Imagine you’re at your favorite coffee shop. Everything about the place is great, except the tables are a bit too close to one another. This makes it difficult to avoid eavesdropping. Your reading tends to zone you out from the conversations of others, but not today. You can’t help but hone in on a conversation between an ardent Trump supporter and one who gladly voted for Hillary. It’s not the various arguments mustered for one candidate over the other that intrigues you. No, it’s the evident respect each person has for the other even while expressing significant disagreements.
It’s hard to go back to your reading for the day. You become preoccupied with why the kind of exchange you just heard is so rare—even in your local church.
Can’t Christians Disagree Graciously?
It’s humbling to acknowledge that the unseemly disagreements that are standard fare on cable-news networks are also common in the church. Many Christians tell me they can’t talk about political differences with their best friends. What hope then is there to engage a new acquaintance on a substantial issue of disagreement?
I believe we can do much better, not only because we should as Christians, but also because we have some unique tools at our disposal. Here are four things to consider.
1. Have a Biblical View of Human Nature
We should view both ourselves and our opponents accurately. It’s understandable that our initial instinct is self defense when disagreeing with others. It would help us to remember some truths we may not be digesting deeply enough. The doctrine of sin reminds us that we do and think sinfully and are also prone to self-deception (Ps. 19:12; Jer. 17:9). It’s one reason we need input from others. The eminent historian George Marsden observed that “human depravity is a neglected explanatory category” in our culture. And it’s lacking in our churches as well.
As Christians, the doctrine of sin reminds us of the many ways we rationalize, justify, and minimize our own actions and thoughts. When I remember that all humans, myself included, are both capable of great evil and also created in God’s image with God-given dignity, I find stability to navigate the choppy waters where substantial differences threaten to push us far apart.
2. Slow Down and Pay Attention to Words
I recently preached a sermon on how the Bible defines the words faith, hope, and love. When is our understanding of faith moving toward presumption? When is our understanding of hope more akin to wishful thinking? When is our understanding of love more beholden to modern-day therapy than the cross of Christ?
I’ve heard it said A. N. Whitehead believed most debates are fruitless because the opposing sides didn’t think it important to define some of the key words. They assume everyone in the conversation has the same working definition and talk past each other. No wonder J. C. Ryle observed that “the absence of accurate definitions is the very life of religious controversy.”
As inheritors of a rich heritage of words, Christians can do much better. James 1:19 reminds us to be slow to speak and quick to listen. Pastors should model care with words. Slowing down to explain the biblical contours of key words is time well spent. It reminds the rest of us to be careful in our own use of language, particularly when we’re disagreeing with others.
3. Consider Your Own Credibility
Jordan Peterson likes to tell young people that they have no credibility to protest in public unless they first keep their bedrooms neat and tidy. It’s good counsel and one Christians ought to take more seriously. I like to say that we Christians often want to start a landscape company when the weeds in our own backyard need serious attention.
Consider the following hypothetical conversation:
Pro-life Christian: I can’t believe that people think partial-birth abortion is okay.
Pro-choice friend: Why?
Pro-life Christian: Because it is the killing of a human being!
Pro-choice friend: Why do you believe anyone two and younger is human?
Pro-life Christian: Because the Bible says so!
Pro-choice friend: Would you show me a few of those Bible verses?
Pro-life Christian: Uh, let me see, I know they are in there somewhere.
I’ve done my own informal survey with various groups of Christians I’ve taught. I first make sure everyone agrees that Jesus being God in the flesh is one of the most important teachings of the Christian faith. Then I ask how many can show me a few verses that describes that doctrine. I tend to get an awkward silence.
Before we engage the important issues of our day, we must put in the necessary study. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be angry and unprepared, a popular combination these days.
4. Read Those Who Make You Angry
I have benefited greatly from reading classic authors like Voltaire, Hitchens, and Ralph Waldo Emerson—the latter being a longtime conversation partner. Skeptics can be invaluable to read because they point out our blind spots and hypocrisy. But here’s one important caveat: Don’t read critiques of Christianity until and unless you are grounded firmly in the Christian faith. Even then, I would recommend doing it with a friend.
In Anger, Don’t Sin
There are certainly times to be righteously indignant, but we must be careful that our anger doesn’t devolve into ungodly frustration (Eph. 4:26–32).
I’m grateful for the terrific resources that the Christian faith offers. As a saved sinner, I need all the help I can get.