weekly rhythm, it’d be worthwhile to have at least a quarterly fellowship for folks to get to know each other better. It’s hard to trust people if you don’t really know them, and it’s hard to get to know people if you’re only ever studying something together. You need opportunities to build friendships in other contexts, chances to just kick back and relax and enjoy life together. Picnic at the park? Cook-out at someone’s house? Bowling night? The sky’s the limit.

2.3 Establishing Ground Rules

There are a handful of ground rules for participation that I’d like to impose from the beginning:

Be punctual.

In order to make the best use of our limited time together, please arrive and be prepared to start on time.

Prepare in advance.

If in any given week you are unable to do the requisite reading/writing ahead of our gathering (life happens; no judgment here), you are welcome to join us, but please remain silent. We want to ensure the conversation is driven by those who have prayerfully prepared for it ahead of time.

Love it for a minute.

When someone throws out an idea, you may be tempted, in the moment, to react strongly against it and start tearing it apart. Before doing so, you must first “love it for a minute”—try to see and understand things from the other perspective.

Beyond this initial set, it will be beneficial for the group to define any additional ground rules they feel will be important. Some suggestions:

  • Listen respectfully, without interrupting.

  • Listen actively and with an ear to understanding others’ views. Don’t just think about what you are going to say while someone else is talking.

  • Criticize ideas, not individuals.

  • Commit to learning, not debating. Comment in order to share information, not to persuade.

  • Avoid blame and inflammatory language.

  • Allow everyone the chance to speak.

The list of ground rules can be revisited and amended throughout the investigation if necessary.

3 Laying the Foundation

Before diving into a significant discussion, it’s important to know where everyone is coming from. Often we may not even know where exactly we currently stand or why we believe what we do on a particular topic, so it’s important to have an intentional time of introspection. The following questions would be homework assignments, one per week, for the participants to ask of and answer for themselves in writing.

3.1 What do you currently believe about this topic?

Don’t talk to anyone else about this (yet). Don’t refer to any books you may have read. Don’t even crack open the Bible. (Gasp! Who let this guy teach in church? Wait till we get to Section 4.1.) I just want whatever information is in your head translated onto a piece of paper. What are your thoughts today? Be as specific as possible. Generalities can often be unproductive in dialogue. The more specificity, the more fruitful the discussion can be.

Note that this can just be a brain-dump—getting your thoughts out on paper. If you’d like to take the extra time to rearrange your thoughts into a well-crafted essay, that would be appreciated, but isn’t necessary. The importance is in writing things down so we have something concrete to talk through.

3.2 Why do you believe what you believe?

Once you’ve identified what you believe, the next step is figuring out where those beliefs came from. They didn’t just pop into your head out of nowhere. Were they informed by your parents? Perhaps by your peers? Is a past situation closely tied to a particular facet of your beliefs? How have your thoughts developed over time? How have past communities you’ve been a part of viewed the same topic? Does what you believe in another context impact your thinking here? If so, how?

Again, don’t talk to anyone before you jot down your thoughts. No books, no scripture—just whatever’s in your head. I realize books/scriptures/community inform why you believe what you believe, but at any given moment you don’t have access to all of them instantaneously. What you do have is what’s in your head, and that’s what I want you to put down on paper.

3.3 What questions do you have?

We should already be on the same page in terms of tackling the general question—what do we believe about [fill in the blank]? However to answer the general question it will be helpful to dive into a number of specifics. What particular questions do you have in mind that need answering? Write down as few or as many as you feel are important. Are certain questions more or less important to you? Again, remember that specificity will be our friend.

3.4 What concerns do you have?

As we wade into a conversation about our beliefs, it will be good to keep in mind that examining those beliefs can be a bit unnerving. What worries you as you’re beginning on this journey with us? Are you concerned we’ll wind up in a particular spot? Are you worried we’ll go about this the wrong way? Will relationships be marred by coming to different conclusions? Jot down your concerns, and ask God to help you trust him as he helps us through this.

3.5 What are your motivations?

It’s likely the case, to a greater or lesser extent, that we all walk into this investigation with some sort of personal agenda in mind. What are you hoping for? Do you want us to wind up somewhere particular? Are you hoping we do things a certain way? Why did you decide to take part? If things don’t turn out the way you hope they will, what will that mean for you?

3.6 Have you reached a place of indifference?

At this point we’ve tried, individually, to identify what we currently believe and why. We’ve sketched out numerous specific questions we hope to find answers to in our investigation, and we’ve admitted that we are burdened with a variety of concerns. We’ve tried to be honest with ourselves and identify our motivations as we approach the topic. It will be easy, natural even, to read our beliefs and agendas into our study. Are you in a place where you are willing and able to hear with fresh ears what God would reveal to you? Are you indifferent to everything but the will of God?

If not, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Are you still attached to a particular outcome? Are you unsure if you’ll be able to reconsider a certain belief? Is there anything that might prevent you from seeing clearly as we begin our study? This may be an assignment you’ll need to revisit a handful of times, and that’s okay.

4 The Study Itself

4.1 Looking to Scripture

At this point, we’re roughly six weeks into our investigation and we’re finally ready to starting digging into source material. The primary source for an investigation such as this should of course be the Bible itself, but how should we go about structuring our study? Here are some suggestions.

Have the group suggest passages

In the preceding six weeks, be collecting suggested passages from members of the group. Any bits of scripture that folks think might be relevant, jot them down. This helps in developing buy-in; that is, the members of the group will know experientially that they are a part of determining what we believe and why. It’s not a matter of some leader telling you what passages of scripture to look at—it’s all of us within the body looking at scripture with the Holy Spirit’s leading.

Setting the order

Once you’ve collected a first cut of passages to look into, how do you go about setting the order for when you dig into which passage? This part can be totally flexible. I’d suggest you group passages within a given book of the Bible together, but that’s not absolutely necessary. It might also be worthwhile to hit things in a more-or-less chronological order, but again, feel free to shake things up as needed. It may be the case that you can tell ahead of time that certain passages will be more contentious than others. In those cases, it might be worthwhile to slate those passages for later in the conversation after the group has had more time to learn how to interact well with each other. The flip-side of that is if you know there are certain passages that will prompt significant agreement, those might be good for earlier in the investigation. I don’t want to be prescriptive here. Every group is different and the instructor needs to be able to adapt to the dynamics within.

What questions should we ask?

Once an order has been set, how do you go about studying any given passage of scripture? Here are some common questions we should ask and attempt to answer, though this list isn’t meant to be exhaustive.

At the book level:

The following questions help us to establish the overall context of the book in which the passage sits.

Who is the author?

What do we know about him? What’s his background? Where was he in his life when he sat down to write the book?

Who is the audience?

Who was the author writing to? Who were those people? What do we know about them? What was their background? Keep in mind, there might be multiple audiences intended, e.g., a book written to a particular person, but then intended to be shared with a local church or churches.

What was the cultural context?

What was going on at the time? What was life like where the audience lived? How does that context differ from our own? Are there aspects of the cultural context that are hard for us to wrap our heads around today?

What was going on in the church?

If applicable, what did the current situation in the church look like? How did the church context differ from the cultural context? How did it not?

What was the author’s purpose?

Why did he write the book to the audience? Was he intending to inform? Persuade? Rebuke? Encourage? Note that in some cases you may not be able to come to concrete answers, but you should be able to get a general idea.

How does it fit in context?

Given the overall context of the Bible as a whole, how does this particular book fit in?

At the passage level:

Once the overall context has been established, we can dive into the specifics of the passage itself.

What does the passage say?

Try not to impart you own meaning to the passage. What does it actually say? What did it say to the original audience?

What does it not say?

Perhaps more important than the last question, let’s be clear about what a passage does not specifically say.

How does it fit in context?

Given the context established at the book level, how does the particular passage fit? How does it contribute to the overall message?

What is its particular meaning?

If this passage were omitted, how would that affect the overall meaning or purpose of the book?

Does this speak to the question directly?

Or does the current passage just touch the question you’re looking into tangentially?

How long do we spend?

Hang on a second. If the group is coming up with all the source material we’ll look into, and for any given passage we’re going to try to answer all the questions above, how long is this study going to take? As long as it takes. I’d be very hesitant to attempt to time-box the study, becuse it feels like that would be telling God, “I trust you to reveal your will to us, but I’m requiring you to do it within the next three months.” Sounds just a wee bit arrogant to me.

What about commentaries?

Bible commentaries are great, but can I make a request? Don’t go to them right away. Take time first with just you, the passage of scripture, and the Holy Spirit. See what he reveals to you with just the Bible itself. Bring all your insights with you to our discussion group and then let’s hear from one another what God has been showing us through his word. After that, if you want to go back to see what a handful of commentaries say about a passage, I heartily encourage you to do so. My caution here is that if reading something puts a certain interpretation in your mind ahead of time, it can be hard to see something other than that interpretation in the passage.

4.2 Looking to History

While the Bible should be our primary source when investigating questions of belief, we want to make sure we’re not attempting to interpret it in a vacuum. Chances are the church universal has been thinking through the same questions you’re pondering for hundreds or thousands of years. It’d be worthwhile to take into consideration what the church has thought over time. How should we go about doing that?

I’d suggest following the same principles outlined in Section 4.1:

  • Have folks suggest sources to look into so it’s very much the group doing the investigation and not just the leader.

  • How should you sequence the material? Chronologically may be worthwhile so you can trace the progression of the church’s beliefs through time. It may also be beneficial to look to earlier sources first, because they will be closer to the cultural context of the Mediterranean region in the first century. Keep in mind that the original readers may have likely read and understood things very differently from how you do initially. All that being said, a thematic organization of the content might make sense too. Again, you can be flexible here.

  • Ask and attempt to answer many of the same questions we intend to ask of scripture, with the understanding that you’re not necessarily looking at a Holy Spirit-inspired text this time around.

  • And take your time. If the church has been ruminating on your question for generations, you probably don’t need an answer by tomorrow.

Though the organization of this section makes it look like you should do all your Bible study before you get to any study of church history, that’s not necessarily the case. It may be worthwhile to interweave some of the historical study with the scriptural study. Back and forth between the two might be natural in some cases. If you do, though, it will be important to differentiate that which is scripture from that which isn’t. The Bible is our ultimate authority—if something doesn’t jive with it, it’s no bueno.

5 Drawing Conclusions

When it seems the investigation is drawing to a close, it’s time to wrap things up by asking and answering a number of questions. These assignments parallel those in Section 3, but here they serve as a means of assessing what progress has been made throughout the study.

5.1 What do you currently believe about this topic?

This is the same question we asked to kick things off. It may be the case that your thinking hasn’t changed much. Then again, what you believe may have changed significantly. Perhaps the changes in your understanding were broad and sweeping, or perhaps they were slight tweaks to small particulars. Whatever the case, please jot down your current thoughts.

5.2 Why do you believe what you believe?

At this point we’ve spent months digging down into the details so you should have a pretty good idea of the foundations supporting your beliefs. This assignment, along with the last one, is kind of like your “final exam”. Tell me what you think and why. This time please do refer to any source material you like. I realize you only have what’s in your head at the spur of the moment, but here we’d like to summarize all the details of the last many months of dialogue.

5.3 What questions remain unanswered?

It may be the case, even after months of study, that there are some questions you don’t feel you have solid answers to yet. That’s completely fine—it’s okay to not have all the answers. What are those remaining questions? What is your thinking on them currently? What interpretations are you weighing? Why don’t you feel you have a solid answer?

5.4 Where do we agree?

In discussions about beliefs it can be easy to get bogged down in our disagreements. We don’t want to do that. It’s likely the case that the group you’ve dug into this topic with agrees on the vast majority of its beliefs, and that the areas of disagreement are relatively small in scope. (That is not to say they are likely small in importance, though they may be.) From your perspective, what are all the facets of this topic that your group agrees on? What is the common ground on which you all stand? Please be thorough and specific.

5.5 Where do we disagree?

Now that we have an understanding of what our common ground is, and that it is substantial, what are those areas in which the group has not come to consensus? What are the differing viewpoints, and why do folks hold to one way of seeing things versus another? For any given point of contention, is it a major issue, rising to the importance of our statement of faith? Or is it a minor issue, where brothers and sisters in Christ can lovingly and peacably hold differing viewpoints within the same local body? Is it perhaps somewhere in between?

5.6 Where do we go from here?

Given the lengthy journey we’ve been through together, what needs to happen at this point? Are there any changes that we need to make? Are there conversations we need to continue? Should someone sit down and write There and Back Again: A Congregant’s Tale to record our sojournings for future generations? This assignment is entirely is entirely open-ended, but I’d suggest you break it down into two parts: What’s next for you, personally? And then: What’s next for us as a church?

Appendix 1: Philosophy of Learning

The driving passion of my life is to help people learn how to learn. I use the phrase “how to learn” for two reasons. First, I believe learning is a life-long activity, and if we are to do it all our lives, we should learn to do it effectively. Second, it’s likely the case that most people have gone through their lives being taught what to learn, but not necessarily how.

Allow me to tell you how I believe learning works. I consider the learning process to be a combination of the following activities:


is the process of seeking to learn new material by yourself. In our current educational framework, this is generally accomplished by reading material written by experts in an attempt to understand the necessary concepts, relationships, etc. However, not all people learn best through books. The process of investigation can incorporate other methods, such as experimentation for those who learn best by doing, or observation for those who learn best by seeing something done.


is a means of study often neglected. When investigating new material, you must continually ask certain questions: What does this actually mean? How might it apply to my life? Does it fit with my current understanding of life, the universe, and everything? If so, how and where does it fit in? If not, is this utter nonsense, or do I need to reformulate the way I view the world? By seeking to understand how new material fits with the vast wealth of knowledge and experience we already have (see Appendix 2 on the topic of scaffolding) we internalize it, thereby strengthening our understanding.


is what naturally happens when multiple people are learning together. Since everyone has a different set of prior knowledge, students will be able to grasp new concepts with differing levels of certainty. It is beneficial to be able to discuss with others any thoughts or questions that arise during investigation of and meditation on new material. What may seem confusing for one may be straightforward for another. Even if you have a flawless understanding of a concept, articulating your understanding to others further reinforces that understanding.


is the act of seeking help from a professional. Generally this happens through students listening to lectures given by their instructors. However, the lecture format is not the only way to accomplish this. Teachers can impart their knowledge in a small group setting, or even one-on-one. Experts have years of experience in their field, during which they have formulated and reformulated their understanding of the material. The crucial part of consultation, then, is for the instructor to aid the students in developing the structure of their knowledge. (Again, see Appendix 2.)


is when students extend their knowledge beyond the bounds of the box in which it was first presented. Instead of just reading the textbook, they find out where the material has been applied in the real world. Instead of the examples discussed in the classroom, they question what might happen if they omit their initial assumptions. Instead of assuming what any given text says is true, they set up counter-examples and attempt to prove or disprove them. Without being able to transfer our knowledge to new situations, our understanding of the material is still incomplete.

Though these five learning activities have been presented as if they come one after the other, we must realize that learning is not a linear process—it is inherently organic. These various learning activities happen, to an extent, simultaneously. We can think of this process occurring within a feedback loop, such that we are constantly reevaluating our understanding of the material based on the inputs received.

Whether you like it or not, you will be learning for the rest of your life. A wise man once said, “Some people learn the easy way; some people learn the hard way; and some people never learn.” My desire is to help you learn to learn the easy way, and to relish every minute of it.

Appendix 2: Scaffolding

When learning new material, you’re never starting from an empty slate. Your understanding of a new concept is built up on top of the sum total of all your prior knowledge. The task of the educator is to assess what a pupil’s prior knowledge is, and then provide sufficient intermediary steps to take them from where they are to where they need to be in understanding the new subject. This is a concept known in education as scaffolding, as the new knowledge and understanding is built up, bit by bit, in a manner similar to a scaffold erected outside a building.

If all an educator needed to do was provide adequate scaffolding on top of an already sound base, life would be relatively easy. Unfortunately reality is a little more complicated. It may be the case that in assessing a student’s understanding of a subject you find certain inconsistencies—the structure of the scaffold is unsound. In such cases you still need to get an accurate picture of the structure of a learner’s knowledge, but you do so in order to determine what needs to be deconstructed in order to rebuild a sound structure on top.

This is one of the harder parts of aiding someone in learning. The structure of their current understanding may be long-established. It can be quite difficult to let go of preconceived notions in order to arrive at a fuller understanding of a subject. This part of the learning process must be handled with extreme care and sensitivity. The questions in Section 3 are intended for learners to map out what their scaffolding looks like so the instructor knows where the starting point is.