How We Disagree Matters

disagreements1There’s a reason that Paul tells the church to “strive” for unity (Phil. 1:27), because its hard. Unity does not happen naturally, even in the church. It takes striving, it take intentionality, it takes discipline. Unity is hard to get, and hard to keep. Yet, unity is extremely important. Paul urges the church to be of one mind (1 Cor. 1:10-12). He says we should be eager to maintain our unity because, after all, we share one Spirit (Eph. 4:1-6). Because unity matters to the church we should think carefully about how we disagree.

It’s okay to disagree with your brothers and sisters in Christ. Christians are all different. We have different experiences, tastes, opinions, and understandings. We can sharpen each other, challenge one another, help one another conform to the standards of Scriptures as we discuss those differences. And surely some differences may lead us to part ways as church members, especially where we are convinced by Scripture of encroaching heresy. Yet, not all differences need to work that way. We can disagree on many things and maintain unity. The key is to consider how we disagree. How we disagree matters. Here are few key principles to keep in minds.

Establish the area of disagreement. Often disagreements deteriorate into personal attacks. Sometimes this is simply because we have either been unclear in communication, or unclear in our own mind as to what the actual point of disagreement is. People and their opinions are not the same thing. Disagreeing with an opinion should not be construed in such a way as to suggest that we dislike the person who holds that opinion. Discuss problems, not people. Discuss conflicts, not characteristics. Discuss the views people hold, not the holder of the views. Establish clearly what the issue is and why you disagree with them on it. This allows us to talk about the real differences between us without losing any relationship.

Tone down the rhetoric. Sometimes when we are passionate about subjects we can respond with lots of emotion, this can tempt us to say things we don’t really mean or that are obviously hyperbole. Implying that someone is stupid, or that their opinion is stupid doesn’t further conversation. Implying that people don’t know the Bible, haven’t read a particular passage, or that they have terrible faith drowns out any hope of real conversation. In our passion we can sometimes be so dramatic that we clearly communicate a disinterest in having real conversation, being reasonable, or discussing actual differences. Dramatic responses create distance. Calm conversation builds bridges.

Desire conversation. I get more e-mails from people interested in venting than I do from people desiring real conversation. It’s easy to tell the differences. Some people don’t want to talk to you about that comment in the sermon that bothered them, that issue they have with what you said in class, or that disagreement they had with your blog post. They just want to verbally dump, vent their outrage, and move on. Some people don’t care about why you believe what you do, why you said what you said, what reasons you have for holding to a particular perspective. The truth is they don’t really care about you. They just want you to know how angry you made them. Ignore such people! And if you are that person, understand the damage you do to unity in the church. If you’re not interested in having actual conversation keep your complaints to yourself.

Practice self-control. Disagreements can turn into full-fledged arguments when we lose control. Raising your tone escalates the disagreement. Raising your hands and making large body movements raises your blood pressure and adrenaline. Rolling your eyes, sighing, demonstrating disinterest with your body language can all lead to escalating arguments. As I’ve written elsewhere, if you can’t control yourself in a disagreement then you don’t have an interpersonal problem, you have a personal problem. You are responsible for how you speak, how you respond, and how you act.

Finally, don’t make every issue a gospel issue. There’s a sense in which every issue relates to the gospel, I get it. But not everything is the gospel. Even Jesus acknowledges the differences between weighty matters of the law and less important matters (Matthew 23:23). All matters of Scripture are important, but they may not all be equally important. We can disagree on when Jude was written, but we can’t disagree on the gospel Jude preached. We might have varying interpretations of how the Kingdom of God comes, but we can’t disagree on the fact that it is coming. Some disagreements matter more than others, don’t treat them all the same. If you attempt to make every issue a gospel issue you will find yourself alone in a church of no one, because none of us agrees completely with each other. I don’t even agree with myself sometimes. Take some disagreements with a grain of salt. Try to understand each other, be gracious, sharpen each other, but don’t elevate the difference to more than it really is.

How you disagree matters. You are free to disagree. The church is not interested in brain washing, at least our church isn’t. You can have divergent opinions on non-essentials at Cornerstone. But how you disagree matters. Paul has some harsh words for those who create division. He says to Titus:

But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. 10 As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, 11 knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned. (Titus 3:9-11)

He adds these words to the Romans:

17 I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. 18 For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites,[a] and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. (Romans 16:17-18)

Division is a serious matter in the Scriptures. How we disagree matters, then, because unity matters. Strive to maintain unity, friends, even in your differences.

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