The political season is now in full swing here in the United States, and "civil discourse" is fast becoming an oxymoron. I suppose it is human nature to view disagreement as a zero-sum game. There are winners and losers; everything else is just spin.
This attitude even finds its way into the church, and often characterizes the manner in which believers handle disagreements with one another. In fact, I have sometimes written articles in this very newsletter expressing a less than charitable attitude toward those with whom I disagree.
It is always easier to be an "againster" than it is to be a booster, easier to point out errors than to affirm what is good. Tearing things down can be very energizing, and it’s easy to gather a following of equally energized people out to right what is wrong. The problem is, it’s easy to become self-righteous (which is itself a wrong) and overstate our case, tearing down people in the process. It’s easy to censure those who dissent from our views and discredit those with whom we disagree. This pattern demonstrates insecurity and immaturity in the faith.
Certainly, we need to be courageous and stand up for the truth without compromise. But we need to do so charitably, in ways that honor the Lord. It can be challenging to do so, as we’ve found in the context of our Jews for Jesus witness. Our faith in Christ is roundly rejected by a majority within the Jewish community and we are often treated with contempt by those who oppose our efforts. It would be easy to take those reactions personally. Sometimes I find my own responses getting a bit caustic, in contrast to the Scripture that advises, "A soft answer turns away wrath. . . ." (Proverbs 15:1). It is human nature to respond "in kind": to meet wrath with wrath, and sarcasm with more of the same. In the early days of Jews for Jesus people on the streets often asked, "How much do they pay you for this?" As a question, it was less than sincere; as a statement, it was definitely barbed. I remember being encouraged to reply with a smile, "I get one thousand dollars a convert; if you convert I’ll split it with you." This reply was meant to demonstrate our understanding that the question was insincere, and to deflect the antagonism with a bit of a good-natured goofiness. In most cases, I don’t think it worked.
Recently, I was talking things over with Moishe Rosen and he was concerned that one of our staff members had told a person who was cursing at him, "God bless you. Jesus loves you." Moishe thought maybe this was a new technique we were teaching our staff. While it is not, that doesn’t mean that some of our people won’t respond to personal hostility that way. What is wrong with saying such a thing to an angry person? It depends on one’s tone and demeanor. Whereas a rare person might be able to deliver such a statement in a truly disarming manner, for most of us it would more likely come across as a little game of holy one-upmanship, a bit of a spiritual taunt, a way to have the last word.
It is true that Jesus taught us to bless those who curse us (Matthew 5:44), but blessing the curser is more than merely pronouncing a formulaic phrase. It is caring for that person enough to afford them an opportunity to further consider how God might actually bless them. That is the whole purpose of sharing the gospel.
The first purpose in "agreeable disagreement" is to care more for the person you are disagreeing with than you do about your own image or about winning the argument. After all, people are more important than polemics. It is possible to win an argument, yet lose the person.
A better response might be to ask the disagreeable person, "Why are you so angry?" By provoking people to self-examination, it’s possible to engage with them on a deeper and potentially more meaningful level. Often this question has led people to stop in their tracks and come back for a real conversation rather than a one-sided rant. That leads to the second purpose of "agreeable disagreement": to shine the light of truth.
If we are concerned about truth because it is beautiful and good, we will not wield it as a sword to slash our opponents into submission. Rather, we can offer truth humbly, as something of great value, and avoid becoming disagreeable in our disagreements.
Truth stands on its own merits. It does not require our forceful pronouncements or rhetorical flourishes to win the day. People may disagree with the truth, and they may even find the truth disagreeable, as it sometimes exposes sinful attitudes and actions. But we should guard against making the truth unnecessarily disagreeable by tainting it with a prideful, callous or defensive delivery.
When it comes to disagreements with a brother or sister in Christ, Paul encourages us to be cheated rather than go to court against a brother (1 Corinthians 6:7). Most of us are prepared to follow that admonition. But are we prepared to lose an argument rather than lose a brother or a sister?
I receive enough complaints and criticism concerning our ministry to provide a veritable garden of opportunities for me to grow in this area. I don’t want to be defensive and I don’t want our Jews for Jesus missionaries to be defensive either.
Recently, I saw a trailer for a new movie, the title of which combines the words "religion" and "ridiculous." The movie, "Religulous," is obviously intended to mock religion in general and people of faith in particular.
I discovered that among those interviewed was a man who described himself as an ex-Jew for Jesus. At first I was angry and defensive. But when I prayed about it, I found my anger turning to sorrow—sorrow that this man’s life and legacy had taken such a turn, and sorrow for the truth, which, based on the nature of the movie (I have not seen it as of this writing), was almost certainly misrepresented and mocked. No doubt some will fume and fuss about this cynical film when it reaches the theaters, but I wonder if we, as people of faith, can disagree agreeably?
If ever there was a role model for this type of disagreement, I think it would be Dr. John Piper in his book titled, The Future of Justification. In it, Dr. Piper critiques the writings of British theologian N.T. Wright. Dr. Piper disagreed most emphatically with Wright’s teaching, but he did so in an exemplary way. He affirmed Rev. Wright personally for the good things that show through his life and his writings. What is more, he took time to send his manuscript to Rev. Wright in advance, just to make sure he was not misrepresenting his position. When N.T. Wright responded with ten pages of notes and clarifications, Dr. Piper edited his own manuscript to reflect those clarifications.
I find this to be a remarkable example of careful and Christlike disagreement. Here is a man who not only demonstrated that he had no personal animus toward the man with whom he disagreed, but he also demonstrated that his primary concern was getting at the truth. He critiqued the position and not the person, but not before taking pains to make sure he understood that position. I am convinced that is what the Lord would have us to do in our witness to unbelievers, as well as in our relationships with one another.
Lord Jesus, give us the grace to care more about people than polemics, and to love truth more than we love winning arguments. Amen!