As a society, we’re really bad at disagreeing with one another. Actually, that’s not true. We’re great at disagreeing with one another. We’re awful—abysmal—at doing so constructively. Rarely do we engage in civil discourse around different view points, policies, and, yes, agendas. Instead, we opt for defamation, as we see so often on Twitter and cable news.
I wish I could say that Christians were standing above the fray in this. But we aren’t. If anything, we’re even worse. No matter where we land theologically and culturally—whether we would be considered conservative, progressive, or something in between—we bite, devour, and generally act like dummies with the worst of them, and applaud those who take down our ideological opponents.
But here’s the problem: if we’re Christians, we can’t live this way. We aren’t called to play by the same rule book as the rest of the world. Christians have a higher standard. And that standard tells us that we can’t celebrate everything any more than we can reject everything. Whether we’re talking about things like our views on human sexuality, political ideology, or generally irrelevant things such as TV shows, everything around us presents opportunities to find common ground or invites necessary disagreement.
So how do we do that?
How to disagree like a Christian
The secret to disagreeing like a Christian is best described as convictional kindness. Convictional kindness means having a firm belief or opinion while also being willing to genuinely listen to the views and perspectives of others. It is the natural outworking of both humility and tolerance, and in another time this would have been called by another name: charity. Charity is a lost virtue of our culture, one that disappeared as rapidly as our love of hot takes appeared, but has long been valued, especially by Christians. It is the sort of love that Paul wrote about as being patient and kind:
Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not arrogant, is not rude, is not self-seeking, is not irritable, and does not keep a record of wrongs. Love finds no joy in unrighteousness but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:4–7, CSB).
So how do we develop this kind of love for others? How do we develop the sort of convictional kindness, the charitable spirit, that allows us to engage in difficult discussions in a way that reflects Jesus?
First, be a good listener
Becoming a good listener doesn’t just mean not talking over another person (although it does mean that). It means trying to understand what someone else is saying. To be a good listener means you need to ask good questions. In many cases, our disagreements aren’t disagreements over essential matters—they’re points at which we’re talking past one another (this is especially true in political conversations). I might say one thing, but you won’t hear it the way I mean because we’re using similar language to mean different things. To address that, you need to ask questions instead of making assumptions about what someone else means.
A good question can diffuse a tense situation and help you potentially gain clarity, if not agreement. A really great question to ask in these moments is, “Can you help me understand what you mean by [statement or phrase]?” This can be a helpful signal to your discussion partner that you’re entirely on the same page and potentially lead to more fruitful discussion as you go.
Another worthy question to ask is, “What I heard you say is [summarize what you heard as best you can]. Am I understanding you correctly?” This gives your conversation partner the opportunity to either confirm or clarify what he or she means.
When you make it your aim to be a good listener, sometimes something incredible happens: you might find out you’re wrong! It’s not a guarantee that we are on the side of rightness in every disagreement. When this happens, don’t get angry. Instead, treat it as a gift: it’s an opportunity to grow in humility.
Second, respect your conscience (and that of others)
Sometimes disagreements have nothing to do with any sort of essential conviction. In those cases, our role is to treat others’ consciences with respect (Romans 14). We don’t judge one another or argue over disputable matters. Instead, we exercise charity.
Third, you can agree to disagree
As a good listener and a respecter of consciences, it’s important to also know that you don’t have to agree with everyone on everything, and that’s okay. You don’t need to agree on everything in order to enjoy a productive discussion and a healthy relationship.
It should be said that there are some issues where “agreeing to disagree” isn’t possible. These are matters of objective right and wrong, as well as societal issues where the health and well-being of others are in jeopardy. But even when this isn’t possible, we can still discuss, debate, and confront in a way that reflects the love Christ shows us and calls us to reflect.
Fourth, don’t engage
Sometimes the most charitable thing to do is not engage at all. This is the approach to take with people who you see are always looking for a fight. They love to argue and debate, not because they want to help anyone. They just want to puff themselves up by being right.
Titus 3:9–11 warns us against such things. Divisive people, people who love controversy, should be warned about their behavior. It doesn’t matter whether they’re well respected within your church, or whether they’re a Christian celebrity in their own mind on social media. They should be warned when what they are saying is false or when the way in which they are saying it doesn’t reflect Christian love and charity. If divisive people persist in being divisive, have nothing to do with them. Don’t engage the discussion. Walk away.
Whenever you are invited into a potentially difficult or divisive discussion, it’s always best to pray. Ask the Holy Spirit to give you clarity in understanding and the words you need to speak. Pray that everyone would hear well, that humility would be evident, and that love would reign in every moment.
That is how you practice convictional kindness. It’s what it means to disagree like a Christian, with love that bears all things, believes all things, and hopes for all things—even in the midst of disagreement. It’s a big task. You will step on more than one land mine throughout your life. But I can tell you from experience that any pain you feel as you grow in both conviction and kindness is worth it.
This post is adapted from chapter 8 of my book, I’m a Christian—Now What? A Guide to Your New Life with Christ (Lexham Press, 2023). Photo by Rémi Walle on Unsplash