In the second conversation, I was being asked why - why on earth? - a Christian Union would restrict itself to having male speakers. Surely this is hugely sexist and unethical? Shouldn't religious people be showing the way forward, rather than perpetuating bigotry?
There are several things about these sorts of conversations which could become awkward. For one thing, nobody much likes talking about hell; and in the current climate, nobody much likes talking about women and the church either. Both are difficult. Moreover, neither topic easily leads you into the main thing which, as a Christian, you want to talk about: the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
What was difficult about both conversations for me, though, was that I sympathise with the questioner. I know exactly what is meant by a hellfire and damnation Christian, and I surely do want none of it. I can also guess why a CU might bar women from speaking, and I think it's defective theology. I'd love to be able to distance myself from both groups. The person I'm speaking to wants me to do that too. In both cases, they are predisposed not to think me an idiot, or (I hope) a bigot. They are willing me to say that, no, I am not like these people, and in fact my brand of Christianity is much better than theirs. Which, let's face it, I am at least partly inclined to believe that it is.
But instead I have to stand up for these folks - more than that, I have to show the closest solidarity. Because they are trying to follow Jesus, trying to understand the Bible and apply it to their lives and their world. If they've got some things wrong, goodness knows so have I. I have to reply knowing and feeling in my heart that I am talking about brothers and sisters of mine. I stand with them. I don't have to say they're right about everything, but I need to be careful. The desire to look good has to be suspected whenever it pops up. I do want people to think well of me. But if I sell my (to my mind erring) brothers down the river in order to get that, what happens next? Sell my Lord as well? It's not so different.