Can We Disagree Like Christians?

Is it biblical for Christians to agree to disagree? That depends. When writing to the Corinthian Church regarding issues that were divisive, the Apostle Paul discouraged fellow believers from criticizing or condemning each other and instead, encouraged them to “live at peace with everyone, as much as possible” (Rom. 12:18). That sounds an awful lot like agreeing to disagree. But was Paul saying that we should overlook all differences, even when the subject matter is consequential?

That the early Christians struggled to understand and live out the gospel is an understatement. They were without podcasts, online sermons, trained pastors, or any of the resources that we look to when we need help figuring out where we stand, especially on polemic topics. They did have each other, the Holy Spirit, and Paul’s letters. Like us, sometimes that was not enough to prevent them from floundering and disagreeing. 

I have lived in the greater Boston area for more than 38 years. This region is known for its professional sports teams, lively intellectualism, excellent medical care, and awful winters. We are decidedly north of the Bible belt, which means I do not live in an echo chamber. I have learned to choose my words carefully, listen hard, suppress many opinions, and find ways to engage with folks who (seemingly) have no interest in Jesus.

Practically speaking, that means if I go to a friend’s open house and initiate a conversation even peripherally connected to faith, it would be a mistake for me to assume that my conversation partner will agree with me on anything. Most of the time, I tread lightly and have learned how to politely excuse myself under the guise of refilling my drink. 

This might surprise those of you who have never lived in Boston, but the same principles apply if I’m talking to Christians. Hopefully, anyone who professes faith would agree that Jesus did in fact walk the earth but all bets are off that we might see eye to eye on anything else, particularly on issues such as gun control, racial reconciliation, or women in (church) leadership. 

If you’ve read much my work, you’re well aware there’s no shortage of strong opinions on these issues.  

I should add, I don’t like conflict. It triggers my abandonment issues and causes a PTSD like response. 

I should also add, now that I’m in my late 50s, I feel like time is growing short and it’s consequential—for me and for others—if I keep quiet. 

So what’s a conflict avoidant, opinionated person to do?

Learn how to speak the truth in love. The obvious issue being what if my understanding of the truth is not your understanding of the truth?

Is that what Paul was getting at when he wrote,

Accept other believers who are weak in faith, and don’t argue with them about what they think is right or wrong. For instance, one person believes it’s all right to eat anything. But another believer with a sensitive conscience will eat only vegetables. Those who feel free to eat anything must not look down on those who don’t. And those who don’t eat certain foods must not condemn those who do, for God has accepted them. (Romans 14:1-3, NLT)

If you’ve read enough of Paul’s work, you will know that he was not encouraging believers to live in false peace or overlook consequential behaviors. He was writing about peripheral issues: holy days (holidays) and food—not how we treat someone who has more melanin in their skin, not how we use/abuse power to protect our privilege, and not the reality that we are all called to holiness. In these cases, Paul, Jesus, and other New Testament writers were quite clear. Additionally, agreeing to disagree is not equivalent to passively overlooking injustice or obvious moral wrongs (as has happened for generations in our country with regard to racial and gender inequality).

So while I would not condemn a fellow believer about their choice to be a vegan, I would contend with one who overlooked animal welfare issues. I would not judge a younger Christian who religiously enforced the Sabbath but I might help them understand that the poor and marginalized across the globe rarely enjoy a six-day work week. I would not criticize a fellow believer who lives in rural Vermont and hunts for food but I would contend with one who denies the need for Americans to address and reduce gun violence. (After all, there are many passages in the New Testament that contradict the NRA’s philosophies.) 

In Angry Like Jesus, author Sarah Sumner writes, “Godly anger is a form of moral authority.” The question, of course, is how do we keep our anger in the godly category? Perhaps part of it is being able to parse out where cultural narratives have eclipsed scriptural truths. We also need to have sufficient self-awareness to understand what’s at stake? How, and why, does the conversation push our buttons?  

The onus is always on us to balance our convictions with grace and mercy. I admit, there are times—lots of times—when the conviction/anger side of the scale is much weightier than the grace/mercy side. Though most of us probably wish that others would share our core convictions, disagreements provide us with the opportunity to clarify our beliefs and learn what it means to love our enemies. I’m still working on this. Most likely, I probably always will be. 


Photo credit: Heng Photos/Unsplash

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12 thoughts on “Can We Disagree Like Christians?

  1. Dorothy, you write as if you know what’s in my heart and my experience. We live a few miles from the recent school shooting in Parkland. If has affected our community deeply and made me more vocal about my deepset feelings on gun control. I wasn’t prepared for the bitter responses from some of my fellow Christian friends. It was a reminder of why I’ve kept most of my political thoughts private or shared with few. I don’t want to be divisive. Your words here help me as I go forward. Thank you.

    • Thanks for writing Debby. I’m so torn up about the recent shooting. And all of the others. May the Lord clarify your thoughts, strengthen your resolve, and help you love well.

  2. I’d never thought of life as a prickly New Englander as being a great training ground for reasonableness in spiritual conversations, but I see your point. Sometimes believers walk into every room spouting the religious equivalent to “How ’bout them Sox?”

    • So so true. And don’t you find that you cannot expect agreement on maters of faith or are folks more of the same mind down/up there in Maine?

      • We’re an opinionated lot as well, and it’s never safe to assume anything. It’s disconcerting to see the “temperature” of a conversation flare in seconds.

        • Yes, even though I feel like I’m well aware of how much I dislike conversations that go in that direction, it still happens. To some extent, more so as I age.

  3. There’s a lot of wisdom here. I struggle to find the balance of very much disagreeing, being greived over consequential matters, and yet also being loving, affirming the humanity and good intentions of the people I’m with. It is helping to develop better boundaries and firmer opinions: it helps me know the difference between wholesale condemnation, mealy-mouthed peacekeeping, and active, loving shalom.

    • “Mealy-mouthed peacekeeping.” That’s got to find a way into an article at some point. And that was totally my MO until my 40s!

  4. Love this piece Dorothy. It connects to what I have been pondering. The Church is in desperate need of understanding how to keep anger in the Godly category.

    • Yes and we need to understand how to listen and speak the truth and love even when we totally disagree. It’s all hard work. And sometimes so wearying!

  5. I was a little confused by this part of your piece: “So while I would not condemn a fellow believer about their choice to be a vegan, I would contend with one who overlooked animal welfare issues. I would not judge a younger Christian who religiously enforced the Sabbath but I might help them understand that the poor and marginalized across the globe rarely enjoy a six-day work week. I would not criticize a fellow believer who lives in rural Vermont and hunts for food but I would contend with one who denies the need for Americans to address and reduce gun violence.” In the first and third case you are referring to 2 different people: the vegan + the person who ignores animal welfare, and the rural hunter + the person who denies the need to address gun violence. But in the second instance you’re referring to the SAME person: and you seem to be implying that strict Sabbath observance somehow hurts people who don’t get Sundays off. What do you mean there? Are you talking about a “younger Christian” (and I don’t know where age comes into it either!) who is trying to pressure OTHER people to keep a strict Sabbath? It just seems like a really strange example and so I’m wondering what I might be missing.

  6. Thank you for daring to dive into relevant controversial topics with the unchanging truths of God’s Word. I have a strong daughter in her late 20’s that loves the Lord, is fiercely passionate on topics of equality, justice, sharing God’s love, and being a good steward, yet gets frustrated by cultural beliefs that puts labels on her and tries to keep her in a box. She’s heard comments, under the guise of humor, regarding her strength with stereotypes. She’s relayed to me in frustration of a job progress report of comments said to her that she knows would never be said to any male colleague. I am thankful for the voices of strong Christian women who can address these topics with the truth and offer a balanced, gracious perspective.

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