What needs to happen for people to get over the idea that disagreement=division?

Why is modern thinking so binary? Why is every debate framed as a black and white issue of adversity where choosing a position means picking a team? It’s the case in politics. It’s the case in sport. It’s especially the case in the internal mechanisms of Christianity. And frankly. I’m over it. Life is complex. Life is a constant stream of sacrifice and compromise – tolerance even – so that we can love people despite our differences, not hate people because of them.

I don’t mean this in a wishy washy way – we are going to disagree on things, and though I’m sure some questions are more complex than others, there is, in most cases, a right answer, and in other cases, a better answer.

The answers we come up with to any problems are a product of the quality of the conflict, or debate, that produces them. Ideas are best clarified by criticism, by cutting out the rubbish, by considering new perspectives. Argument is part of the process. It’s profoundly part of being together, working together, and striving together.

This is profoundly, and obviously, true. Especially within teams, but also within, say, politics – a healthy debate where both sides are actually listened to, and both sets of political priorities (say – the concerns of employers, and employees) are properly considered – will produce better policy outcomes (though not necessarily from the perspective of the employer, or employee – because we act most naturally out of self interest. In fact, mitigating self interest, or special interests, is one of the best parts of healthy debate… And yet, there’s a certain stream of thinking so put off by the overly robust approach to argument, that equates disagreement with hostility, or put off by the sanguine approach to argument that merges all answers into no answer, that insists the answer is we must all agree on everything, if not at all times, at least in public – especially in the church.

This is dumb. It’s going to lead to a watered down and unhealthy church where the strongest willed wins. Where either the overwhelming will to move with the times, or the underwhelming will to stay exactly as things were 40 years ago, will win unopposed.

Disagreement, public disagreement, direct and robust public disagreement, is vital for the health of the church and its mission. Disunity can be unattractive – but disagreement isn’t disunity. Unless you say “this person is not a Christian” you’re ultimately not dividing over the issue that unites you – who Jesus is… so it’s not division. It’s debate. And the fact that we debate, in public, not only shows that we care, it brings others with us – others who are on mission with us, and others who are interested in what Christians think, and how they think, and how they make decisions.

Tone is important – speaking lovingly is important – but it’s not loving to pull a punch. It’s not loving to not express the seriousness of an issue in order to avoid the appearance of disunity. It’s like my old soccer coach used to tell me – if you’re in training and you go into a tackle with a team mate half heartedly – you’re both more likely to be injured. You put things in the wrong spot. Everything is askew. To continue the analogy – If all you do is train without tackling, the first time you’re properly tackled by an opponent will break you. But if you’re on the same team, you’ll pick the guy up after you smash him, and you won’t hold a grudge or be out to get him in a different context. Because hitting each other is part of the process of being on a team – and it doesn’t mean you don’t think you’re on the same team, and it certainly doesn’t mean you don’t like the person… if the principle is so easy to see in the context of team sport, why is it so difficult in the rest of life? Why are we so sensitive that at the first inkling that somebody might think someone else is wrong about something? Why do we assume that the only way to interpret any disagreement that is articulated is to assume the people who disagree don’t like each other?

It is, quite frankly, bizarre. And unhelpful. And, for Christians, profoundly out of kilter with what we know of how Christian community should work. As Christians our unity is in Christ.

Lets assume. For the moment. That the Bible is a public document – that it was written to be read as something other than private correspondence. Now read

The objection – that Paul rules out lawsuits amongst believers (1 Cor 6) – therefore any public disagreement is wrong – is an attempt to extrapolate a general principle from a specific example. I’d suggest this general principle is fatally flawed – and ruled out by 1 Corinthians itself. It runs counter to the fact that Paul is writing a public document that criticises the Corinthian Church on several fronts, and when he gets to the disagreement that’s happening in the church about food and being involved in temple life – he not only publicly takes a position (he takes the position that idols are nothing, all food is from God (1 Cor 8, 10), and they shouldn’t take part in emperor worship (1 Cor 10)), in what was obviously a public debate (the gatherings weren’t private, if they were, the Christians could have been charged as being a seditious and illegal association, he writes a letter to be read in the gatherings)… he also lays down the proper principles for disagreement – to make sure that unity in Christ triumphs over individual freedoms in those passages – he says do what is loving and doesn’t destroy people’s weak faith. He obviously doesn’t think discussing the disagreement, or suggesting a solution, is a threat to people’s faith – or that it should be.

He also names people who are doing the wrong thing, and spells out past disputes (Philippians 4:2, Galatians 2:11-14) where necessary.

Disagreement isn’t wrong. Public disagreement isn’t wrong. I’ve tried to make this case in many more words here

Where those who have genuine concerns about debate have a point is on the question of manner – I don’t think the substance of a debate is the problem, provided both sides are representing one another clearly, and avoiding fallacies, is the problem if people are genuinely seeking the same goal, and operating from the same starting point. Wrong thinking should be sorted out pretty quickly by right thinking, all else being equal – this is the basis of our court systems, our democracies, and televised debates – unless there’s an unhelpful power disparity (which, incidentally there was when it came to law suits in Corinth), good and right answers should usually be reached, or at least. Adopting an unhelpful posture or manner is a rhetorical short cut, and it works. The reason strawmans, ad hominems, well poisoning – all those fallacies when you attack the person you’re debating, rather than the issue – the reason these keep being trotted out in arguments is because they are effective.

Tone matters. Paul makes this pretty clear in 2 Timothy 2.

24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25 Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.”

Tone is a two way street. Or rather, charity is a two way street. One of the things that has struck me most about some of the criticism I’ve copped, public (in comments), or private (in rebukes sent to me personally) in response to what I thought was a fairly gentle and genuine post about Guy Sebastian was that the expectation that I should be nicer (based on assuming that I wrote sarcastically, which I didn’t), and that, in the case of the comments, this point was made in a fairly nasty way. It seems people will tell you in whatever way they see fit that you need to speak nicer.

It also seems that people don’t really like to read things charitably – several people jumped to the conclusion that I was sarcastically calling Guy Sebastian out, or picking a fight with him, over his decision to publicly describe where he’s at with God. That couldn’t really be further from the truth. It required a deliberately uncharitable reading of what I wrote, with little regard to interpretive tools like genre, context, tone, and intent – and with almost no interest in what I’m increasingly thinking is the essential interpretive tool – no regard to the ethos, or character, of the person producing the text. You can’t, I don’t think, assume sarcasm under every word on the internet. Sarcasm is usually indicated by context. I don’t think you can call somebody out on what they’ve written without first asking if they meant what they’ve written a particular way. I hope that when I read something I disagree with the interpretive mindset I bring to the table is “what is this person actually trying to say, what are the thoughts behind it, and what is the reading that puts their words in the best possible light?” I fail at this sometime. But it’s my goal. It’s a good rule of thumb for avoiding stupid quarrels on the Internet.

This isn’t the first time people have deliberately chosen to be offended – not necessarily at what I’ve said, but because I’ve said something that might cause division, or cause people to think that Christians aren’t united on every issue – there are several examples I could point to where I’ve written something that somebody doesn’t like, and rather than gently being corrected, I’ve been insulted, told I’m damaging the kingdom (in a relatively public setting), and then the clincher – unfriended on Facebook… Well. That was just one. Other people have just done the first two… sometimes publicly, sometimes privately. Pretty much based on some assumptions about what speaking graciously and lovingly is, and on what division is…

It’s all well and good to tell somebody to work on their tone – and I certainly need to be told that frequently, especially when I so often blog while I’m feeling passionate and engaged with some issue, rather than dispassionate and objective – but if you’re going to do that, it behooves you to make sure your tone isn’t just creating a prevailing sense of irony.

To conclude this rambling rant – I think a quote often misattributed to Augustine is a nice principle for writing, reading, and commenting on things as part of the process of conversation on the internet… and for thinking about how disagreement can happen without the idea that somebody is less than human or ‘the enemy’ simply if they happen to voice an opinion contrary to your own…

“In necessary things: unity, in uncertain things: liberty, in everything: charity.”

I no doubt need to work harder at this – but when I’m talking about other Christians, including the ACL, I assume they are Christians – and explicitly say that whenever it might appear that I’m bringing this into question – just Christians who are wrong. I assume they’re free to be wrong, but that I’m equally free to disagree – rather than unite with them, and I hope (though I often fail) to speak about people I disagree with, and read and interpret what they’ve said, with charity.

We’re not called to be united on every issue – we’re called to be united in Christ. This aspirational “unity on essentials, unity on uncertainty, unity on all things” mantra is unhelpful. We have our unity – most necessarily – in Christ. There are other necessary things, but without this foundation, they’re trivial. Unless somebody is questioning that unity or undermining its necessity some freedom to charitably disagree without one’s contribution to the work of the kingdom being called into question would be lovely.

That is all.


Alex Smith says:

Great post Nathan!

It’s been sad to see how quick some Christians completely write-off other Christians, often without even hearing them out on an issue (thinking in particular of the reaction to Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” or the documentary movie “Hellbound?”). i.e. for some it doesn’t matter if you’re a godly, loving, Trinitarian, Christocentric Christian with a high view of the Bible, you must have the right eschatology. Another example would be the reaction, at least initially (shown in the “Hell and Mr. Fudge” movie), to Annihilationism.

Bruce says:

Alex: If you heard my first reaction to Bell’s “love wins”, you’d probably conclude that i was among those who’d uncharitably and in an uninformed manner written him off.
About four years ago I heard some negative things about him, thought i’d find out about him first hand, so got me a nooma, read some velvet elvis and concluded the criticism of him was valid. This was long before hell was on the radar. My problem was that he posed many questions, sowed much doubt where doubt didn’t need to exist. Pretty much behaved as a socinian (as i’ve later come to know this kind of behaviour is described).
Is it Godly of a pastor (as he was then) to act more as a source of uncertainty for the flock than as one who discusses views of scripture and then teaches a position (whichever position that pastor believes is most true to the text)?

In terms of the overall discussion, most people flee from robust debate. Me – I’ll admit that i’m often a coward. I’ll know what position i hold, and i’ll know enough to convince me, but out of fear that it wont convince someone whose heart is set against my position, i’ll often back away.

at the moment i’m trying to engage friends who hold different views to me on women in ministry, and have found that almost as soon as the topic is mentioned eyes metaphorically glaze over and in their heads i’m probably a knuckle dragging mysoginist. i find it hard to know that people i respect greatly on most issues disagree with me on something like this. i want to be the guy who is right. it is hard going into an argument putting your position while still being open to the idea you might be wrong and need to admit as much.

Alex Smith says:

Hi Bruce,

Whilst I don’t agree with everything in “Love Wins” & found some of it unhelpful, overall I certainly thought it was thought provoking and even non-Christian friends have said they found it helpful. He did raise many questions & at times that was frustrating. However in my experience, people do have a lot of questions & sometimes they feel they’re unable to ask them – so I guess in a way he’s showing it’s ok to ask.

I’m curious about what you mean by “sowed much doubt where doubt didn’t need to exist”, do you have an example?

I’m confused by your use of “socinian”, as when I google it’s definition I get “an adherent of the teachings of Socinus; a Christian who rejects the divinity of Christ and the Trinity and original sin; influenced the development of Unitarian theology”, which doesn’t seem to be Rob Bell’s position?

I agree he comes across as uncertain about some things, however I think he is pretty certain about the love of God, the centrality of Christ, the destructiveness of sin, & many other things, so I think it’s hard to say how his flock felt – from memory the impression I got was that most were very supportive of him.

I agree robust debate can be draining/unpleasant & that often it’s easier to not say anything :-)

Yes, views on women in ministry is another one of those difficult topics – where it’s hard even to discuss/explore/figure-out one’s position openly without getting put into a box.

I agree most (hopefully all) of us don’t want to be believing in falsehoods & would prefer to be upholding the truth. I agree it’s hard to see, let alone admit, one’s errors!