Here’s one thing we can all agree on: there’s not much in this world that we can all agree on.
No matter what you think, there is someone out there who will be happy to explain to you why you’re wrong. We live in a world of free-flowing opinions and plenty of opportunities to express them.
Sometimes it’s harmless. For example, my golden retriever thinks that leaves from our backyard are delicious. I happen to think they could use a bit more salt. But that argument isn’t going to have any serious ramifications on our relationship or the world around us.
But some issues carry more weight. Think about the world right now and you won’t have to look far: Gun control. Gay marriage. Planned Parenthood. The 2016 election. The heavier the issue, the more passion we tend to have for it. And that’s a good thing! We should have passion for the things we really care about. But there are always people on the other side of the debate, and no matter how strongly we feel about an issue, there’s a right and wrong way to engage with those who disagree with us.
As Christians, we’re not called to hide under a rock and keep all of our opinions to ourselves for fear that we might offend someone. But we’re also not called to switch into attack mode and verbally bludgeon any dissenters into submission. When we express our opinions, we need to do it in a God-honoring way. When we disagree with people, we have the opportunity to do it in a way that leads them closer to Jesus.
Why We Argue
When was the last time someone convinced you of something by attacking your character? Even if winning an argument is your ultimate goal, it’s just not an effective technique. If I wanted to convince you that grape jelly is way better than orange marmalade (your toast spread of choice, for some reason), I would not get far by arguing that you must have been hit in the head with one too many oranges. This is actually a logical fallacy called “ad hominem.” Attacking a person directly makes no progress toward disproving their argument. And, anyway, getting hit in the head with one too many oranges does not necessarily mean your views on orange marmalade are wrong. (Grape jelly is better, though.)
The problem is that this can feel like a really (though superficially) gratifying way to approach disagreement. If we want to reinforce our own beliefs, what better way than to make someone who disagrees look stupid, or even evil? It feels really good, and sometimes it disarms them, which can make us feel like we’ve won the argument.
But before arguing with anyone about anything, we should ask ourselves—what’s our goal?
Our ultimate goal should be to help people understand why we believe what we believe, not to explain why disagreeing with us makes them evil or stupid. Placing high priority on winning an argument isn’t a guarantee that we’ll win. But there’s one thing it does guarantee that we’ll do: argue.
As followers of Jesus, we have the opportunity to strive for so much more. We can engage people with peace, grace, patience and willingness to listen. We can try to understand why they believe what they believe. We can view them as people, not just verbal sparring partners.
It’s possible to engage with people whose views we conflict with, hold true to our personal beliefs and still imbue our interactions with love. And when we do, we’re able to show people what Jesus looks like—even while we’re disagreeing with them.
Love People First
In 2 Timothy 2:23-25, Paul instructs Timothy, “Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.”
As biblical teaching on how to approach arguments goes, it doesn’t get much more explicit than this. Paul’s points of instruction are pretty clear. Avoid arguments. Be nice to people. Approach “opponents” with gentleness. And remember that “knowledge of the truth” is dependent upon God.
As Christians, we would do well to remember that last point. We can present what we feel are irrefutable facts that lead to an obvious opinion on a crucial topic. But if it’s an issue of changing someone’s heart, we can’t do it, no matter how hard we try. Only God can.
This takes some pressure off of us, really. Whether our disagreement is with a non-Christian or a fellow Christian, we should be able to rest a little easier knowing that ultimately, God is the one who is going to lead them to the truth, not us. It frees us up to spend less time arguing with them, and more time loving them.
Now, again, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t express our views. Sometimes we have to express them. Many issues are worth standing up for—even fighting for.
The point is to remember that even when we’re fighting for an issue, the people on the other side are still people. Beyond whatever issue we don’t see eye-to-eye on, they have a life. They get hungry and tired. They have hopes and dreams. They feel joy and pain. And the fact that they disagree with us isn’t a reason to love them less.
In fact, it might be just the opposite.