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How to Handle Disagreement

Written by Zach Cochran on

It seems like people are disagreeing a lot more often lately. Not only are we disagreeing more often, but the temperature of our disagreement is higher than ever. If you scan social media, peruse HOA discussion boards, or converse over a family meal; you will find arguments about a multitude of things. It is stressful and exhausting. Yet, at the same time, it’s enticing.

Arguments can be intoxicating. We often find ourselves attracted to the “argument of the day.” I believe this is a reflection of the increasingly hostile culture we are in—a culture of harsh disagreement that’s uprooting communities in subtle ways by demanding that people choose a side. Often, if you are not on a side, you are in the crossfire. Relationships are fragmented, families are disjointed, and churches are less united because of the ways we disagree with one another. 

Is Disagreement Bad?

To be clear, disagreement isn’t bad. Disagreements are the fruit of convictions, and we must have convictions. Without them, we would have no values upon which to base our lives. 

This is true of our commitment to Christ, as well. There are things we must disagree with—theological and ethical positions that we must uphold—in order to be followers of Jesus. 

Disagreement also isn’t cancellation. “Cancel culture” (or public shaming) is real, but it’s not to be confused with disagreement. Disagreement and the pushback it creates are necessary because people make mistakes and have flawed ideas. I thank God that there were people in American history who pushed back and that there are still people pushing back today.

I long to see Christians who disagree in a way that is substantially different that of the world. God has called us to love, and our love, or lack thereof, is displayed during our disagreements. My hope is to give you a few steps for walking in the way of Jesus through disagreement.

1. Evaluate Your Beliefs

The first thing you need to do to disagree in a godly way is to triage your beliefs. Beliefs fall into three categories:

  1. Absolutes – things clearly taught in Scripture
  2. Convictions – things resulting from the application of Scripture
  3. Preferences – things implied by Scripture 

Many harsh disagreements happen when preferences are treated like absolutes. This is extremely dangerous for Christians because it assigns divine authority and judgment to things the Bible hasn’t spoken clearly about. This can be very harmful and often abusive. 

On the other hand, there are topics the Bible has clearly spoken on that we must uphold. There is no “agree to disagree” on the authority of God’s Word. There is no “agree to disagree” on the worth of unborn children. There is no “agree to disagree” on the value of Black lives. These are things clearly taught in the Bible and every believer should uphold them.

You must be a student of God’s Word. If you aren’t studying and meditating on Scripture, you try to fit your cultural norms into the Bible instead of applying the Bible to your culture. 

If you hold political opinions as absolutes that are not clearly defined in Scripture or if you have ethical issues that are clearly defined in Scripture that you consider to be preferences, then you are not evaluating your beliefs based on God’s Word.

2. Honor Each Other’s Humanity 

When we disagree, we must continue to treat one another with honor and civility. Christian or not, everyone is created in the image of God and is due respect as an image-bearer of God. 

As believers, we are witnesses to the gospel of Jesus even in our disagreements. Often, in our insecurity, we are too easily offended, our emotions escalate, and we say things we don’t mean. In short, we can act uncivilly towards our fellow image-bearers.

I’ve found that people who dishonor humanity are those who are uncomfortable being friends with people who disagree with them. Our wrongness or rightness doesn’t make us more or less human. Honoring each other’s humanity is one of the key ways you can disagree yet maintain a manner of love and respect. 

3. Be Humble &Courageous Enough to Be Wrong 

As you enter conversations of disagreement, you must carry humility and courage. Humility says, “I am not God, and I often get things wrong.” Humility admits that you have faults and blind spots. Courage is needed to admit you were wrong about something you believed.

In the Middle Ages and beyond, the church criminalized people for believing the Earth was round and revolved around the sun. It took the church hundreds of years to understand and admit that they were wrong about their stance on this issue—an issue not specifically prescribed in the Bible.

There are many things we believe to be true that aren’t explicitly prescribed in Scripture, and we need to be willing to admit when we are wrong about them. When we hold things so tightly that we aren’t willing to be wrong, then idolatry often lurks underneath. Both humility and courage are needed to say, “I was wrong.”

4. Listen Charitably 

Listening is a foundational skill in all of life but especially in disagreements. Listening charitably is striving to understand what someone is saying rather than making assumptions or reading into their statements. Charity is a lost art nowadays. I believe one reason is that many disagreements play out on social media with people who do not have a relationship offline. To truly converse, you must be willing to listen to the other person charitably and respectfully.

Some words or phrases can trigger assumptions in the listener. Yet, we should be cautious to not assume based on our prior experience or viewpoint. That is not listening charitably. We should be people of extraordinary grace who choose not to assume things not said.  

5. Love One Another

Jesus tells us that the world will know us by our love. Unfortunately, Christians can be the most unloving people, especially when disagreeing. We write people off, put them in a category, and fill up Facebook comments with harsh words. That is not the way of Jesus. 

Say that a person opposes you in every area: theological, political, social. You might even consider them your enemy. Yes, you can disagree with them. Disagreeing isn’t a sin. Yet, what does Paul say about how to treat your enemies?

If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:18-21).

God calls us to love our enemies. How much more should we love those who are not our “enemies,” but with whom we simply disagree?

Romans 5 tells us Christ died for us when we were still sinners—meaning we were his enemies. We didn’t agree with Jesus, didn’t support him, and weren’t cheering for him. Yet, he loved us. Christians are to be examples of this love to the world. 

Take Time to Reflect

My fear is that, when disagreeing, many Christians come across no differently than non-believers. But by his strength, you and I can shift that narrative and love more graciously.

Ask yourself: Do you handle disagreement in a Godly way? Is your posture God’s posture? Is the way you converse at holidays or on social media the way Jesus would? If not, Jesus invites you, by his grace, into a life of meekness. He is the savior of the stubborn. He doesn’t shame you for the way you disagree, but calls you to a life of joy through repentance and faith. When we allow Jesus to reign over our mind, our mouth, and the finger we type with, then we experience the true freedom of the gospel.

Let’s allow the Spirit of God to warm our hearts, open our ears, and empower us to be the gospel on display during disagreements.

Zach Cochran

Zach received a B.A. focused in Philosophy from the University of Tennessee at Martin and received his M.Div. from Southern Seminary in Louisville. A former pastor at College Park Church, Zach now serves as an associate pastor at Sojourn Church J-Town in Louisville, KY.

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