Several years ago, I got into a debate with a close friend and the conversation went quickly south. What began as a discussion about our theological and political differences ended up in a shouting match in which each person’s character was called into question.
I went into the argument with a “win-at-all-costs” mentality. Winning a disagreement was the only way I knew how to disagree, but what I lost wasn’t worth the victory. I said plenty of things I didn’t mean. As the saying goes, “I won the battle, but lost the war.” And lost a great friend in the process. We haven’t spoken since.
I may have won the debate, but it wasn’t worth the cost.
We’re never going to agree with everyone we come in contact with, but we must learn how to disagree in a way that honors Christ and His body.
Disagreement is an increasing norm in our lives, but we’re marginally equipped. It’s much easier to post disparaging remarks on Facebook, Twitter, blogs and news articles. Digital disagreement allows us to hide behind a screen.
Just take a sampling of the Christian blogosphere, where heated debates on who gets into heaven, the biblical role of women and gay marriage, just to name a few, are commonplace. Spend time scrolling through comments where any of these discussions take place and you’ll immediately lose your faith in humanity.
All of this painfully illuminates the question: Why can’t Christians disagree well? Why are we so comfortable tarnishing the name of Jesus—whom we all call “Lord”—just so we can win the argument?
Christians spend much of their time focused on how to engage the un-Christian world around them—and rightfully so. Yet in doing so, we sometimes lose our ability to navigate conversations and relationships with our own brothers and sisters.
John didn’t hold anything back when he said: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). We usually apply this to our relationship with unbelievers, but loving “one another” in and amongst our own is an incredible witness as well—for better or for worse.
So how can we turn this around? What do we need to do in order to disagree with our brothers and sisters in love?
First, we need to understand that the underlying theme that allows for disagreement to happen in a healthy way is emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence can be simply defined as seeking to understand before being understood. It’s human nature to fight for your supposed “right” to an opinion and your supposed “right” to be heard. But the reigning mark of our faith is not holding on to our personal rights, but offering our Christ-reflective unconditional love. It’s easier hoard the opportunity to push someone else down than to sacrifice your right to be heard. But to uphold the name of love, this is often the harder, better way.
Emotional intelligence is sacrificing your rights in order to care for others. This is deeply rooted in the Christian faith: “In humility value others above yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). By focusing only on yourself—your opinion, your agenda, your perspective—you shrink the world. Your problems become the lens you see everything through. You isolate yourself from a world looking for attention, love and human kindness. You cannot care for others when the world revolves around you. And you cannot build the Church body if all you are concerned about is yourself.
Yet in focusing on understanding the other, in an intentional act of love, your world expands. By seeking to understand before being understood, “our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection—or compassionate action,” says psychologist Daniel Goleman in Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships.
Just like in any family, conflict among Christians will never go away. But when we learn how to seek understanding before being understood, we can begin to have healthy disagreements.
We can learn to focus on areas of agreement over areas of disagreement. And perhaps then, we can restore our reputation of love.