How To Disagree Without Becoming Disagreeable
by BJ Rudge, Ph.D.
Disagreements are unavoidable
From teaching a college course on ethics for several years, I have learned that disagreements are part of being human. I tell my students that while it is OK to disagree, they must do this without becoming disagreeable. I lay out guidelines on how to appropriately do this within the controversial world of ethics.
Disagreements will occur among brothers and sisters in Christ
The reality of disagreement is not just left to a classroom discussion on ethics, it is a part of everyday living that even impacts the church. The apostle Paul acknowledged this when he wrote his first epistle to the church at Corinth to address conflicts amongst members of this church:
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling [disagreements] among you, my brothers (1 Corinthians 1:10, 11).
The apostle Paul goes on to state later in this epistle that God allows disagreements in the church so that over time it will reveal those who truly belong to Him, “… for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (1 Corinthians 11:19).
Biblical Principles of Resolving Disagreements
Since we cannot avoid disagreements, how can we as Christians disagree without becoming disagreeable? Just as I do for my students, God’s Word provides us with guidelines.
1. Avoid arguing and judging others over non-essentials.
An issue of contention in the early church was whether or not people could eat meat that was sacrificed to idols. While this makes no sense to most of us today, it was an important issue back then. In response to how Christians should approach this issue, Paul makes the following statement:
As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him (Romans 14:1-3).
In this passage, Paul wants us to recognize that we should not allow disunity to occur within the body of Christ over non-essential issues. Matters that are not clearly laid out in Scripture, should never cause us to despise each other (Romans 14:10), as one day each of us will give an account to God who is the ultimate judge (Romans 14:12).
2. We should follow the appropriate steps of resolution/reconciliation.
When someone says or does something that offends or hurts us, we often react rather than respond. This reaction can often come in a direct way where we openly attack their character or motives, or indirectly where we allow anger and bitterness towards them to fester inside our hearts. In contrast, we need to respond biblically when another brother and sister hurts us. Consider these words by Jesus:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother (Matthew 18:15).
In other words, the first step to take in dealing with a disagreement is to talk with the other person privately. Face to face is how we biblically deal with disagreements, not talking behind each other’s back or posting comments on social media. Jesus then provides additional steps if the issue cannot be resolved on a personal level, and if it is an essential issue that needs to be addressed to maintain the spiritual health of the body of Christ.
If a brother or sister takes the biblical step to seek true restoration with you, keep in mind Peter’s conversation with Jesus:
Then Peter came up and said to Him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21, 22).
3. We should demonstrate a genuine love towards each other.
In the book of Ephesians, the apostle Paul gave thanks because he had heard of their faith in the Lord Jesus and their love for each other. The Greek word for love in this passage describes a deep affection that they possessed. Paul rejoiced because this love was an outward sign of their inner faith in Jesus Christ. A confirmation that the Apostle John said should be evident in any true believer:
If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him: whoever loves God must also love his brother (1 John 4:20, 21).
The essence of a love for each other is not only a personal indicator that confirms our own salvation, it is also an indicator to the world that you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. In the words of Jesus:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34, 35).
A love for each other is the most powerful way we can live out our faith, especially as we deal with disagreements.
4. Our ultimate desire should be God’s glory.
Often times when we get in a disagreement, we find ourselves driven by a desire to prove ourselves right and the other person wrong. While there are times when we must stand for what is right and true, we should never be driven by the sole desire to always prove we are right. Rather, our ultimate desire in whatever we do should be for God’s name to be glorified. Jesus demonstrated this attitude as He prepared to go to the cross:
Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me. Nevertheless, not My will, but Yours, be done (Luke 22:42).
As Paul sat in prison awaiting his eventual fate, he also yearned for God to be glorified:
As it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death (Philippians 1:20).
We must also possess this same desire for God’s’ glory. Even if this means losing an argument or dealing with some form of injustice, may we say like Jesus, “Not My will but Your will be done”, and like Paul may “Christ be honored.”
Challenge for us Today
Just as in the early church, this pandemic has shown that as believers we still disagree over issues. The only difference is instead of disagreeing about eating meat sacrificed to idols, we now disagree about the role of government and how to appropriately exercise our freedoms. As we navigate this, the world is watching our response. So, while they may see us disagree in our response to this pandemic, may they not see us being disagreeable. May we show them that we are people who do not divide over non-essentials (should I wear a mask or not, should we close our church doors or not…), and who do not slander and gossip about each other on social media. Instead, we express genuine love for each other, and desire to see God glorified in our actions.
When I was a high school soccer coach, we took on the redwood tree as our logo. It was a reminder to us of the power of being connected as one. Despite its height, redwood trees have a shallow root system. But what makes them strong is their roots spread out and interconnect with the root system of other redwood trees. Thus, when the wind blows it does not blow against one lonely tree, but against a whole forest. This is what Christian brothers and sisters should represent to the world, a unified body that is interconnected by the person of Jesus Christ.
If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together (1 Corinthians 12:26).