Why Can’t Christians Cope With Disagreement?

Why Can’t Christians Cope With Disagreement? October 22, 2015

livingliminalby Living Liminal cross posted from her blog Living Liminal

A few weeks ago I wrote a post entitled Why Can’t Churches Deal With Disagreement? I was discussing the fact that most of my experience with that particular institution has encompassed an enforced conformity to a single viewpoint (usually that of the leader/s) and a lack of willingness to have the difficult conversations which are needed for real unity to occur.

Yesterday, I had an experience which left me wondering (yet again) why it is that individual christians also fail so miserably at this necessary skill.

I had read an article suggesting ways in which christians fail to represent Jesus to the world, and I was engaged in an online discussion regarding it. In the midst of this, one woman had mis-quoted what was written in the author’s bio as proof of his heretical tendencies. Knowing how easy it can be to read into the words of those with whom we disagree, I suggested she might have mis-read the original words, as the real quote spoke of something quite different. She quickly replied that she hadn’t been referring to his bio at all, but another article entirely. When I quoted her words back to her – words which clearly indicated she had been referring to the author’s bio – she became extremely agitated. I was accused of being passive-agressive and questioned about the validity of my faith. She then deleted not just her comments, but her entire profile as well.

Apart from the lack of honesty and integrity on this woman’s part, her unwillingness to accept that I could legitimately agree with the author’s article was stunning. She and another commenter seemed to think that if they only used enough words, I’d see the error of my ways and repent. Failing that, I’d need to provide concrete evidence, with plenty of biblical referencing, to show to their satisfaction that I was not just being bloody-minded. And even then I’d still be wrong!

Unfortunately, the inability of many christians to accept that anyone could legitimately hold a differing view to theirs is all too common. Common, too, are the displays of anger and the nasty belittling of the person they happily accuse of ‘heresy’. It got me thinking about what it is that makes christians prone to display such unloving and ungracious behaviour.

And it occurred to me that the whole institutional church system all but guarantees this outcome. The message we are sold is that only we have the “truth”, and that it is our holy duty to set everyone else straight – creating an incredibly arrogant attitude towards those outside our own little sect. On top of that we are trained to be passive receptacles of the preacher’s wisdom – teaching us that thinking for ourselves is a dangerous pursuit. Questioning the dogma, or the one who preaches it, will quickly land you in serious trouble!

So we are left with thousands upon thousands of christians who are too arrogant to entertain the validity of any differing perspective, and too conditioned to question the dogma or to think for themselves. Naturally enough, when anyone who claims to follow Jesus but who fails to conform to the approved ‘truth’ comes on the scene, the only option open is to react in fear and anger.

The more convinced we are of our own correctness, the more tightly we hold to our own perspective. If I am certain that I am correct, then your differing view must inevitably be wrong! My superior understanding trumps yours… every time.

On the other hand, the more open we are to understand that our perspective might be simply one of many (or might even be wrong!) the likelier we are to welcome the input of others, and even benefit from their way of seeing things.

Why do we christians live in constant fear of heresy or error? Why do we insist on a standardised ‘faith’, refusing to engage with or validate the views of others? For myself, I trust in a God who is big enough to guide us and keep us safe in our faith journey.

Yet it seems we cling to our own pet dogmas like a life raft on a stormy sea, fearful of anything outside that space, and so we fail to be enriched by the wisdom others have to share – and God forbid that wisdom might come from a source outside our own religious enclave! It seems we’d rather destroy relationship and treat others as worthless than give up our own arrogant ignorance.

Maybe it’s time we stopped shoving our ‘truth’ down people’s necks and actually listened to what other people are seeing. Maybe it’s time we started treating others (and their understandings) with the love and respect that Jesus modelled for all of us!

Living Liminal lives in Australia with her husband and three sons, and she is learning to thrive in the liminal space her life has become. She writes at Living Liminal. 

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  • gimpi1

    I have to agree with this. In discussions with some Christians, I’ve sort of hit a wall where they cite, “Inspiration of (or by) the Holy Spirit” that “tells them” that they’re right about pretty much everything from the interpretation of a specific Scripture to what to do about foreign policy or the national debt. The whole idea of needing objective, independently verifiable proof for something someone is calling a fact just isn’t there, and I don’t know how to talk to someone like that.

    In many ways, some conservative Christians seem to have moved into an alternate universe where it’s “enslavement” to help people afford health care, but not to force them to work, where gay-rights organizations have more power in society than the Christian church, where our current president is an atheist Muslim communist socialist weakling tyrant (and where some of those things are not mutually exclusive of the others) and where scientific proof is an “opinion” but their personal beliefs are “facts.” That universe has a different language, and I don’t think we can translate it.

  • Abigail Smith

    “The more convinced we are of our own correctness, the more tightly we hold to our own perspective. If I am certain that I am correct, then your differing view must inevitably be wrong! My superior understanding trumps yours… every time.” So true….which is just an excuse to hate others….BTDT and I feel so sorry about it- but at least I see it now….it has become part of the christian culture to feel /act superior….I realized earlier this year that my mother is a Narcissist, and she has always been the same exact way….so to see this as part of a “christian” movement is sickening to me. It really has nothing to do with Christ. He never forced Himself on anyone….

  • Abigail Smith

    So sorry that you have been the recipient of that…For me, actually here on NLQ has been the first place I’ve felt to “safe” to share my opinions without getting slammed rudely for being wrong….I had to stop going on christian blogs because of that haughty attitude…and bickering. The way I have learned to characterize how the thinking goes is like this “I am a christian (at least I call myself one) so therefore whatever I do/think/say/believe is obviously christian”. I remember many years ago hearing someone say “God is not a republican” and I was like “oh yeah”. But we had been in a baptist church that was preaching politics from the pulpit and telling us how to vote. It was very freeing to me to walk away.

  • Abigail Smith

    Same here….I had to go no contact with my parents, who were the worst at that, using “religion” and their opinion of it as the end of any and every discussion. When I told my mother (via email because it was too painful to talk to her on the phone) that I had PTSD from childhood trauma from her abuse, she never responded at all, and then she told my sisters that “she prayed every single day, and ‘God told her’ she had done nothing wrong, so she couldn’t understand what my problem was”.

  • gimpi1

    One of the classic “warning signs” that I have heard of is that if you find God agrees with you on everything, you are most likely not talking to God, you are talking to yourself. I would expand that to, “If the people around you tell you you have hurt them, but you hear God tells you you’ve done nothing wrong, you are probably hearing from yourself.”

  • Melody

    I still have problems with this myself though…. I think that for me, it is also about failing. Not just about wanting to be right, but also about the thought of being wrong being very terrifying and absolutely horrible. So, when you realize you may be wrong, it can become hard to admit that… and you may shut down instead.

    Questioning my religion was quite hard because of this, because I had to open myself up to the possiblity that I had potentially been wrong all this time. That part was hard but at the same time it gave me some permission to be wrong: I had never felt that it was OK to be wrong sometimes or to be unsure about things before. I guess so many people that I know pretend like they know everything the whole time and so saying “I don’t know” is perceived as a weakness rather than as humilility or simply the truth.

    Another thing that plays into this, I think, is whether or not you perceive something as a fact or an opinion. If someone sees a particular statement as an opinion, it is far easier to say: “oh well, that’s your opinion, this is mine, let’s agree to disagree,” than when they see their statement as an actual fact. When it comes to religious discussions, it is easy to get these two mixed up. To take, for instance, baptism: there’s two well-known flavors of them: infant or adult/believer’s baptism. Are these two opinions that Christians can differ on or is one of them factually right and the other, therefore, factually or Biblically wrong? If someone believes the latter, it will make it a lot harder for them to agree to disagree because the other party is considered to be entirely wrong.

  • Abigail Smith

    Brilliant! I’m going to tell my sisters that one. They’ll love it 🙂

  • Friend

    As a teen, I was very active in a mainline church where a small faction succeeded in driving out the head pastor, an absolutely lovely man with a fine intellect and time for every last one of us. I still don’t know the faction’s beef with the guy, but they liked his extroverted predecessor, and could not accept a quieter, more introspective replacement. Oh, and God had told them to join our church after they made a wrong turn one Sunday morning.

    So I grew up learning about the horrors of schism, and I was determined never, ever to cause a church schism. Unfortunately and predictably, I became one of those “nice” people sitting quietly while bullies say mean, angry things.

    I had two reasons to put up with that sh*t: 1) don’t cause schism, and 2) holy crap, those people are terrifying! Just say “psychology” or “Darwin” and they’ll rip you to pieces!

    It’s enormously hard for me to speak up, but I truly believe it’s my job. Belonging to my current–fairly healthy–church is a rare privilege for me. In exchange for that privilege, I do indeed point out problems. And I get away with it, yippee!

  • BondGurl7

    I agree this is a problem in the church. But I think it extends outside of the church. I have heard many people who preach tolerance for their choices, turn around and try and force their opinions and choices on those who don’t agree with them, displaying the same lack of tolerance they want shown to them.

  • Julia Childress

    My mother exhibited classic narcissistic characteristics and had other mental issues as well. Despite the fact that she was a wonderful mother to us as small children (creative, funny, very spontaneous), she wreaked havoc with all of our psyches – selfish beyond belief, talked endlessly about herself and what a wonderful Christian she was, manipulative, and emotionally cruel. She was also obsessed with religion. Only toward the end of her life, did I put the truth together. Now I can see that she suffered from an inherited mental illness, coupled with enormous tragedy that she suffered beginning when she was eight years old. That realization didn’t change the fact that it was nearly impossible to forgive her, but it did help me to refocus my energy from trying reason with her and gain her love and approval, to trying to make peace with the fact that we, her children, were not the problem and we couldn’t change her. She was so fragile on the inside that she had constructed an impenetrable wall, complete with embedded weapons, in order to keep us out. Your mother may never be able to accept responsibility for harming her children, but it is not your fault. I have found it helpful for the siblings to engage in some “talk therapy” with each other. We were all so surprised to find that we shared a lot of feelings in common, but had never voiced them to anyone.

  • Abigail Smith

    Thank you for your input, Julia. Talking to my sisters has been such a key to healing…before this February when I finally broached the subject with them, none of us said anything because we each thought we were the only one suffering….they were so relieved to find they were not crazy, and neither was I. It’s a more common problem, and I am finding even more common when someone uses the church to hide behind….

  • Friend

    Going beyond upvoting to thank everyone for such thoughtful comments, and to thank Living Liminal for the original post. And as always, I’m grateful to Vyckie and Suzanne for creating this oasis.

  • B.A.

    The ones I know who can’t handle disagreement play the persecution card.

  • Me too! 🙂

  • Nea

    The realization that I and everyone around me was just listening to the voice of our own ego is what made me an atheist.