Disagreements of the political and religious variety have been around for a long time. The apostle Paul criticizes the church of Corinth: “One of you says I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas” (1 Corinthians 1:12). These divisions were not merely personality cults but reflected disagreements about Gospel and church. During the sixteenth century, religious and political disagreements between “Protestants,” “Catholics,” and other groups stimulated close friends to exile one another from their homes. Seventeenth-century Christian supporters of the the British monarchy reviled their sisters and brothers who supported the Parliment.
A January 2017 Reuters/Ipsos poll found that one in six Americans had stopped talking to a family member or close friend because of the 2016 election. One thing is for sure: disagreement is not going to disappear anytime soon. Our socio-economic conditions and media-driven culture will be feuling friction for some time to come. So, if we cannot avoid disagreement, how can we fruitfully engage in it for the glory of God? I think we may learn a few lessons from the apostle Paul and his famous treatment of love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7.
Lesson number one: acknowledge the social ecology of disagreement. Just as plants develop (or struggle) in the context of a physical ecology, so people thrive (or struggle) in the midst of a social ecology: a matrix of factors that influences the group. Personalities, past history, unspoken expectations, status, all influence the differences between those who “follow Cephas,” or “follow Apollos” (you can fill in other names if you wish). How do we acknowledge this social ecology in practice? Listen to Paul: “[Love] does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5). Loving disagreement makes no place for contempt. Hear that word, contempt. Author and conservative policy analyst Arthur C. Brooks considers contempt to be the poison of American cultural communication. His book, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt (published before 2020!) is a beacon of hope for a new generation of Christians. When we recognize the social ecology of disagreement, we learn to thwart contempt through rehearsing the bonds of our relationship, looking for common ground, and acknowledging the shared aims (and fears) of our conversations.
Lesson number two: provide a safe environment for communicating. I taught philosophy in secular colleges for many years. We talk about tense issues, like the morality of abortion, the existence of God, or how to identify misinformation. My job as a teacher is to provide a safe atmosphere in the classroom so that both Christians and atheists can learn from each other. We sit in a circle. I scold anyone who “bashes” another student’s ideas. I try to model good listening skills. I teach the students how to use “I statements,” talking about their own experience, rather than hurling “you statements” at their opponent. “Love is patient and kind” Paul says (1 Corinthians 13:4), not “irritable or resentful.” Yes, it takes a few weeks to create this classroom culture, but when students experience others giving them time to try to express their thoughts–or when they realize others won’t roll their eyes in resentment when they do–then the learning begins. What if we did this in our families and churches?
Lesson three: skillfully navigate the process. There is an art to skillfully navigating disagreement. Paul understood. On the one hand, “love does not insist on its own way” (verse 5). Successfully navigating disagreement involves a commitment to celebrate one another’s legitimate insights (recognizing the Spirit in our midst). That is one of the reasons my class sits in a circle. Everyone has something to contribute and we grow in knowledge when we all share and we all talk it through. Sometimes this means going back to our sources and looking at them together. Many eyes more easily notice errors. On the other hand, there are times when we must confront, even in the face of misunderstanding. “Love does not rejoice in wrong, but rejoices in the truth” (verse 6). When the issue or the potential consequences or the relationship warrants, we join reason to respect and we persuade. But even then it is not a matter of speaking at somebody, but rather speaking with them.
Finally, lesson four: leave the disagreement with the promise of supportive presence. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things” (verse 7). We enter disagreements for the purpose of love. We leave these conversations with a commitment to continue in love.
Discussions across the divide are a normal part of life. May God’s Spirit build us, through love, into communities of fruitful disagreement for God’s greater glory.