How to Master the Art of Disagreement - in the Church and on Social Media

Author: Bobby Jamieson
October 28, 2020

Let’s say you’re in a conversation with fellow church member about an issue you disagree over. How environmental ethics play into what foods you choose to eat. How a president’s ability to nominate Supreme Court justices factors into your vote. How you’re choosing to educate your children this fall.

How should you conduct yourself in that conversation? What should you be weighing before, during, and after?

Here are eight questions to consider.

1. How important is the issue?

 

In Romans 14, Paul addresses some who were convinced old-covenant food laws still bind believers, and some who were convinced they don’t. Paul himself had a stance on the issue, as we’ll see. But one of his key aims was to help both sides see that far more important matters were at stake.

Paul challenged both parties to consider what was most important, and to frame their conversation and conduct in a way that fit with and followed from that.

So ask yourself: How important is this issue? How important is it relative to the gospel? In the way I communicate about this third-tier issue, am I leaving daylight between its importance and the gospel’s importance? Am I speaking about this matter in a way that makes it plain to everyone that I know the gospel is more important?

2. How sure am I of my position?

 

How confident are you that you’re right? What evidence is your judgment based on? How much of that evidence is in the Bible, and how much is outside the Bible? How comprehensive is your assessment of the evidence? How many people who have studied the evidence as much or more than you have reached the opposite conclusions?

Are you as confident of your position on, say, single-issue voting as you are of the doctrine of the Trinity? Are you as confident in your stance on U.S. foreign policy as you are in justification by faith alone? Are you as confident about the necessary means for righting racial injustices as you are about the exclusivity of Christ?

The first step is recognizing you likely do have differing levels of certainty about different convictions you hold. Some are more likely to be proved wrong than others, and you’re more likely to change your mind about some than about others. Again, how you speak about those more disputable issues should make it plain that you’re less certain of your stance on them than you are of the good news of Christ.

3. Can reasonable Christians disagree?

 

Asking this helps to lower the stakes. It means we can recognize each other not only as brothers and sisters, but as brothers and sisters with properly functioning rational faculties—even if at the end of the conversation we still disagree.

Can you readily understand how someone who trusts in Christ, walks in holiness, and is self-consciously striving to submit to the authority of Scripture could become convinced of a different position than you hold on whether infants should be baptized or only believers? I can.

Now, that’s a second-level, not a third-level, issue, since we need to agree about who should be baptized, and what counts as baptism, in order to form a local church. But my point is this: how large is your store of intellectual sympathy? Can you put down the megaphone long enough to hop into someone else’s point of view and take a long, slow look around from the inside?

4. Can we disagree and be members of the same church?

 

Christians need to agree on two things to form a church––gospel doctrine and gospel polity. Nearly every part of a healthy statement of faith will fit pretty well into one of those two categories. Similarly, a useful church covenant should distill essential ethical obligations to Christ and one another. Why does this matter? Because any unrepentant sin, or unrepentant theological error, for which a church would in principle remove a member should be traceable, at least by implication, to the violation of something in its statement of faith and church covenant.

Beyond those two categories lie vast mountain ranges of theological positions, political convictions, practical preferences, and much more.

So, what can you disagree about and still remain members of the same church? The more items you are able to place in that category, the easier it is to promote and preserve unity.

Here’s another way to put the question: “Can I contentedly remain a member of this church, where other members disagree with me about this issue?”

5. Am I prizing the argument above the person?

 

To win the argument but lose the person is easy. It also torpedoes unity. To do so is to lose far more than you think you’ve gained.

What does it profit a man to score all the rhetorical points in the world but estrange his brother’s soul? And what will a woman give in exchange for her sister’s diminished affection?

The book of Proverbs is filled with counsel about how to frame your words to fit the need of both the moment and the state of the person you’re addressing:

“To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!” (Prov. 15:23).

“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Prov. 25:11).

“With patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue will break a bone” (Prov. 25:15).

Your voice only reaches so far. Your social-media account only has so many followers. Your dialogue partner only has so much patience. But the truth has many more resources at its disposal besides you. Let the other person get the last word. Find their threshold and stop well short of it.

You may not win the argument, but you might plant seeds of truth that your friendship can water. If a friendship is going to die, don’t be the one to kill it. Live to love another day.

6. Am I prizing the issue above the unity of the church?

 

Sometimes a silence is eloquent or even deafening. Sherlock Holmes famously noticed the dog that didn’t bark. If the dog didn’t bark, it must have known the person who crept through the yard in the middle of the night! And so the mystery was solved.

I think Romans 14–15 contains one of the most eloquent silences in all of Scripture. Those chapters address whether ceremonial laws from the old covenant, such as food regulations, are binding on new-covenant believers. Now, Paul has a position on the issue: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean” (Rom. 14:14).

So there’s Paul’s position, but here’s the silence: in a discussion that takes a chapter and a half, he offers not a single argument in support of his position! Zero words seeking to persuade those who disagree. He wants to help Christians with differently calibrated consciences live in harmony. His aim is not polemical persuasion but pastoral peacemaking.

Like Paul, prize the church’s unity above every single one of your pet issues. Like Paul, help other Christians love through disagreement. Like Paul, make space in your affections for Christians who disagree with you, and who keep disagreeing with you.

7. Is this the right time and place for this conversation?

 

Here I’ll focus on just one application: social media.

Consider Ephesians 4:29: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” This is a one-sentence summary of biblical communication. It teaches us to say the right words in the right way at the right time for the right reasons.

It is exceedingly difficult to fulfill Ephesians 4:29 on social media, since social media isn’t a neutral field of communication. It is a slope that tilts steeply toward conflict. Why is it so hard to fulfill Ephesians 4:29 on social media? Here, briefly, are four factors.

(a) Social media has an “online disinhibition effect.”
Online, you say things––and say them far more severely––that you ever would face-to-face. All sorts of normal caution and reserve and sensitivity and sympathy go out the window when you’re talking to a box on a screen rather than a flesh-and-blood human being.

(b) Social media lacks “gradients of intimacy.”
Often you don’t know who you’re talking to or who is listening in. You have little control over who hears and responds. Ephesians 4:29 urges us to speak “as fits the occasion,” but on social media there is no occasion. Posting can be like shooting off fireworks in a crowd. You might not intend to set anyone on fire, but there’s a decent chance somebody will be ignited by one of your projectiles.

You speak differently in a room with 100 people than you do with a friend, one-to-one, in your living room. It can be easy to treat social media like it’s a living room, when in reality it’s more like a shapeshifting mob, clustering around whoever has the loudest megaphone.

(c) Social media is full of unknown unknowns.
If we’re out for coffee and I say something you’re skeptical of, or maybe even offended by, I get a bit of real-time feedback. Even if you were wearing a mask, I could glimpse your response.

But on social media, you are largely ignorant of who sees what you say, who disagrees with what you say, and who is offended or affronted by what you say. You could be smashing china all over the place without ever hearing the shattering or stepping on the shards. You could be spending down capital with others without any clue that’s happening. A friendship could be losing altitude rapidly, heading toward a crash, and you won’t know till it’s too late.

(d) Social media tempts you to adopt the role of a teacher without having the training or submitting to the accountability.
In other words, social media gives everyone a megaphone. More traditional media—say, sermons or classroom lectures or books or magazines or newspapers—pass through quality-control gatekeepers. Elders and a congregation vet a pastor. A principal or dean interviews a potential teacher. Editors and fact-checkers comb over a reporter’s piece before it goes to print. But on social media, all you have to do is answer that free, constantly beckoning invitation, What’s on your mind, Bobby?

Social media, then, tempts us to disregard two of James’s most sobering warnings:

“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19–20).

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body” (James 3:1–2).

So before you hit “post,” ask: is this the right time and place for this conversation?

8. How can I disagree in such a way that we leave more unified, not less?

 

Are you a delight to disagree with? That might sound like an oxymoron. But I can think of more than one person I know well whom it is a positive pleasure to disagree with.

Why? Because they are so gentle and gracious, so charitable and kind, that the disagreement only showcases the depth of their love for you, and the depth of their commitment to the Christ we both confess.

C. S. Lewis was famous for being easy to disagree with. One former student of his, George Watson, said this of him decades after his death:

The best teacher I ever had, and the best colleague, he did not ask or expect me to share his convictions. . . . His manner might be described as politely merciless. . . . His twin passions by then, apart from literature itself, were people and arguments, but he did not often make the mistake of confusing them. . . . He had vigor without venom; he was generous. . . . If I were ever to be asked what I learned from him, that would be my reply: the art of disagreement.

 May God teach us this art.

Bobby Jamieson is an associate pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. He is the author, most recently, of Jesus’ Death and Heavenly Offering in Hebrews(Cambridge University Press). This article was found here at gospelcoalition.org. 


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