For Christians, conflict is inevitable, both within and outside of the church.
We disagree with other believers over matters large and small – sometimes over things like doctrine and worship services, and sometimes over personal and financial matters. We disagree with nonbelievers over those issues and a thousand other choices and sometimes even the very existence of God. This is entirely natural and not inherently wrong: there are a lot of people living on this planet, and a whole lot of Christians among the people living on this planet, and it is normal for arguments to pop up now and again.
As a born people-pleaser, I nonetheless dread these moments. I’m the sort of person who apologizes even without having done anything wrong, just to smooth over an argument; I hesitate before taking a stance that might cause conflict. And yet the more I study, the more I realize that Christian disagreement both with believers and nonbelievers can be a beautiful, productive thing: we just have to learn the skill and then hone it over time.
In light of that does Christian disagreement look like?
- When disagreeing, mind your anger. Ephesians instructs us to “avoid bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (4:31) and reminds us not to sin in our anger (26). Proverbs 29:11 points out that only “a fool” gives full vent to his anger, and James warns that anger does not bring about righteous life (4:1-2). If you feel that your anger or negative feelings are going to get out of control during a disagreement, disengage until you can be calmer. Yes, as many people like to point out, Jesus got incredibly angry at the money changers in the temple (Matt. 21:12) – but Jesus never sinned, and therefore never sinned in His anger. Additionally, you’ll note that though he drove those people out and rebuked them, He did not harm them. Unless you are 100% certain your anger is the righteous anger of a holy God, and that you can deploy it properly, err on the side of caution.
- When disagreeing, watch your words. Colossians warns believers to avoid “filthy language” (3:8) and Christ reminds us that harshly-spoken and hurtful words are a grave sin (Matt. 5:22). Don’t be profane, condemning, crass, or harsh. Don’t insult or say hurtful things that you will regret later. No matter how passionately you might feel, the Bible instructs us to speak at all times in a measured, thoughtful, patient way. We are accountable for our speech at all times.
- When disagreeing with other believers, release your right to “be right” and, if necessary, take the hit. One of the most difficult passages I’ve ever grappled with is 1 Cor. 6:1-8. Paul shames believers for bringing lawsuits against each other to the “ungodly” for judgment, insisting such disputes are better settled within the church. Then he goes a step farther: “The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?” (7). For Paul, it’s better that a believer should endure injustice rather than create disharmony within the church. This also mirrors the instruction in Proverbs 19:11 that we should overlook offenses. In disagreements, sometimes it’s better to back down even when we’re justified in our stance. And if that instruction doesn’t make you flinch, you probably haven’t encountered a situation in which you’ve had to implement it.
- When disagreeing, abandon arrogance, smugness, and self-righteousness. God hates pride (Proverbs 8:13). The Bible instructs believers repeatedly not to boast, not to be full of themselves, and not to entertain delusions of superiority. Entering into a disagreement with the goal only of glorifying yourself is a sinful act. Considering yourself superior to someone else, or condescending to them, is repellent. Remember in disagreements to consider your “opponent” your equal, your neighbor and your brother/sister. If you lose that perspective, then everything else is irrelevant. Only when we can care for others as ourselves, or when we can serve others in the way Christ did, can we disagree with them appropriately.
- When disagreeing, preserve the relationship and persist in love. I am of the mind that Christian disagreement is a fine art that requires skill and practice to master. It’s easy to say we “disagree in love,” but it’s much harder in practice than in theory. This is especially true when it comes to unbelievers, I suspect, because the stakes for disagreements can be much higher and more personal. Yet Paul reminds us that “if it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live in peace with everybody” (Romans 12:18). This means that, as Christians, our disagreements with nonbelievers or believers should have no influence on the way we love them. As before the disagreement, so after: our behavior should remain the same. Our relationship with believers and unbelievers, if we disagree with them, must not become the disagreement. Especially in regards to non-believers, who are not working with the same spiritual toolbox as Christians, it is imperative that we forgive, and continue to love, and act in kindness and compassion even while speaking honestly. God’s love and forgiveness for us is boundless; how can we not extend it to others? How can we bear the burden of driving someone away from Christ because we permitted a disagreement to supersede love? One good way to suss out your priorities in this regard is to try the “lawnmower test”: “Right at this moment, even as we are disagreeing, would I go and mow this person’s lawn for them?” Your answer will tell you where you heart is, and ought to prompt you to act in a loving way or with a loving gesture at that very moment. We must always focus on our role as servants of Christ and as givers of great love, even in times of conflict. If your love comes secondary to your frustration, your desire to “win,” your anger, or your desperation to get your point across, then priorities need reordering right away.