Conflict among Christians can terrify me.
I love to talk about the things of God with my brothers and sisters, and I enjoy being sharpened by other believers as they share their insights from their walks with the Lord. But when disagreement appears in a conversation, I can easily panic. I strive to avoid saying or doing anything that might result in hurt feelings or misunderstandings. In many cases, however, such a goal seems unattainable, making avoidance of an issue a much more attractive approach to conflict than engagement with an issue.
Part of this approach is strategic. I’m tired of the fights I see around me, tired of feeling like I need to pick a side and prepare for war, tired of drawing lines between “us” and “them” within the body. I want my voice to encourage my sisters and brothers to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24), to keep their focus on the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33). I want to spend my words to highlight truths that all believers can and should agree upon instead of spending my time debating matters of secondary importance. But I recognize that part of my approach to conflict stems from fear. Often, I avoid entering discussions more out of fear of judgment or division than out of a conviction for truth. This fear, I believe, stems from my ignorance: I don’t know how to disagree well, how to discuss differences of opinion and understanding without thinking in terms of sides in a fight. I struggle to distinguish between helpful discussions and unhelpful arguments, often running from conflict completely or approaching it brashly instead of doing the difficult but necessary work of carefully and prayerfully considering the matter and my contribution to the discussion. And I think part of my ignorance is due to my forgetfulness of some key truths. Today, then, I want to highlight three truths I believe will help all Christians to disagree well when disagreement inevitably occurs.
1. Far more unites us than divides us.
Biblically, all believers are members of one body (1 Corinthians 12). We are united in Christ, dividing walls now torn down through his cross (Ephesians 2:14-22). When we enter into theological discussions (or any discussion with other Christians), we enter into them with brothers and sisters, with co-heirs of the promise of God (Ephesians 3:6). Even when disagreements get heated, we remain family, called together to carry out the Great Commission around the world. We have a common Father, a common enemy, and a common mission. May this truth soften our hearts and our words toward those in the church with whom we disagree.
2. No one, save Jesus, was, is, or ever will be completely correct in understanding.
When Christians speak of God, we often speak as if we’ve got him figured out. But Scripture clearly teaches God’s transcendence. His thoughts and ways are higher than our own (Isaiah 55:8-9). His presence is overwhelming when he reveals himself to his people (see Exodus 19-20). He is the only independent one, sufficient in himself, lacking nothing (Romans 11:33-36). Even the greatest, most terrifying displays of power we may imagine are simply “outskirts” and “whispers” of his fullness (Job 26:11). Anyone who claims perfect understanding of him is sorely mistaken. May this truth make us humble and teachable as we engage with others who, like us, are trying to grasp the infinite with finite minds.
3. Not every disagreement is worth the fight.
Paul once wrote, “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions” (Romans 14:1). He then encourages “peace” and “mutual upbuilding” within the church (Romans 14:19), calling for selflessness and sacrifice for the sake of the body and for the glory of God (Romans 15:1-7). Diversity of thought and practice, according to Paul, is not always a problem. Harmony matters more than uniformity in such matters. Of course, not every matter is open for discussion. Paul clarified the gospel message throughout his letters and argued against theologies that denied its primary tenets. In such cases, we need to speak, articulating the truth with clarity and kindness. But many of the disagreements we get into deal not with core doctrines but with peripheral convictions (for some thoughts on how to differentiate between such matters, see here). May this truth encourage us to discern between primary and secondary issues, and may we check our hearts and minds before we engage in discussion (Romans 14:13).
The bride of Christ exhibits a profound and beautiful mix of unity and diversity, her members drawn “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9). Yet each member is grafted by the Savior into one tree (Romans 11), into one body (1 Corinthians 12), singing with one voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:10). We, God’s people, are diverse yet unified, representing many different families while belonging to one family of God. The gospel of Jesus Christ brings us together. Though beautiful, the church is far from perfect. Church history reveals our struggle to exemplify the love God calls us to show to one another. We praise God that his power is made perfect in weakness, for we are indeed a weak people. I pray these points get us thinking about how to better live together as sisters and brothers in Christ. May the world know us by our love, love that persists and shines in spite of disagreement. And may God be glorified by our reflection of him.
Many thanks are due to Maci Duncan for her help in the editing process of this post.