Agreeing to Disagree?

We’ve all heard someone say it. Maybe you’ve said it. You’re having a conversation with someone over an issue about which the two of you disagree, and one of you says, “Well, we’ll have to agree to disagree.” Implied in these words, usually at least, is that two people can have very different viewpoints on a specific topic about which both feel strongly, yet not only remain civil but be friends.

Unfortunately, this seems to be more and more of an impossibility in our culture. Instead, when it’s a controversial issue or a heated matter of contention, the people in the conversation can’t seem to accept that someone else, looking at the same issue, can reach entirely different–indeed, opposing–conclusions.

This is definitely true when it comes to political issues in our society. It’s why you never see someone who works for CNN agree to appear on Fox or vice-versa. In lieu of even making an attempt at civil discourse, political pundits hurl accusations and half-truths with verve and vitriol.

Even as this is happening in our culture, my larger concern is when such an attitude infiltrates the church. Now, most of the time when I’ve noticed this, it’s not about core theological convictions. Often these days it’s usually COVID related. So as important as the issue can be, it’s not central to what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

But the truth is this: people in churches disagree about stuff they feel strongly about.

Here’s my real question: What do we do or how do we handle it when someone else in our church reaches an entirely different conclusion about a contentious but peripheral issue? What if two people in a congregation, surveying the same information, considering the same evidence, end up disagreeing profoundly?

Let’s be honest, aren’t you glad not to be in an American congregation where people have divided over Trump, and now divide over issues like racism, CRT, and whether and how far to follow COVID guidelines? (Yes, I guess I am making an assumption about the reach of my blog.)

Seriously, though, what does it mean to disagree and still love? I mean, we can say we disagree and still love. Our words, though, need flesh and bones. But what does that look like? How does love in the face of disagreement work its way into actual conversations, interactions, and relationships?

For instance, consider the issue of COVID vaccinations. Like it or not, there are people who disagree about the necessity of taking them because of specific convictions and concerns. If you’re someone who thinks everyone should be vaccinated, how do you handle a conversation with a fellow believer who thinks differently? Do you think you should try and persuade them? Do you avoid them in order to avoid an awkward conversation?

It’s certainly not necessarily an easy thing to deal with, especially since for good reason we probably attach our view of vaccinations with actual core beliefs. Christians, after all, are exhorted by Scripture to love our neighbours. Some would argue that taking a vaccine is, right now, a key way of doing just that. Others attach different values and core convictions to this issue, such as individual freedom and privacy concerns. Add differing perspectives on the science of these vaccines and it can become complicated quickly.

I guess what I’m wondering is if someone has to win in these conversations. Or do we have to perceive ourselves as more right in order to tolerate someone else’s viewpoint? Or it is possible to consider that someone else might be right or have a reasonable opinion even if we think differently about the issue? Beyond that, what does it mean to worship alongside those with whom we have such differences?

I offer a few thoughts.

First, can we agree at least that if an issue is contentious it is contentious for a reason? It doesn’t have to be COVID vaccines. In some Southern Baptist congregations, for example, currently the most hotly debated issue is CRT (or Critical Race Theory). For some Christians, there are what I would call secondary theological issues that are contentious, such as women in ministry, the age of the earth and how to interpret Genesis 1, Calvinism and Arminianism, and views of the end times. The reason such topics are contentious is because there are strong points of view and arguments for different positions. And proponents of different positions can each marshall what they believe to be a biblical case in support of their view.

Second, we shouldn’t let disagreements on these contentious issues lead us to call into question another believer’s orthodoxy or the genuineness of their faith. If someone thinks it’s perfectly biblical for a woman to preach (based on their understanding, for example, of how to interpret the apostle Paul), someone who thinks otherwise doesn’t have to automatically wonder if this person takes Scripture seriously as their authority in matters of faith and practice. All too often, I see one believer calling into question another believer’s standing in the faith because of an issue that doesn’t immediately or directly affect core doctrines. Or about which there can be legitimately different interpretations of Scripture.

Third, we should try to talk to people. Ask questions. Such as: What led you to that conclusion? Don’t make assumptions about why they hold the view they do. I think Christians from different points of view on secondary matters need to engage one another more frequently in thoughtful, prayerful, winsome conversation. And we need to keep in mind that discussions can tend to get heated when an issue is contentious, because people get emotionally invested in their positions. Knowing this, we need to be patient, humble, and sensitive. That doesn’t mean abandoning our viewpoint to avoid conflict, but it does mean speaking with love. It also means doing more listening than speaking sometimes.

Believers in any given congregation have to remember what’s primary and what’s secondary. Don’t major on the minors. Find ways to compromise as long as you’re not compromising the gospel and the core doctrines of the church. Encourage conversation. And if you have to agree to disagree, at least agree also that even those who confess Jesus as Lord and Savior, who look to the Bible as their authority for faith and practice, and who love the church and her God-given mission, can reach different conclusions about peripheral matters and still worship together and serve one another. Saint Augustine is often cited as the one who said, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” I agree. What about you?

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