In the conflict over fundamentalism and culture, meta-debate seems to have overshadowed debate. Healthy debate is what occurs when two parties look at the real points of disagreement between them and try to support their own position on those points.
Meta-debate is what happens when we debate about matters surrounding the debate. At its best meta-debate may help clarify and focus the real debate when it happens. It may lead to healthy debate. But it is not the debate itself, because the real points of disagreement are not in focus.
But meta-debate quite often breeds confusion and makes the truly differing claims and supporting arguments less clear rather than more clear. This sort of meta-debate takes many forms from trading insults, to assigning ideas to the other side that they don’t really hold, to framing the debate itself in a way that obscures its true nature.
One example of the latter is the phrase “imposing preferences.”
I’ve been hearing this term for years and still hear it quite often. If you’ve used it in communication with me recently, please don’t think I’m targeting you specifically. It’s an expression that has long lived in my “If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times” file.
But if there is ever going to be progress in the culture and tradition debate, it’ll happen when we get down to the real points of disagreement. And that process begins by identifying what we really don’t disagree about.
“Imposing preferences,” is a classic example of one item we should agree to dismiss as unhelpful meta-debate. To put it another way, Christians on all sides of the culture-and-fundamentalism conflict (which focuses mainly on the styles of music used in worship, along with clothing styles and forms of entertainment) ought to agree that the debate is really not about imposing preferences. Here’s why.
A loaded term
The phrase “imposing their preferences” is heavily freighted. “Imposing” suggests an illegitimate exercise of authority or raw power over unwilling victims. “Preferences” implies that what is being “imposed” is nothing more than personal taste. It’s as though congregational worship is a pizza buffet where random individuals insist that pizzas must be topped only with meat and cheese, not veggies or—perish the thought—fungi. The random preference-imposers make such a stink that even though 99% of those present either love mushrooms or don’t care about toppings at all, the rules of the few oppress all.
But is the debate really about whether random minorities of Christians should bully their churches into conforming to their tastes? Is this scenario really part of the debate (vs. meta-debate) at all?
Let’s take a closer look at “imposing preferences.”
In local churches, God has ordained that carefully selected leaders have oversight over worship. They are not to be “domineering” (ESV, 1 Pet. 5:3) but are to “rule,” and the congregation’s response is to “obey” (Heb. 13:17). The reason obedience is required is that these leaders are responsible before God for, at the very least, the basic quality and integrity of what the church does. The authority derives from the responsibility.
Further, though these leaders are responsible and authoritative, they remain accountable to some degree to the congregation at large (1 Tim. 5:1, Gal. 1:8-9, 1Tim.3:1-7, etc.). As believers we are all responsible to some degree for our church’s obedience to Scripture.
In that light, it may help to consider two facts, then a conclusion.
- Fact 1: “Imposing” only occurs when authority is used illegitimately.
- Fact 2: Illegitimate use of authority is not a tenet of cultural conservatism or cultural non-conservatism or any of the views in between.
- Therefore, “imposing” is irrelevant to the debate.
Whenever “imposing” something enters the discussion, we have entered into another debate entirely: how authority should be exercised in the church and in para-church ministries. It’s an important debate, to be sure, but a separate one from culture, meaning, styles and worship.
What exactly is a “preference”? In the phrase “imposing their preferences,” as commonly used, the meaning is usually something like this: what you like or enjoy more than other options that differ in no important way. The term assumes that the options on the table are equal in every way that matters, so all that’s left is your personal taste. To revisit he pizza buffet analogy, who’s to say if pizza is better with or without green peppers and mushrooms? You like (a.k.a. “prefer”) what you like, and I like what I like.
The problem with this way of framing the issue is that those who are particular about music styles used for worship do not see the options as being equal in every way but personal taste. In fact, as they see it, what they like or enjoy is not the issue at all. It isn’t about whether they like pepper or mushrooms; it’s about what sort of buffet this is supposed to be.
Another analogy may be helpful. To those who are particular about the music styles that are suitable for worship—and especially those who favor traditional styles over popular ones—the options on the table differ in ways unrelated to taste and far more important than taste. It isn’t a pizza buffet, it’s an Italian dinner, and the options are lasagna, chicken catetori, and shrimp primavera vs. hot dogs, burgers, and hot wings. Arguably, both menus have their place, but at an Italian Dinner, personal taste is not the decisive factor in choosing between these menus.
The “preferences” characterization overlooks another important reality: though not everyone is particular about music styles used for worship, everybody is particular about music-style policy. Traditionalists want to limit musical choices to more time-tested forms, but non-traditionalists want to operate free of that restriction. Both strongly “prefer” something and usually want to see their preference become church (or university, camp, school, etc.) policy.
There is no preference-free option here.
So where does all of this lead our thinking? If we define “preferences” as matters of choice among options that differ in no important way, nobody on either side of the music debate is in favor of that. On the other hand, if we define “preferences” as what we believe to be right, everybody in the music debate favors that.
So, just as “imposing” proved to be irrelevant to the real debate, so “preferences” has no place in the debate either. As soon as we go there, we’ve stepped into some aspect of meta-debate and are no longer addressing any points of actual disagreement.
At this point in the culture conflict, it would be a great step forward if believers of all perspectives were to grant that the best proponents of both views (and those between) are not aiming to force personal whims on anyone (much less everyone), but desire instead to see their churches and ministries do what honors God and truly blesses His people.
To be sure, there are advocates in the conflict who are selfish, mean spirited, and intellectually lazy. Because they haven’t given the matter much thought, they are, by default, imposing their preferences (whether in the form of excluding contemporary styles or including them). But we can easily find people like that on both sides of any debate in human—including Christian—history. If we look at the best representatives of all the views involved we’re on track toward clarity and a much more fruitful debate.
Aaron Blumer, SharperIron’s second publisher, is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC) and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in a small town in western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. He is employed in customer service for UnitedHealth Group and teaches high school rhetoric (and sometimes logic and government) at Baldwin Christian School.