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When Christians Disagree: Disagreement & the Gospel

Feb 01, 2017 01:42 PM EST
Since the beginning of Christendom, Christians have disagreed. They’ve disagreed about doctrines and politics, social and personal questions, and the list could go on. Our day is no different. Much like iconoclasts defacing artwork in the 1500s, in our disagreements waged on the social feeds of Facebook and Twitter today, we Christians continue to wrestle with the importance of disagreeing well with one another. The following faculty conversation weighs in on this question of disagreement and provides thoughtful insight into the nature of disagreement as part of the Christian life.
Since the beginning of Christendom, Christians have disagreed. They've disagreed about doctrines and politics, social and personal questions, and the list could go on. Our day is no different. Much like iconoclasts defacing artwork in the 1500s, in our disagreements waged on the social feeds of Facebook and Twitter today, we Christians continue to wrestle with the importance of disagreeing well with one another.

Since the beginning of Christendom, Christians have disagreed. They've disagreed about doctrines and politics, social and personal questions, and the list could go on. Our day is no different. Much like iconoclasts defacing artwork in the 1500s, in our disagreements waged on the social feeds of Facebook and Twitter today, we Christians continue to wrestle with the importance of disagreeing well with one another. The following faculty conversation weighs in on this question of disagreement and provides thoughtful insight into the nature of disagreement as part of the Christian life.

In this conversation, you'll hear from Dr. John Wingard (professor of philosophy), Christiana Fitzpatrick (director of global education), and Dr. Tim Morris '83 (professor of biology) from Covenant College in Georgia.

Do We Really Disagree?

Wingard | In logic, we make a distinction between disagreements in belief and disagreements in attitude. You and I may actually agree in belief, but disagree in how we respond to that belief attitudinally. The other distinction is between matters of fact and matters of taste or perspective. I think, many times, because of our locatedness in a particular place and time, we each have different perspectives. Tim [Morris] and I may be viewing the same event from different perspectives, and so will be thinking of different things. And there may not be real disagreement there-it may be that our perspectives are complementary.

Morris | It reminds me of the demarcation problem in the philosophy of science: there's not a clear distinction there, which warrants more discussion to try to figure it out. Maybe we won't agree about what constitutes a preference or a real disagreement, and that's where the real disagreement comes to light. When a disagreement does arise, a main goal should be to try to figure out the roots of that disagreement: where is the fork in the road?

Fitzpatrick | I think that there can also be deep-rooted preferences that our own background has led us to think are ultimate beliefs. Until we're presented with another Christian who really views the world differently, we're not challenged in those areas. So over and over again we just get confirmation that our preferences are correct and are more than preferences-that they are right. Part of what we're trying to do with students is challenge them to read and interact with challenging texts and ideas but also to interact with people who might view the world differently.

Morris | It's all part of a web: preferences are usually attached to something deeper and we can mistake where they fit on the strands of the web. Conversation can help us clarify whether we have a preference difference or a deep disagreement.

...I grow in knowledge and understanding when I converse with people with whom I disagree.
- Dr. John Wingard

Quarreling & Disagreement

Morris | I've been surprised by how much quarreling is discussed in the Old and New Testaments. One thing that hit me was that it's not disagreement, per se, that is usually identified as a problem. It's quarreling that is identified as the problem. But quarreling can tend to make us shy away from disagreements out of fear. Scripture has all kinds of things to say about quarreling and contentious people. I think some of the harshest things in the New Testament are said about people in the church who are contentious and quarrelsome. There are some rich passages about quarreling in 2 Timothy 2. Paul writes, "Warn them before God against quarreling about words. It is of no value and only ruins those who listen."

Fitzpatrick | I think of the passage in James that talks specifically about "what causes quarrels and fights among you"-it's when the desires of your heart are not met. We start to view people as getting in the way of what we want instead of as people.

Morris | Pride seems to be a major theme that the apostles talk about in terms of what's at the root of quarreling-pride and then a lack of trust in God to do His business. There seems to be this urgency, where we think that we need to straighten things out now. If I'm so wrapped up in convincing someone right now, it really reveals my lack of trust that God can do this work.

Quarrels as Clarifying Moments

Morris | When you find yourself in the midst of a quarrel, it can be a clarifying moment. I've been surprised at how strong my reactions are in some quarrels, and those moments provide an opportune time for some introspection-time to drill down and see what's really going on in my head and heart.

Fitzpatrick | We often want to look at the other person and say, "What is going on there?" But it's much rarer to turn that on ourselves and ask, "Why am I reacting in this way? What's at the root?"

Wingard | These episodes are so valuable-for that very reason. It is an invitation to introspection. I'm not always going to be successful in avoiding quarrels because I'm still sinful. But they provide a great opportunity for me to find out what some of my idols are. So we ought to regret these things, but also be thankful to God for surfacing things in our hearts that needed to surface.

Disagreement & the Gospel

Wingard | I think the way we go about disagreeing can either help our witness for the Gospel or hinder it. I think some disagreement among Christians is a good and healthy thing, to be welcomed and not avoided. I'm not talking about quarreling, but about disagreeing when our views on something actually differ.

Morris | Some Christians will shy away from disagreement. But I think, as John [Wingard] is saying, that it's a mistake to run from a disagreement. I think God uses disagreements to refine us. He provides us with opportunities to disagree without quarreling.

Wingard | I've realized that disagreement has been helpful to me in so many ways in the church. I think it can be good for our growth in grace-our sanctification. I also find that I grow in knowledge and understanding when I converse with people with whom I disagree. When that disagreement comes out and we allow it to be expressed and we explore it, I end up growing in knowledge and I think that has been the case in the life of the church from the beginning. If you look at Acts 15 for example, in the Council of Jerusalem, there's a disagreement that has erupted in the church. Because of that disagreement there was growth in knowledge and growth in grace, not just for individuals but for the church-for the body of believers. The great theological advances down through the ages have come through believers wrestling with matters on which they disagree.

Fitzpatrick | I also think about the global work of the gospel and how sometimes disagreement actually allows the work of the gospel to go forward into different areas. I think about Christians around the world who are persecuted for their faith, with whom we might disagree on smaller or even larger details of what we believe. As believers, how are we going to pray for them, support them, and care about policies that impact them?

Morris | That's important when we think about disagreements among Christians before the watching world. Are there ways that, even in the face of disagreement, we can work together?

...we have to allow, in love and charity, that there will be uncomfortable messiness. That’s just how it is when fallen humans get together and try to obey God and serve one another. It’s never going to be comfortable.
- Dr. Tim Morris

Disagreeing in a Facebook World

Fitzpatrick | Sometimes we think of social media as this new place where everything is now public. But throughout the centuries, disagreement has often been a very public thing. Nailing 95 theses to a door in Wittenberg was a pretty public disagreement that was meant to create public conversation. One thing that social media has done is democratize opinion. There are good things about that—we hear voices that we previously have not heard from, like members of the persecuted church or those who have been historically oppressed. But we’re hearing all of the voices at the same time, which makes it hard to figure out how to distinguish and filter through all of the issues.

Wingard | I think a lot of people engaging in social media are not very serious about questions or about getting at the truth of the matter. It becomes more about them than about the truth. This has always been a problem in disagreement—we make disagreements about ourselves and not about finding the truth together. Social media has, in some ways, encouraged that mode of disagreement in ways we haven’t seen before because of the anonymity factor at play.

Fitzpatrick | There are always pros and cons to every form of communication. The anonymity of social media allows people to say anything without thinking of the person they’re communicating with.

Wingard | I also think these social interactions have really encouraged a lack of civility even in face-to-face conversations. I think we’re beginning to see these modes of communication on social media translated to in-person conversations. I think this lack of civility is, in part, a result of new habits being formed on social media.

Morris | I like what Christiana [Fitzpatrick] says about how these problems have been around for centuries. But there is something about the advancement of technology that has intensified and made caricatures of these issues. I think it’s possible to argue and disagree well using these media, but it’s very difficult. We may feel like we’re contributing to something via social media, but if we’re not being thoughtful, our posts may actually contribute to a quarrel rather than calm a quarrel.

Fitzpatrick | I have seen people use disagreements on social media in really wise ways. These people disagree in a way that is kind, healthy, and really tries to listen to the other person. There are examples of people who keep interacting in godly ways with folks who are hostile.

Wingard | It can be done very well, but it takes time to be serious about issues, think through them, and write something carefully. And that care is not encouraged by Twitter and Facebook. We’re used to dealing with things instantly—creating a post instantly and getting likes instantly. It doesn’t encourage the kind of robust conversation that is needed in our society and in the church.

Morris | But I think it would be a real shame if Christians entirely withdrew from the space of social media. There just needs to be a realization that this is very difficult. We’re talking about 95 theses versus 140 characters—that’s tough.

Fitzpatrick | So often we want to disagree by simplifying things and not dealing with the complexity of all the different elements at play. But there are exceptions to this. I can think of things I have learned because someone took the time on Facebook and Twitter to not just write one tweet, but multiple tweets to really explain a concept.

Morris | I would love to challenge our students and others to come up with redemptive ways of using social media. Spend some time thinking about how to redemptively engage and use Twitter and Facebook and other forms of social media.

The great theological advances down through the ages have come through believers wrestling with matters on which they disagree.
- Dr. John Wingard

Staying Silent in Disagreement

Wingard | If we stay silent when we disagree, we run the risk of depriving our brothers and sisters in the church of things that God actually intends for them. God gives us different gifts, and diversity within the church is something that God Himself has orchestrated and ordained for our good and for the advancement of the gospel. I also find that if I don’t express a disagreement, it ends up causing resentment and maybe even bitterness over time.

Morris | On the other hand, we talk in my family about “fatal attractions.” When you find all conversations with a particular person leading to the same issue and same disagreement, there may be something else going on under the surface.

Fitzpatrick | Sometimes when we’re silent, we’re giving credence to the other side of an argument, which could potentially be damaging or hurtful or sinful. I am on the quieter side of things, and I tend to listen rather than want to speak up, but there are times when I have to speak up because if I don’t speak then no one knows I disagree with what was just said and that could be damaging to others—not just if “word gets out,” but if those ideas go forward unchallenged. I think there are other times when it’s important to stay silent because I may only be disagreeing to hear myself speak or because I’m more interested in the argument than I am in that person as an image bearer and my brother and sister in Christ.

Wingard | I think we have to think about the motives both for speaking up and for staying silent. Sometimes I find that I’m silent out of fear, and when that happens that’s a failure of love. Love, according to Scripture, drives away fear. And I’m letting the other person down by acting out of fear.

Fitzpatrick | It’s also good to remember how people disagree in different contexts. In some cultures, harmony is of the highest value. If I walk into that culture and argue and critique and challenge, then I am completely ignoring that context. In this room, we’re all from a direct society, but any time we enter contexts different from ours, we have to be aware of the fact that the way you have a disagreement will be different in different contexts.

Disagreeing under the Law of Charity

Morris | I talk to my students about the ability to take up a disagreement in a way that doesn’t immediately allow the well-worn pathways of parallel discourse to click in. It’s so easy to frame a conversation in a way that moves into that binary mode. How can we say things in ways that don’t immediately channel us in particular ways? How can we open up conversations in good ways?

Wingard | One important emphasis in Scripture is that, no matter what, we’re always under the law of charity. So whether we decide to express disagreement or not, how we express our disagreement must be motivated by love. I think of the old slogan, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” I think that really captures the biblical teaching about how we should respond to one another.

Fitzpatrick | In the iconoclast defacing of paintings and sculptures, one of the things that stands out to me is that they are erasing faces. They’re doing it for a different reason, but what it does is erase the humanity of the people in those works of art. And that’s what poor disagreement and arguing and quarreling do so often—you lose the humanity of the other person. It all goes back to charity.

Wingard | I do think love is going to dictate different manners of response to different issues. When the gospel is at stake in the church, what love requires may appear more confrontational. But we never have the license to belittle or denigrate the other person, even if the gospel is at stake. To deface another person is beyond the pale.

Morris | It’s always going to be messy. Whatever advice we might have for how to avoid quarreling, disagreements are always going to be messy, and it’s part of that messiness that God uses to refine us. But we have to allow, in love and charity, that there will be uncomfortable messiness. That’s just how it is when fallen humans get together and try to obey God and serve one another. It’s never going to be comfortable.

The article originally appeared in the Autumn 2016 issue of Covenant College's View magazine, and can be found online here.