How to Disagree Without Becoming Disagreeable

Ross Lester | October 19, 2020 Culture Current Events, Politics

“Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand;” (Philippians 4:5 ESV)

“Whatever you do, just never discuss politics.”

This was the advice that was given to my wife Sue and I from someone we loved—and who had moved to the US twenty years before us—about how best to pursue friendships in the USA. We have discovered that it has been painfully helpful advice. The people of this fine land are—by and large—warm, welcoming, friendly, and eager to set you at ease in conversations and warm hospitality. 

Except, when it comes to the topic of politics. 

Disagreement in this sphere often leads to distance and distrust, and sometimes leads to active disunity, even amongst groups of people who would be otherwise united and at ease with one another. How do we do better than this? In a season when our society is growing increasingly divisive in its nature and subsequently divided in its engagement, one wonders whether we may have lost the age-old ability of charitable disagreement in the realm of the political, and whether this might be an area where the people of God could actually shine in bold contrast to an otherwise lightless backdrop? 

Are we able to be the sort of people who can disagree with others without developing the reputation for being disagreeable? It is a question that is likely to impact our Christian witness, and has heightened relevance in this political season. You won’t need to look for long to find something or someone that you disagree with, oftentimes rightly and even vehemently so. This shouldn’t surprise us as followers of Christ. The way of the kingdom is supposed to set us at odds with the ways of this world, and so, disagreement will often be a necessary ingredient of biblical faithfulness, unless of course we believe that we have found a heaven-on-earth alignment in any sort of political tribe, which we shouldn’t, because we haven’t. As a result, it is important to note that total uniformity of political thought should not be assumed, or perhaps even desired, within the Christian community. The political landscape—especially at an actual policy level—is complex and nuanced, and that is why we will need to be more thoughtful, more loving, and more Spirit-led in our approach even when we disagree, and perhaps especially when we do.

The way in which our disagreement manifests ought to be reflective of our hope for our heavenly kingdom and in submission to the instructions of our King Jesus, who disagreed with many around Him while He walked this earth, but did so in a perfect demonstration of brotherly love and kingdom witness.

What follows then is a simple heart check for the possibility of more agreeable disagreement in this political season, and perhaps even for life beyond whatever political reality we wake up to on November 4th. That political reality, as significant as it will be, doesn’t impact our true theological reality in any way. Jesus will be King regardless of who will be president, and so it ought not impact our desire to live in unified love with our brothers and sisters who acknowledge His Kingship, even if they disagree with us on particular political policy or platform.

In Ephesians 4, Paul pleads with what could easily become a divided and divisive church. 

“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:1-3 ESV)

He then goes on a bit of segue (as Paul does) before returning to the dangerous possibility of not living this way, which he says would result in an immaturity in the body where people would be, “… tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:14 ESV). The opposite of getting stuck in this sort of divisive immaturity is found in verse fifteen and says, “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ …” (Ephesians 4:15 ESV).

This serves as an immensely helpful framework for us. In your engagement, and even in your disagreements:

  1. Be truthful
  2. Be loving
  3. Point to Christ

Be Truthful

Christians should have a high value for truth. We are a people founded by and united by a set of truthful claims. We are a people who submit to the declarations of a truth-telling God. In a world where truth is valued less and less, we should be a people who hold truth high. In our political disagreements then, here are some questions we should ask in order to understand if we are committed to truth or if we are committed to winning an argument.

  1. Is your argument true, and verifiably true, or is there a chance it is an exaggeration or lie repeated in sound bite propaganda social media clips enough times to seem true? Have you actually investigated it?
  2. Are you truthfully and rightly representing the argument of the one you disagree with, or are you representing an abstraction? It is easy to create straw men of other’s arguments and to set them on fire, but it is also ungracious, unkind, and ungodly to do so. This caution forces us to be more studious of others’ actual position and policies, which is in and of itself a good thing.
  3. Are you disagreeing over policy or partisanship? So much of our political disagreement seems to be around the disparaging of leaders and fear-based alarmism over the seemingly inevitable slide that an opposing ideology will bring. A more useful disagreement takes place at an actual policy position, where again, research is required and truth telling follows more readily as a result. We can, and must, disagree over policies that contradict God’s revealed Word. In order to do that, we need to know what those policies actually are and to focus our attention there.

All of these questions slow us down and decrease our willingness to wade in passionately without any sort of notice and with little justification. This slowness is a good thing.

Be Loving

Christians are called to be a people who love God and love their neighbor. This is the foundation of our faith and our clearest avenue for displaying that faith to the world. Love doesn’t require agreement, but it certainly does require a more humble posture of disagreement. It places the priority of the person and relationship with the person above victory in the argument. Here are some questions to help guide our posture of love in the midst of disagreement.

  1. Do I love the person I am disagreeing with? This is an important question and one that requires greater consideration in a world where most of us have far greater reach and network than any generation or cultural moment before us. You used to have to go out of your way to have a quarrel with someone, but now you can have vociferous arguments online with people you have never met and will never meet. This seems unwise for a people who want to speak the truth through the mechanism of relational love. Proverbs 26:17 says, “Whoever meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears.” Why would we be a people determined to grab passing dogs by the ears? Social media platforms don’t tend to be the most persuasive places for loving, nuanced disagreement. The list of people who changed political persuasions through the loving correction of a stranger online is a pretty short list. 
  2. Am I being loving in the presentation of the disagreement? Would the person who I disagree with say that they feel heard, understood, empathized with, and loved by me? That’s the test. A great way to assess would be to view our interactions through the lenses of 1 Corinthians 13. Is this patient and kind? Am I being boastful, arrogant, or rude? Am I insisting on my own way at all costs, and responding with irritability or resentment? Am I bearing with, hoping, and believing?  

Point to Christ

Paul insists that the big idea of unity in the church is that we would be able to grow up into our church’s head, who is Christ. Our motivation and our methodology ought to have increased Christlikeness as the hope and goal. The quality of our discourse would increase significantly if we had the reputation of Christ in mind and the example of Christ as our model. Some questions to ask of ourselves in times of disagreement would be:

  1. Is this interaction likely to grow my conformity to the character of Christ?
  2. Is this interaction likely to grow others in conformity to Christ?
  3. Does the tone and the content of this disagreement sound like and look like Christ to others who might see it?

It is indeed possible to disagree and to not be disagreeable. We will need to be a people who practice that well until we are home and there is no more disagreement.  It requires thought, humility, and a deep desire to honor Christ over all. We can be a people who represent our King well, even in the midst of political disagreement.

“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ …” (Ephesians 4:14-15 ESV)

Culture Current Events, Politics

About Ross Lester

Ross Lester is the Pastor of Preaching and an elder at The Austin Stone. He previously served as the Lead Pastor of Bryanston Bible Church and Network Director of Acts 29 Southern Africa. He and his wife, Sue, live in Austin, Texas with their two children.

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