Ten Thoughts on How to Disagree Well

Pretty much the entire nation has witnessed the conflict and disagreement at Mizzou and in Columbia over the last several days. And my guess is that we’re likely to have a good deal more in the days ahead.

Obviously, the Christian community—including The Crossing—isn’t immune from all this. And while that means we face the difficult task of working through those disagreements as we go forward, it also means we have a real opportunity as followers of Christ to do it well. Not only will that that be a huge help in tackling very difficult problems, but it will also help commend our faith to those who may not share it.

With that in mind, here are ten things to keep in mind as we seek to disagree in the right way. And note that this is far from an exhaustive list:

1. Consider how the Bible frames the relationship between truth and grace/love.

John describes Jesus as full of grace and truth (1:14), while Paul mentions “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). The takeaway: truth is complimentary to, not the opposite of, love and grace. No doubt this has lots of practical implications. For one, our rightful concern for the truth should be combined with wisdom as to when and how we communicate it. Another way to put it is that we should probably think less about winning an argument and more about winning a person. To end, I think it was Francis Schaeffer—no stranger to talking about important and contentions issues with people who did not share his perspective—who used to speak of giving people a “gracious out” in conversations. We may win less debate points in the short term that way, but gain more productive discussions in the long run.

2. Remember the Golden Rule.

Matthew 7:12 famously reads: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” If we could only remember one passage or principle in the midst of conflict and disagreement, this would be a great choice. How would you want others to speak and interact with you in those situations? Surely you wouldn’t want them to impugn your motives without good reason, use personal attacks and other underhanded tactics, etc. Conversely, you’d likely want them to show respect and courtesy, as well as listen to you carefully—even to the point they could accurately repeat back to you what you believe. We could add to these things, but the point is that if we want to be treated this way, we need likewise to treat others in the same manner.

3. When disagreeing, what does it look like to love our neighbors and even our enemies?

Jesus commands us to do both, and he even offers concrete examples of what that might look like. For example, it’s telling that in a conversation among Jews regarding loving one’s neighbor, Jesus tells a famous parable about an exceptionally kind Samaritan, a man who would be their natural ethnic/religious enemy (see Luke 10:25-37). Likewise, Paul’s famous exposition of love in 1 Cor. 13:4-7 will help us here:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Many, many other passages would serve to fill out the picture of what love looks like in the midst of conflict.

4. Our inclination should be to listen before speaking.

James 1:19 reads: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak.” We’re naturally quick to speak and slow to listen. James tells us to turn that on it’s head. Personally, I need to tell myself that the times when my mouth isn’t moving aren’t just breaks for me to figure out the next thing I’m going to say. We simply can’t talk meaningfully if we fail to listen to each other.

5. We should be suspicious of our anger.

There is certainly such a thing as righteous anger. God has it and so can we. But if I take honest stock of my personal experience, I’d have to admit that most of my anger is anything but righteous. Usually my best efforts are a mixed bag. So maybe it should come as no surprise that, right after the verse just mentioned, James goes on to say this: “[be] slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (1:20). Merely human anger—the anger that arises from our sinful nature rather than a desire to honor and follow God—is far more likely to be destructive and, in the end, unproductive toward the desired goal.

6. Don’t forget that sin makes things complex…and therefore hard.

Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—himself an outspoken critic of an oppressive Soviet regime—famously said that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. In doing so, he merely echoed a truth the Bible underscores over and over. This means it’s usually unwise to see individuals, groups, or institutions—or their ideas and efforts—as either “all good” or “all bad.” Rather, because sin touches everything—including our thoughts, motives, etc.—our problems can be incredibly pervasive and complex. And that means correctly identifying all the issues and addressing them rightly will be very hard. That doesn’t mean we stop trying. The gospel gives us real hope that we can make progress. But the profound reason that we need the gospel in the first place means that progress usually doesn’t come easy.

7. Act as if the world is watching (because it is).

Paul tells the Colossians to “walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Col. 4:5-6). In all the ways that we speak with those outside the church, both directly and indirectly (including social media), we need to remember that our actions can either credit or discredit our faith. That means seeking God’s wisdom and thinking twice about what we say, as well as how we say it.

8. As we agree on the big goals, we need to leave room to disagree about particular strategies.

The book of Acts shows us that Paul and Barnabas were both incredibly committed to the cause of the gospel. Together they sacrificed a great deal to speak about Jesus and establish churches all over the Mediterranean world. And yet when it came time for them to set out again, they disagreed about the best means to carry out their mission. Barnabas wanted to take John Mark, evidently thinking he’d be helpful in their journey. But because John Mark had deserted them once before, Paul wasn’t willing to risk relying on him again during what was likely to be another difficult trip.

The end result was that that Paul and Barnabas effectively agreed to disagree. Both kept pursuing the overarching goal, but Barnabas took John Mark and went one direction, while Paul traveled with Silas in another. And while Acts doesn’t celebrate this, neither does it suggest that one or other was wrong to do what they did. From a limited human perspective, it’s likely that both could have made a good case for their actions.

If Paul and Barnabas had such a deep disagreement about whether or not to take Barnabas—even when they did agree on so much otherwise—should we be surprised when we also disagree about meaningful things? Rather, even as we enthusiastically agree on the biblical goal of rolling back racial prejudice, let’s give each other the freedom to have reasonable and important disagreements on the best strategies for doing so. And in line with the previous points, let’s continue to respect and love each other in the meantime.

9. Grace begets grace.

Both the story of a sinful woman anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume (Luke 7:36-50) and Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant (Mat. 18:21-35) illustrate that God’s grace to us should affect how we live our lives going forward. Every Christian has received grace from God—in the form of forgiveness, kindness, love, etc.—though we deserve quite the opposite. It only makes sense, then, that we should be willing to extend that same grace to others…even when we disagree.

10. Pray.

None of the above will happen without the grace of God. Let’s ask him for it.

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