An atheist friend once remarked to me in passing that it must be nice to be a Christian, since hanging out with other Christians must mean that we never fought since we were “all about love and peace and all that stuff.”
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After he left, and when I had finished wiping away the tears from my extended laughing fit, the offhand comment certainly gave me a lot to think about. Years later, I still think about it all the time.
Because in theory, my friend should be right. Christians should be really good at navigating disagreement, since we are, indeed, supposed to be “all about love and peace and all that stuff.”
Experience and social media and many preachers seem to demonstrate that we might not be as good at this as we should be.
And goodness knows, disagreement is a part of life, and Christians are not immune to it. Any time that we are in relationship with other people, in any context, there are bound to be times when we don’t see eye-to-eye.
Then you throw in something crucial to our faith, like how we interpret Scripture, or what is a proper theological position on an issue, or what is the right way to approach challenging issues that face the Church today, and it brings a whole other level of ways in which we might disagree, with a whole other level of passion to the disagreement, because we all think we are right, and we all believe we are doing it “for God.”
But if those who would call themselves followers of Jesus find themselves in a debate or disagreement, and are acting just as dismissive, cruel, accusatory, inflammatory, etc., as anyone else on earth, then we by definition have failed in our calling to be “holy” – to be set apart, to be different than the norm, to be “other.”
We need to argue sometimes. It’s an important way that we figure things out. But we need to do so in a way that is different than how our natural instincts or cultural powers might pull. We need to argue in a way that is holy.
So here are a few thoughts as to what should mark Christians are holy arguers:
- Christians are excellent listeners. In a debate, the natural tendency is to focus primarily on what I need to say and how I need to be heard. But James tells us, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires,” (Jam 1.19-20). It is so easy to reverse this biblical command: to lay aside listening, and to quickly speak and quickly get angry. But we are called to listen first, and listen carefully, thoughtfully, prayerfully to the other, and actually take it in. We don’t need to agree with it, but we do need to truly make room for hearing it.
- Christians disagree gently. Gentleness is not weakness, and it is not a lack of conviction; rather, it is evidence of the sacred Holy Spirit at work in a person’s life (Gal 5.23). We are commanded, “Let your gentleness be evident to all.” (Phil 4.5). Our lives should be evidenced by gentleness, and “all” around us should be able to see it. When disagreeing, perhaps it is never more important to measure our words and actions carefully and ensure that, even in disagreement, our tone is gentle and not combative, insulting, or inflammatory.
- Christians treat their opponent with dignity and respect. We are to love even our enemies (Mt 5.43-48). But when we’re mad, it’s easy to attack. In my ministry I’ve been called a twister of Scripture, a manipulator, a liar, a coward, a tool of the forces of this world, and a blasphemer – and that’s all just in the last six months. (To be fair, the pandemic has heightened a lot of emotions!) When we are passionate about our disagreement, it is easy to personally attack and slander the people on the other side. Politicians are masterful at it; Christians may not be much different. But whoever that person is on the other side, they are a human being, created by God in His image, and because of that are intrinsically worthy of dignity and respect. Again, the wisdom of James says, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be,” (Jam 3.9-10). We uphold respect for the person, even if we think their opinion is wrong. We argue about the issue, and we leave out name-calling, personal character attacks, insinuations, etc. We are better than that.
- Christians remember who the real enemy is. Paul writes, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms,” (Eph 6.12). Although we engage with people, our real fight is always against the enemy of our souls, and not flesh-and-blood people. This means that even if I feel my opponent is full-on deceived by demonic forces, it calls me to fasting, to prayer, to spiritual warfare against those forces, so that my precious brother or sister might be set free – my primary battle is against the enemy of our souls, not the person I’m debating. If we’re going to demonize somebody, let it be the actual demons, and not the image-bearers of God we are disagreeing with.
- Christians treat the opposing argument itself with integrity and charity. This is very difficult to do. Scripture tells us, “Each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body,” (Eph 4.25) As it relates to debate and disagreement, this means that we must be honest about our own side of the argument, not exaggerating it, and being truthful about its weaknesses. But it also means that we are gracious with the opposing argument, perhaps not agreeing with it but also not exaggerating it, and presenting it in its most charitable form, not twisting it into its most uncharitable or ridiculous. Oh, the number of times I’ve heard Christians say things like, “Of course you take that opposing theological position. You don’t respect Scripture!” Tim Keller says that if we are framing the opposing argument into a form that our opponent wouldn’t affirm, then we are doing it wrong. Disagreement can easily lead us to throw out our commitment to speaking truth and cause us to speak untruthfully about the other side, turning opposing arguments into “straw man” positions, thinking that we are strengthening our own argument, when actually we are losing our integrity.
- Christians remember the big picture. On the issue of disagreement of disputable matters, Paul writes that, in the name of our personal conviction on a matter, we are most certainly not to “destroy someone for whom Christ died,” (Rom 14.15). If the way we are arguing is harming another Christ-follower, then we are doing this wrong.
- Christians love. Perhaps the most obvious thing in the world, and the thing that my atheist friend assumed in how Christians were treating one another. 1st Corinthians 13 is still the right guide and gut-check – we are to be patient, kind, not dishonouring others, not proud or self-seeking, keeping no record of wrongs, etc. Love sometimes does need to have tough conversations, to call something out, to speak a hard truth. But it must be done in a way consistent with the nature of love as laid out in Scripture.
There is more that could be said, for certain. But here is some food for thought!
Let us disagree, by all means. But let us do so as Christians.
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