Sunday, June 5, 2011

Disagreeing agreeably?

Ever been called a false teacher? I have.

Ever been told your views are “flawed” by someone who disagrees with your views? I have.
In both cases, the person and I differed on our understanding of some biblical principle (I won’t bore you with the details). But in neither case was the issue one of a cardinal doctrine of Scripture. Both cases raise the question, how should we respond when we disagree with one another? (By the way – if any person who said these things to me is reading this, I’m not throwing rocks at you. I promise!)
The fact that Christians disagree about what the Bible says is a given. The problem isn’t the book; it’s our understanding of the book. For a host of reasons (that I won’t go into), two people can look at the same passage and understand it differently. Or, we might understand it similarly but apply it differently. I think we can learn some skills to help us read the Bible more effectively and perhaps reduce the number of differences, but differences will always exist. How should we respond when we disagree?
Jesus came “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Paul admonishes us to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). Somehow, we too often miss the grace and love part. We attack (because we have “the truth”); we won’t listen; we defend ourselves. I’ve been guilty of this, but I’m trying to be more sensitive about how I respond.
One of the most common approaches that ignores grace and love attacks the person in some way instead of the person’s position (an ad hominem attack). What does this look like?
The “Christian” standing on one street corner calling the atheist standing on the opposite corner a “faggot”.
The young-earth apologist declaring that those who don’t hold a young-earth view deny the inerrancy of Scripture.
The writer who declares those who don’t hold to his dispensational views are “false teachers”.
The theologian who labels another theological viewpoint using “loaded” terms to discredit the view (since I won’t give the details here, several such instances might pop up in your thinking!).
All true stories by the way. And I won’t belabor the point with more examples (there are many!). What does this approach accomplish?

Nothing constructive.
What should we do instead?  A recent opinion column, reposted on Yahoo! News, nailed it:
 “Five words could prevent the public brawls between Christians who differ in their opinions on social and theological issues.
‘…but I might be wrong.’
It would be disingenuous if we attached these words to the end of every sentence. We all have spiritual and moral convictions we believe are non-negotiable, but can’t the humility associated with those five words define the tone of our dialog?”

What does this humility look like – even when we know (??) we’re right?

First, always begin with a desire to understand what the Bible says. We may still disagree on what the text means, but at least we’re focused on objective truth. Look at the text. Wrestle with the text.
Second, listen to the other view. We might learn something – even if we do not end up agreeing completely with the other person. And we might even discover we were wrong on some points!
Third, avoid critical or “loaded” words.  Instead, ask questions like, “have you considered this?” or “How does xxxx fit?” (xxxx is a passage in the Scriptures), or “could you show me how you came to your conclusion?”

Fourth, be slow to play the “false teaching” card. False teaching is not, “we disagree, therefore, you are a false teacher”.  Biblically, false teaching encompasses teaching contrary to core, essential doctrines. The “guarantee” of the rapture on May 21st was false teaching because of Camping’s guarantee that God would do certain things that day, not because of any particular view of the rapture. Denial of the deity of Christ is false teaching. Teaching salvation by anything other than faith in Jesus Christ is false teaching. I’ve yet to encounter a false teacher who responds to the accusation of being a false teacher by admitting they are a false teacher, so calling them such will not help the situation. At the end of the day, we may well need to label some teaching as “false”, but we shouldn’t start our conversation there!
Humility in action looks like my friends Zach and Abbie. Instead of ignoring the atheist and the name-caller on the opposite corner, they talked to them. They didn’t start by pointing out the errors of either man. They asked questions and listened. Now they better understand why each person believes what they believe. They better understand why they act like they act. Time will tell where the conversation will end, but by choosing to avoid critical words, they’ve kept the door open.  
Disagreeing agreeably. Applying love and grace with truth. It’s a crucial art form for every believer to learn.


  1. Excellent post, Roger!

    One caveat: If you talk to some of the folks who hold to what we might call nonessential beliefs, such as Saturday sabbath, King James Version Bible is only valid Bible, Earth was created 6 to 10,000 years ago, you will often find they view these as absolutely essential! Thus, while we might accommodate them, the reverse often isn't the case. Disagree, and in their eyes you are a false teacher.

    Yes, we need unity in essentials, charity in non-essentials. But it isn't always easy to reach agreement about what is essential.


  2. True... even defining the essentials is sometimes difficult. But even if we cannot agree on those, I can still choose how I will respond to those who throw rocks at me. My hope would be that Christians would be recognized for their love of one another, even when differences occur. Oh, wait... that sounds biblical :-)

    Thanks for the comment and encouragement