The Art of Disagreement

Early in our marriage, we had the privilege of living in Oxford, England for a few months while my husband wrapped up his philosophy degree. While there, we found a church quickly and were welcomed warmly; often invited to after-church lunches. On one such occasion, we sat in a student’s tiny apartment finishing up a meal, when politics arose..a lively debate ensued, one framed in an exchange of vastly different ideals. It was clear that people vehemently disagreed. It was curbed with humor and humility, but it wasn’t gentle; and yet, it was one of the most gracious conversations I’ve ever witnessed. Here we had church family, breaking bread together after worshipping their God together, willingly disagreeing and thus sharpening their thinking…with love. And these people thought very well.

I’m convinced they thought so well, not because they were students in Oxford, but because they were not easily offended, and willing to enter into conversations that ultimately led to disagreement. They willingly surrounded themselves with people with whom they knew they disagreed, and they didn’t shy away from topics of controversy.

I often look back on that time longingly. Most of my experience within the American church has been influenced by a deep fear of disagreement, and as a result, many conversations become shallow. I’ve found that many people fear wading into controversial depths and as a result we often devolve into topics of pop culture, or worse, gossip. I was taught growing up to talk less about people and more about ideas, but I’ve found more and more, outside of the academic setting, people fear discussing ideas because they know they will disagree. It’s no wonder, considering controversy has become the cardinal sin of America; we are told to keep our opinions to ourselves. And yet, we aren’t any more unified as a result. We can’t seem to keep our opinions to ourself, we either blast them at those who disagree, heatedly attacking, or we limit ourselves to tribal thinking, speaking only about controversial topics within an echo-chamber of people who agree with us, furthering the split of “us and them”.

This is unacceptable for Christians. It isn’t unifying to blast controversy, most of us agree on that. But it also isn’t unifying to avoid it, as John Piper writes,

“Beware of living a life governed by the fear of controversy. It may drive you to hypocritical behaviors.”

As Christians it is imperative that we learn how to engage in controversy, to disagree well. We must learn to do so lovingly and constructively. I’m convinced it is the only way we can identify and deal with our blindspots. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of the Church, “the eye does not see itself”; we don’t see our own pet sins, our inconsistency in our worldview, nor our own ignorance. This is why we exist as a body of believers who are united by Christ, but distinctly different. Unity does not imply homogeny of thought, but it allows us to engage our differences with the security of knowing we can still love one another through it because we are ultimately united by what matters most, our faith in the work of Christ and our desire to enjoy and glorify God forever.

The world says, like John Steinbeck, “no one wants advice–only corroboration.” It is our natural inclination to merely find people who agree with us, to have our own ideas neatly confirmed and parroted back. But Christians ought to greatly differ from the world in this way; we ought to welcome the challenge of disagreement, it sharpens our thinking, bolsters our ability to challenge the prevailing thoughts of our time, and it helps us identify where we’ve gone astray in our own thought-system. As Nancy Pearcey writes,

“Learning critical thinking is important not only for speaking to people outside the church but also for educating people on the inside. They often absorb ideas from the cultural atmosphere and thus need help liberating their minds from secular assumptions.”

If we are going to love the Lord with our heart, soul, and mind, then we need to be thinking Christians. We need to know what we believe and why, not just about doctrinal issues (though those are of the most importance), but also about the things that inform our daily choices, because they often reflect our worldview more than we realize. We may find we don’t even agree on doctrinal issues, in which case our discourse is even more important–we need to exhort one another to assess what we believe and submit it to God’s word. As brothers and sisters in Christ we can help one another do this through disagreement, we can learn to persuade or defend, to discard or solidify our beliefs, but we can only do this if we learn how to engage lovingly and willingly with other Christians.

The problem is, we don’t seem to know the rules of engagement. We offend unnecessarily, or we fear offending so much we end up saying nothing at all. We are harsh, or we are insincere. The art of disagreement requires that we do not needlessly offend–I say “needlessly” because sometimes offense is inevitable, no matter how graciously you temper your words but that doesn’t give us excuse to simply blast people because “it’s the truth”. Alternatively, sometimes we are trying so hard not to offend we become insincere, this is just as damaging. As George Orwell wrote, “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” and as Amy Carmichael bemoaned of Christians in her day, “we are so afraid to offend, so afraid of stark truth, that we write delicately, not honestly.” We must be kind and honest.

We also don’t know how to be challenged, we offend easily, assume the worst of the one challenging us, and tend to perseverate on how it makes us feel instead of the ideas and arguments presented to us. And sometimes we just don’t like what we hear because of what it may demand of us. When our ideas and beliefs are challenged we all would do well to take Elisabeth Elliot’s advice,

“Before we open our mouths to protest, we might consider carefully the possibility that we disagree only because agreement will cost us something, that it will be inimical to our vested interests.”

If we approach disagreement rightly, it will force reflection. Perhaps the greatest reason we avoid controversy is precisely because of this. As a culture at large we have lost the ability to reflect honestly. As Alan Noble argues in his book Disruptive Witness,

“The constant distraction of our culture shields us from the kind of deep, honest reflection needed to ask why we exist and what is true.”

Our vitriol toward disagreement may be because we don’t want to take the time to reflect on the challenge put before us. But this is exactly what Christians need to be doing, and we should be helping one another do it. Especially in our culture. To quote Noble again,

“To live well in a modern world requires constant reassessment of how our society and technology are shaping us.”

This means sometimes we need to be offended, and instead of being angry with the person who offended us, we should consider what they propose, mull over their arguments, and reflect on our choices. Maybe reassessing our decisions and beliefs, or alternatively pushing back to do the same for them. Too often we accept our own cognitive dissonance, living in a way that is inconsistent with the logical conclusions of our faith, and we accept it because we don’t really think about it. Disagreement forces us to think about it.

As Christians we should be so secure in our unity through the blood of Christ that we can discourse about controversial topics, lovingly and boldly, with a willingness to learn from one another, and a humility that allows one another to, as Rosaria Butterfield puts it, “change positions without shame.”

Loving disagreement doesn’t necessarily lead to persuading someone to think what you think–though it can–but it does lead to better thinkers, and it strengthens us to engage with the world around us lovingly too. We ought to be thankful for the opportunity to scrutinize our ideas so that we can understand them better, and ultimately submit them to God, the One who unites us in the first place.

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