Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, this pandemic has become polarizing and served to plough more fertile ground for intense disagreement. Disagreement, even among Christians, will always be present on earth until Christ returns, so we must learn to disagree well. Therefore, I will offer a few biblical principles for how to enter into disagreement in a Christlike manner. I do not pretend to do this well all the time, but these principles are what I attempt to follow as best I can.
1. Aim for God’s Glory.
Paul clearly commands, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). Surely “whatever” includes engaging in disagreements. You are not fit to engage someone you disagree with until your engagement is aimed at God’s glory, reflecting his character, honoring his name, and displaying his worth. Enter the fray to exalt Christ, not to pummel your opponent. Of course, your motives will never be pure, but you should strive as best you can to make this your chief end in your debates and discussions.
2. Aim for the Good of the One with Whom You Disagree.
God’s commitment to his glory is simultaneously his commitment to the good of his people. Your commitment to God’s glory should likewise be your commitment to the good of others. Knowing and living according to the truth is always better than believing and living a lie, so your desire to uphold the truth should likewise be your desire to draw others into the truth for their good. When Paul commands Timothy to “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:3), he says, “The aim of our charge is love” (v. 5). Likewise, when Paul tells Timothy to correct his opponents (2 Tim. 2:24), the hope in doing so is that God might grant some of them repentance (v. 25). So, do not enter the fray to kill your opponent but to lead him into life. Do you want to win the argument or the person? That is an important question to ask yourself when you prepare to engage in disagreement.
The rest of these principles build upon the foundation of the first two.
3. Engage with Humility.
If you are aiming for God’s glory and your opponent’s good, then you are not looking to elevate yourself. This means you are not attempting to show off how smart you are, and your needs or reputation are not first in your heart. This also means you are not avoiding disagreement to protect yourself. For engaging in disagreement often opens you up to ridicule and scorn; it means others will think you are foolish, and may even say so! You have to be willing to look like a fool because you care more about honoring God, upholding the truth, and serving others than you do about your own reputation. So Paul tells the Philippians, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3–4). Humility not only affects how you speak, but it impacts whether you speak. Sometimes we think being humble means being quiet, but that is not the case. Pride may lead you to engage in a controversy, but pride can also keep you from engaging in a controversy, because you do not want others to think less of you, be angry with you, or mock you. So, as you decide whether to engage in a disagreement or not, ask yourself who you are counting the most significant: you or the one you disagree with? Are you engaging because your pride is hurt? Are you not engaging because you don’t want others to think less of you? Is it about you or about them?
4. Correct with Gentleness and Kindness.
Paul is clear, “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Tim. 2:24–25a). Some people love to quarrel. Some people love to make others look and sound bad. Those people should not engage in disagreements until their heart changes. Kindness and gentleness are not optional. Those who have the Holy Spirit always bear the fruit of kindness and gentleness. Jesus never ceased to be gentle. This is essential to promote the good of the other, for as the proverb says, “A soft [gentle] answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1). Your lack of civility will become a barrier to the truth. The truth may offend (so be it!), but your manner ought not to be offensive.
However, let me clarify that gentleness is not soft-pedaling. Gentleness is aiming for the healing and restoration of the other, but sometimes that requires breaking first. Think of God. “For he wounds, but he binds up; he shatters, but his hands heal” (Job. 5:18). “Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up” (Hos. 6:1). Jesus spoke harsh words and turned over tables. Paul did not tread lightly with the Galatians and those deceiving them. The surgeon is perhaps the most gentle with his patient as he cuts. So, gentleness is not about severity but aim. Is your aim to build or destroy? For sometimes severity is necessary to build. If another structure is in place (false beliefs, stubbornness, pride, etc.), demolition is the first step.
5. Affirm What You Can Affirm.
This goes along with being gentle and kind. Disarm your opponent with affirmations whenever you can. It helps show you are for them and not against them. It proves you are not just trying to be negative. Affirming where you can will help the person be more open to where you need to correct. This is especially true when you are disagreeing with other Christians. You may disagree on certain points, but you are not enemies. Think of Paul and how he deals with the Corinthians. He has a lot to correct, but he still begins his letters by affirming their salvation and his love for them. He tells them what they do well even as he tells them where they are messing up. Of course, this means you need to actively work to see the good in others, and you must always give the benefit of the doubt. This means you must also accurately understand and represent the opposing position. It does not help anyone to argue against what the other doesn’t actually believe, or to build straw men for the sake of knocking them down.
6. Expose Evil with Your Works and Words. The fact the Lord tells us not to judge has lead many to believe you can never correct someone or call evil what it is. Clearly that is not the case, for Jesus always called out evil, as did the apostles. Paul tells Timothy to call out false teachers and correct opponents. Paul tells the Ephesians, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Eph. 5:11). Christians must speak and act against evil, otherwise Christians are not honoring God and loving others. God is the judge, but you are a loving voice that warns of the judgment to come so others might escape it.
7. Hate Evil, Be Angry, but Do Not Sin. You must hate evil (God hates evil). You should be angry when you hear lies and see sin (of course, the sin that should anger you the most is your own). You therefore, as I already said, must speak and act against evil and falsehood. But you must never sin as you do. That is why you need to check your heart along the way and make sure you are engaging for the right reasons and in the right way. One of the most practically helpful ways to avoid sinning in anger is taking time (if you can) before you respond. Most of my mistakes have come when I have responded too quickly to those I disagree with. Taking time to deal with unrighteous anger and pride is always wise. It is one way to deal with your own log before you deal with your opponent’s speck. Wait when you can before you engage.
We will never do this perfectly, but we should be the ones showing the rest of the world how to disagree for the glory of God and the good of others.