Disagreeing Well in a Divided Culture
A brief guide to Christian disagreement
Assassination attempts aimed at Democratic leaders…
Massacre of people in a synagogue targeted because of their religion and heritage…
Murder of two individuals because of the color of their skin…
A lot of evil and injustice has transpired over the last week and a half. And following each tragedy there are tears and confusion, hashtags and headlines. But now there seems to be a theme in the conversation that wasn’t previously present. Someone is to blame, and everyone seems to be weighing in with different opinions.
It seems to me (just to me mind you) that our culture’s atmosphere seems to be growing more and more contentious. Certainly, one tragedy after another is a contributing factor. Possibly it’s also the upcoming mid-term elections or the growing lack of civility in the public square. Maybe it has something to do with the idea that everything seems to be politicized in one way or another. I don’t know, maybe I’m misreading all these combative headlines, maybe it’s just another phase in the evolution of a social media driven culture. In any case, the present and unfortunate moment provides an opportunity to wrestle with a significant question: how do we as Christians learn to disagree well?
Of course, the question itself seems to beg another: is it permissible, maybe even God-honoring, for Christians to disagree? In other words, do the Scriptures allow for disagreement among followers of Christ? The answer to that question is both yes and no. Let me explain. Christ followers adhere to certain beliefs that bind them together as the Church universal and local. For example, all Christians should believe in the person and work of Christ, the sinfulness of man, and that salvation comes through faith alone in Christ alone. Without certain bedrock beliefs there would be no continuity among the church throughout history, redemption and the Redeemer. They would cease to have their central place in the grand story that God is telling. So, let us say, with humble confidence, that there are certain ideas we hold fast to, for without them we would be wandering aimlessly.
But what about all the other stuff, you know, the thousand and one issues that aren’t directly tied to one’s salvation. Theologians have categorized ‘all the other stuff’ under two headings: secondary and tertiary issues. Among these issues there is disagreement, and this is why there are different denominations and movements, different philosophies and approaches to church. Now I’m not suggesting that these issues aren’t important. They are very important and worth studying, debating and resolving. In fact, I think we should seek to know and become convinced in our minds what we believe about secondary and tertiary issues. To be confident in one’s beliefs leaves more time and energy to focus on that which binds us together, and provides more room to stand united as a people set a part to the gospel of God.
Therefore, what I would like to suggest is a set of principles for disagreeing well, whether the conversation revolves around secondary or tertiary issues. Think of disagreeing well as an artform designed to create something beautiful rather than simply tearing the other person down. In fact, how different would our world be if we even viewed our disagreement as an opportunity to edify?
7 Principles for disagreeing about ‘all the other stuff’:
- Choose love before choosing positions… because we are a people that above all things puts on love.
- Hear before being heard… because your desired outcome should never be just to communicate your outline.
- Kingdom before opinion…because we are all part of God’s kingdom first, and everything else takes a back seat.
- Acceptance and agreement are not the same things… in other wordsI can, and should, lovingly accept someone without agreeing with their position on an issue.
- Discover points of agreement, and specify points of disagreement… because clarity contributes to community, while ambiguity contributes to confusion.
- Adhere to the principles of critical thinking without lowering oneself to criticizing… in other words I don’t have to get down in the dirt (criticizing) to get down in the weeds (critical thinking) on issues.
- In the end, the goal of disagreement is to grow personally and together as followers of Jesus… because the table of grace is big, and there is room for us all.
Let us as Christians resolve to compassionately disagree in such a way that each person is adhering to the higher law of love, realizing, at the end of the day, God’s desired will on any subject is ultimately all that matters. And if we can commit to this as brothers and sister in Christ, then we can redeem the time we have here on earth well…. not by setting a poor example for this world that so desperately needs Jesus, but rather by being the light He has called us to be and the reflection of hope the world is seeking in these challenging times. Let us resolve to be Christ-honoring in both the choice of our words and the tone in which they are delivered. But most of all, let us be steadfast in our understanding that we are all on the same journey, following the same Messiah, and will ultimately arrive in heaven as family, not foes.