Disagreeing Well

by Kristin Silva

Originally published in the Journal of Biblical Counseling 33:1

How do you disagree well? Disagreement is commonplace, so this question is always relevant. The world is fractured by political, religious, ideological, and personal disagreements. These disagreements can turn into conflicts, fights, hostility, division—even war. But behind the negative way disagreements usually play out is a positive creational foundation. Before disagreement becomes conflict, it starts out as difference. Different opinions. Different likes. Different leanings. Different tastes. Different lenses with which to view the world. Different cultures, backgrounds, aptitudes, loves, goals, concerns, comforts. These differences are the points at which disagreements arise. To faithfully navigate them, we need a robust understanding of difference—and how God intends difference to function in his creation and in his people.

Difference Is Good but Sin Corrupts

Difference started with God, so our first task is to understand difference biblically. Let’s think about the ways the Lord created difference to function constructively, and set categories that help us discern good difference from bad. To begin, what makes difference good?

The story of difference begins in the Lord himself. He has variety within unity; he is three distinct (different!) persons united in one. When the Lord created a world that reflects his own splendor, he made it full of variety and difference. He delights in variation—he created a multitude of species and kinds, an array of colors and textures. And to finish his creation he crowned it with his own image—male and female. Different and yet united, God commanded them to multiply variety through offspring.

The theme of variety within unity is found throughout all of Scripture. One place it surfaces dramatically is how God takes nations, tribes, tongues, and peoples who are different from each other—and invests in these differences potential to glorify God in a kaleidoscope of diverse ways. Similarly, variety within unity surfaces prominently when Paul describes the gifts within the body of Christ. He begins this teaching with a Trinitarian formula. “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everything” (1 Cor 12:4–5). The different gifts reflect God’s variety.

Indeed, differences display the splendor of the Lord. To live well amidst differences, we must value the goodness of variety because it images God. But that is not always how we respond. Because of our sinfulness, we are often tempted to see otherness, or difference, as intrinsically bad. This temptation can be subtle. Have you ever been frustrated with someone because he is not like you? Or avoided someone at church because she seems strange to you? If so, your frustration or your avoidance is identifying differences as a problem. In both of these situations, we fail to see the goodness of the variety the Lord created to image himself.

            Other times we don’t view differences as good or bad, but as neutral. Maybe that sounds like this:

  • “You hold your opinion and I hold mine.”
  • “Let’s agree to disagree.”
  • “Live and let live.”

In other words, difference just is and the goal is simply to respect that. Without a Godward trajectory, this may be the best place you can land—but it falls woefully short of God’s design for us to learn and value good differences.

As we’ve seen, God’s design for otherness or difference is deeply good. Fallen people just don’t see it that way. And to that we must add that difference itself has been corrupted. When Satan brought sin into the world, it entangled and warped what God created. Due to the fall, difference no longer images God alone, so it’s no longer all good. Variety has become tainted by sin. There are evil differences—true wrongs, false perspectives, counterfeit saviors. Sin impacts our interactions with difference in three ways.

First, we are tempted to make the categories of difference too simple—as if a difference is either good or bad. But sin makes it more complex than that. For example, take Lamech’s poem in Genesis 4. God gave poets gifts and strengths in communication. And yet people can hijack the medium of poetry and use it to harm rather than bless. This is how Lamech used the form.

  Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;

              You wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:

  I have killed a man for wounding me,

              A young man for striking me.

  If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold,          

              Then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold. (Gen 4: 23–24)

This poem is a piece of artwork. It’s linguistically stunning, but it doesn’t take a Hebrew scholar to hear the wickedness of Lamech’s heart expressed in artistic form. It’s an example of a creative ability—a beautiful source of variety—twisted to display the image of the enemy.

Second, sin tempts us to discern the right or wrong of difference by self-centered standards. So while good difference images its Creator in its splendor and variety, sin tempts us to value difference according to our own likeness. If a difference is only good when it aligns with my preferences and tastes, then I’m living in the warp of sin.

Finally, because of sin, difference has the potential to divide. In Adam’s family, the shepherd killed the farmer (Gen 4:1–16). In Isaac’s family, two brothers—who will become the nations of Israel and Edom—are set against each other (Gen 25:19–34). This plays out over and over in Scripture when people and people groups erect “dividing walls of hostility” (Eph 2:14)

I grew up in the late 80s when rap and hip hop music began to enter the Christian music scene. It was a music form that reflected a good difference—rhythms and spoken word blended with music. But the secular version was widely associated with violent, immoral lyrics. It was a modern version of Lamech’s poem. The temptation for many Christians was to only see the gnarl and not to notice or appreciate the skill, artistry, and uniqueness of a new form of music that could be used in a worshipful way.  

This example demonstrates all three of the effects that sin brings to this equation.

  1. Rather than being able to discern the good and appreciate the adornment of creation, people were tempted to only associate this music with sin.
  2. Since this music was new and foreign to them, people judged the goodness of the difference based on their own inclinations. But just because someone doesn’t lean toward a certain type of music, it doesn’t make the difference bad.
  3. The music had the propensity to divide. “I don’t associate with people who listen to that kind of music.” Making assumptions about the kinds of people who listen to rap separates people.

Though nobody is required to enjoy this type of music, to not see its beauty in variety, to proclaim it as simply bad, and to allow it to separate people is sin on top of sin. This is not disagreeing well.

            However, not disagreeing well is not limited to smaller matters like taste in music. We experience disagreements at all levels of human experience—between friends, families, ethnic groups, even countries. We’ve seen that division is the way of fracture. But what is the way of Christ uniting us, making variety and difference beautiful again?

The Gospel in Difference

Just as both variety and fracture expand throughout Scripture, so too does God’s redemption of it. Two themes summarize God’s action in difference.

First, God is actively at work restoring his multi-splendored image in his people. In Israel’s history God is pointing forward to when he will truly unite difference again. Jacob’s family is a clear example of this. Fractured by betrayal and deception, brothers with widely varied talents and affinities joined together only by the promise made to their forefather Abraham – to be a nation and a blessing to all the nations (Gen 12:1-3).[1] It’s a picture of what Christ will do with his church in the New Testament. As we think about the uniting of difference in our church communities, we must see that living united in difference is part of redemption. We don’t just tolerate each other in our differences but rather our differences, and the fact that we can stand together with one voice praising the Lord, should evoke in us a worship for the God who restores his image in us. And it should make us long for the day when all tongues and tribes stand together praising our great King. This is the redemption of difference.

Second, he is glorified when sin’s trajectory for difference is overturned. Sin skews otherness to divide and create hostility. But God triumphs over sin when division and animosity become the stage for redemption. Ephesians describes it this way:

 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility …, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility….So that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. (Ephes 2:14–16; 3:10)

As the church unites, God’s great power is made known to the heavens. Our union in difference is the testimony of his victory over sin.

The Gospel Trajectory for Difference in Disagreement

As we turn to the practical ways we live out the gospel in our disagreements, consider this striking proverb and the course it sets us on. Proverbs 18:18 sets a priority for us in our disagreements. It says: “The lot puts an end to quarrels and decides between powerful contenders.”  The implication is that it is better to cast lots in a disagreement than to engage in a quarrel. The goal in such cases isn’t deciding what is true and right, but to end the argument. Consider this in the life and body of the church and where it points us. Often, the things we disagree about are important matters. In the church, differences over doctrine and ethics are important. Questions about church leadership and roles are significant and weighty. Faithful questioning about raising children, education, and methods of discipline are serious matters. In each of these situations, the arguments on either side are strong. In the language of the proverb, there are powerful contenders on each side. Certainly, in each of these things, it matters where truth lies and it bears emphasizing that there are many topics that have only one correct answer. But even in the subjects where truth is absolute, in a disagreement, we’re always called to talk about it and consider it together.[2] And as we do, this proverb is setting a priority for us—a heart posture that will choose peace over being right and winning. Here are five actions and attitudes that give shape to the heart posture this proverb is pointing to as we engage in disagreement:

1. Find and delight in the good.A good friend of mine studies rocks and often when we are out on a hike together he will point out different rock formations and explain to me what they are, how (he thinks) they got there, and what differentiates them from other rocks on our path. To my untrained eye, I may be able to see the differences between one rock and another but it doesn’t register beyond difference. But to my friend, the difference is the earth’s adornment. He sees the beauty because he knows the story and the significance of the intricate details. Likewise, as we seek to admire the adornment of differences in our communities, we must become investigators. It’s not enough to notice difference; rather, we must become curious about it. What is the story of that difference? Where did it come from? What formed it? In what way does this person image the Lord in a way that’s different from me? How does that person reflect the variety of an infinite God?

When my niece was learning to spell we hit a disagreement over how to spell the word receive. She simply could not believe that I was spelling it correctly and argued with me for a few minutes insisting that this wasn’t the way her mother spelled it. It wasn’t until I could pause the conversation for a second and understand what was so important to her that I was able to reason with her. She genuinely believed that her mother had spelled it a different way for her and desperately wanted to be loyal to her mom. It was a lovely desire mixed with my 6 year old niece’s stubbornness and faulty memory. It was a small and insignificant disagreement but it’s a good picture of searching for the loveliness in the other person even when one position in the argument is clearly correct over the other.

Not all opinions strongly held are true. But all opinion-holders are image bearers and all opinions reflect some degree of that image bearer’s otherness. If difference in the Lord’s image is deeply good then it is our job to find where we can delight in it as a starting point in disagreement. It becomes a lot easier to live out this proverb in a disagreement if my heart is in a place to truly delight in the goodness of my opponent’s created difference. I still might not agree, but if I can appreciate the goodness of their otherness, I’m one step closer to living well in disagreement.

2. Humbly admit your own gnarl. Humility pushes us to acknowledge two things. First, our attitudes, the way we hold our opinions, and how we choose to express them are susceptible to the warp of our own sin. Do you find yourself digging your heels in? Getting defensive? Grabbing for any detail you can think of to make your point? When you’re engaged in a conversation, is it more important to be right than it is to know and understand the person? Any of these can be signals to alert you to the effects of sin in yourself.

Second, be willing to see potential flaws in your own thinking. Again, the goal here isn’t to undermine absolute truth or to insinuate that you should hold all truths with an open hand. But rather the goal is to encourage you to ask the question: Is this something I should be holding this tightly? And the answer very well may be yes. But I suspect the answer should be “no” more often than we allow it to be. While our conviction may be strong that one way is right over another, if we acknowledge our current state, one where our minds are marred by sin, where our very thinking is skewed (1 Cor 13:12; Rom 1:21), where our cultures and backgrounds and affinities and communities all influence the way we think, then we must also acknowledge that it’s possible that we are blind to the places where our own conviction is falling short.

During my first two years in college, I was required to take a series of courses that traced art, literature, philosophy, and music through history. It was incredible to watch how historical events influenced society, how philosophical ideas took root and developed over decades and influenced art and music. There was a moment about halfway through the series of courses where, for the first time, it dawned on my eighteen- year-old self that my thoughts were being influenced by things outside of me. I wasn’t unaffected by my world.  I, too, lived in a time period where historical events and philosophers (even ones I was unaware of) were shaping me. Outside influences can skew you with flawed thinking. They can accent one piece of human experience creating an emphasis in you that others might not share. And those accents can blind you to important things the other person is trying to communicate. Humility in a disagreement means you realize that you’ve been influenced by other.

There’s a reason Proverbs contains so many warnings about thinking too highly of your own opinion without listening and understanding those of another: because that attitude works against the humility needed to live well with one another.[3] As we enter disagreements, we must do so with the expectation that something in each of us bears the gnarl of sin, that the things that influence us in our opinions have also been twisted.

  • The biggest danger in disagreement is the sinful desire to be right—

the thrill of exalting yourself, your thoughts, your strengths. To combat this temptation, consider ways you might begin to evaluate what your goal truly is:

As we step back and see how difference functions in the community of the Lord, the only appropriate goal is God’s glory. He is glorified when we image him—when we live united in difference as a reflection of his unity in difference. He is glorified when sin is defeated—when division and hostility are cast away and unity and love replace them. He is glorified when the effects of sin become the stage for our redemption—when he uses the friction difference causes to sanctify and demonstrate the glories of his grace. In disagreement, make sure your heart is pointed in the right direction. Repent when you see it is not.

4. Find your common voice. When Paul instructs the church regarding disagreements. he consistently points them to what holds them together. One Spirit, one body, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.[4] He calls us to anchor into that by having the same mind. I’ve been frustrated by that because it sounds like he’s calling us to agree. In fact, when Euodia and Syntyche disagree that is exactly what he says: “agree in the Lord.” [5] At first glance it sounds like the goal is consensus. But the language he uses is a repeat of what he was teaching a few chapters earlier in the book when he was patterning their relationships after Christ’s humility, “being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”[6] To “agree in the Lord” has more to do with having the mind of Christ, cultivating humility, and considering the interests of others over yourselves than it does with coming to a consensus.

Consider this from another angle. When Paul instructs the Roman church regarding tensions over different convictions, he prays for them to “live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Jesus Christ, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[7] In Romans, he doesn’t instruct them to come to the same conviction but exhorts them to glorify the Lord with one voice in the midst of their disagreement. This image of coming together in one voice makes me think of the description in Revelation of every tongue and nation and tribe bowing down before the Lord. The Lord doesn’t erase the difference of language but unites us to join together in one voice to worship our King.[8] This is how it will be when we learn to live in unity amongst difference.

The previous step involves pointing your own heart in the right direction. This one means beginning to point in that direction together. Here are a few ideas that move a conversation with you and your opponent in that direction.

  • The temptation in a potentially tense conversation is to come with your arguments lined up ready to defend yourself. While the topic may be weighty and significant and the disagreement serious, it puts it in perspective to consider how Christ was crucified to unite you as family.
  • When tensions arise, name the hostility for what it is and bring it back into the book of Ephesians. “This moment right here, this frustration between us, the animosity I feel in this very moment is what Christ tore down. This moment, right now, is the stage for his redemption. He has purchased peace for us.” Hopefully, this will begin to realign you.
  • Second, it is a prayer that my eyes might be opened to see the effects of that salvation even in our disagreement. And third, it is a prayer that when I see the work of the Lord in him, I might rejoice, that this would be where my heart was pointed and this is what I might revel in.

5. Lean into differences. In sin, difference divides but in Christ we are united in our difference. The final step in navigating disagreement is actively working against division by leaning into difference—not shying away from it.  This doesn’t mean finding the sore spot in a relationship to poke at it. There is wisdom in letting a contentious topic drop. Scripture is clear in its warning against stirring up strife.[9] But if you do choose to step away from the conversation, here are a few things that should be true: Despite the disagreement there isn’t distance in your relationship; You’ve done your due diligence to understand and love the person in that difference; The choice not to speak is motivated from patience and gentleness with your brother in his difference.           

If you are tempted to avoid or pull away in the face of difference, the hope is to see that place in your relationship as the stage for Christ’s work. To live together united in him in light of that difference is the glory of the gospel playing out in your relationship. To stand together in your difference and delight in the variety of the Triune God. This is one of those things that is far easier to say (or type!) than it is to live out. Living together in difference often brings friction. It stirs up pride that needs to be humbled and defenses that need to be whittled away. As Paul addresses the union of the Jews and Gentiles in Ephesians, he knows there is going to be friction. This is why he exhorts them to bear with and speak the truth in love to one another. He knows we are going to see the gnarl of sin in one another and he calls us to evaluate those things with one another but without sin.[10] Living together in difference will sanctify us and demonstrate Christ’s work on the cross as we live united unto him in our differences.

Disagreeing Well

How do followers of Christ disagree well? What does Proverbs mean when it instructs us to “flip a coin” when disagreements turn contentious? It doesn’t mean that all opinions are equal and true or that there is truth in both. But it is indicative of a priority. It means that living united and pursuing Christ together is far more important. It means living in the knowledge that the image of Christ in us corporately is at stake. Will I follow the trajectory of the fall, of sin and all its hostility? Or will I live as a witness to the heavenly realms of the peace of Christ bought for me?

[1] In Genesis 49 Jacob blesses his sons with blessings that range from negative prophesies of violence and destruction to characteristics such as beauty or affinity for rich food. Each one distinct, each with its own character, and yet all a part of one promise.

[2] Proverbs consistently exhorts us to live our lives seeking the counsel of others. See Proverbs 12:15; 15:22; 19:20; 20:18 

[3] Proverbs 26:12 – Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him. See also Proverbs 12:15; 16:25; 30:32-33

[4] Ephesians 4:4

[5] Philippians 4:2

[6] Philippians 2:2

[7] Romans 15:5-6

[8] Revelation 7:9

[9] Proverbs 10:12; 16:28; 17:14

[10] Ephesians 4. Here Paul exhorts the Ephesians to “be angry and do not sin.” Righteous anger is evaluative. It calls things wrong. The implication is that in living life together we will be evaluating things within one another and the goal is to be righteous in that. 

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