Respectful Conversations about Divisive Issues: a Place to Start

Respectful Conversations about Divisive Issues: a Place to Start December 10, 2014

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you for a reason for the hope you have. But do this with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15, NIV)

A Myth that Precludes Conversation

Over the last few years, I had the opportunity to engage other Christians in conversations regarding the following controversial issues about which Christians have strong disagreements: American politics; the evolutionary creationist/young-earth creationist debate; immigration reform; and same-sex marriage.

Christians hold widely divergent views on these “hot-button” issues. One of the most important results of my in-depth conversation with Christians who situate themselves at opposite poles on these issues was to dispel a very prevalent, pernicious myth.

The myth is that Christians who line-up on a particular side of the issue are “inferior” Christians who are more committed to a social or political position than to biblical authority. That is simply not true as a generalization. In my conversations, I have found that there are equally committed Christians on both sides of these issues who aspire to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ and who hold a “high” view” of Scripture, with much of the disagreement emerging from differing interpretations as to the meaning of relevant biblical passages.

This erroneous myth is destructive because it precludes the possibility of having respectful conversation about disagreements. After all, if you decide up-front that “they are the bad guys,” there is no point in talking: “I have the Truth, you don’t, end of conversation.”

Once you realize that there are faithful, deeply committed Christians on both sides of these issues, you have taken the first foundational step toward having a respectful conversation about your disagreements. How should you then proceed? I will suggest three practical steps that you can take when engaging someone who disagrees with you (on any issue, in any setting).

Steps toward Respectful Conversation

The first step toward facilitating a respectful conversation about a controversial issue is applicable in those situations where you don’t know very well the person who takes an opposing view. In such cases, take the time to really get to know the person who disagrees with you.

A Christian scholar friend of mine told me about an evolution in his response to his critics during Q& A sessions after making presentations at academic conferences. He moved from being defensive to personal engagement. After one presentation, he sought out his most vocal critic and invited him to dinner. Over a good meal, they got to know one another on a personal level, trading outlandish war stories about campus politics at their respective schools and even exchanging soccer coaching tips for their daughters.

By discovering that they had some of the same joys, fears and challenges in life, they started building a relationship of mutual trust, which opened the door for the second step of engagement: uncovering the reasons for your disagreements about certain issues. Even for persons you think you know well, you don’t know them well enough to sustain a respectful conversation until you adequately understand the reasons they have for their beliefs about a given issue.

Everyone has reasons for what they believe, which includes you and the person who disagrees with you. Therefore, it is important to get those reasons out on the table at the very beginning of a conversation. You can do this by simply asking, “Why do you believe that?”

In settings where you are engaging a person whose background differs widely from yours, her reasons may be revealing and helpful as you seek to understand her better. Her interpretations of relevant biblical passages and her other beliefs will be informed by the particular faith tradition in which she is immersed. Her beliefs will also be informed by her personal biography, the experiences she has had in life. Her beliefs may also be informed by her gender and her socio-economic-status. These elements of what scholars call her “particularities” or her “social location” provide some of the reasons for her beliefs. The same is true for you. You need to uncover those reasons or your conversation will hit a dead end.

To uncover the reasons for the other person’s beliefs, you need to listen well; not being quick to talk. By your listening well, the other person will see that you are really interested in understanding their reasons for the position they are taking; you really want to understand their point of view, trying your best to empathetically “put yourself in their shoes.”

When the other person sees that you understand their reasons for the position they are taking, then it is time for you to start talking, sharing your beliefs and the reasons you have for your beliefs. When your respective reasons for your differing beliefs are out on the table, then you have laid the groundwork needed to navigate the third step of engagement: uncovering some common ground and illuminating remaining differences sufficient to be the basis for ongoing conversations.


Heie_2014_01_24_09_00_11_optHarold Heie is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Faith and Inquiry at Gordon College and at The Colossian Forum. His web site, www.respectfulconversation.net, is devoted to encouraging and modeling respectful conversations concerning contentious issues about which Christians disagree. His publications include Learning to Listen: Ready to Talk (iUniverse, 2007); Mutual Treasure: Seeking Better Ways for Christians and Culture to Converse (Cascadia, 2009); Evangelicals on Public Policy Issues: Sustaining a Respectful Political Conversation (Abilene Christian University Press, 2014); and A Future for American Evangelicalism: Commitment, Openness and Conversation (Wipf & Stock, forthcoming 2015).


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