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How to Disagree Constructively (in Church)

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My wife and I agree we should watch good movies and avoid bad ones. But our agreement about movie watching nearly always ends at that point. Heady sci-fi, anyone? No, she says. Perhaps a holiday rom-com? No from me. But don’t worry about us. We’ll find something eventually, because love finds a way.

Unfortunately, it’s harder to find a way when church folks differ, especially if we don’t have the kind of deep, warm relationships that form a foundation for peace. Church members and leaders disagree frequently. Why do we sing this song so often? Why did the pastor refer to that godless movie? Then there are the big issues—leadership vision, budgets, politics.

Fortunately, Scripture has several foundational concepts that are essential instructions for constructive engagement when people disagree.

First, no one knows everything. So we learn when we listen to others.
Second, disagreement isn’t a personal affront. It’s the inevitable result of our limited knowledge, perspectives, and experience and of our sinful nature.
Therefore, we should be open to correction and healthy disagreement.

James 1:19 says, “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Paul’s description of love in 1 Corinthians 13 also applies to healthy communication. Because “love is patient,” it lets people finish their thoughts. It doesn’t “boast”; it sets aside ego. Love doesn’t “insist on its own way” or its own proposals. It “rejoices with the truth,” so it seeks the truth. Since love “bears all things, . . . hopes all things,” it overlooks minor mistakes and takes the words of others in the best way. All this applies to healthy fighting.

Learn from Jesus’s Disputes

In Matthew 12:1–8, we see Pharisees incorrectly but sincerely objecting to Jesus’s actions when they believe them immoral. Consider this passage and the way it informs healthy disagreement:

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” (vv. 1–2)

The Pharisees believed that (1) Jesus’s disciples were harvesting, (2) it was sinful to harvest on the Sabbath, and (3) Jesus was responsible for his disciples’ behavior. Notice how Jesus replied fully, patiently, and candidly to their false accusation. He showed why they were wrong, using reasoning they could follow if they were willing.

He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” (vv. 3–8)

Jesus fully answered the Pharisees’ objection; they truly believed his disciples broke God’s law. That leads to the first two principles for healthy fighting.

Principle 1: Identify the other party’s legitimate concerns and respond to them even if you believe—as Jesus did—that he or she applies those concerns incorrectly.

Principle 2: Listen carefully, even if you’re sure the other party is wrong—even if you have more knowledge or authority.

These principles don’t mean we’re obligated to answer questions that frame a situation incorrectly. It’s good to say, “You’re raising an important issue, but there’s another way to look at it.” Jesus often declined to answer questions; he redirected people to the best way to consider an issue (John 9:1–3; Matt. 15:1–6; 20:20–21).

Work on Problems Together

Jesus often declined to answer questions; he redirected people to the best way to consider an issue.

If a problem or strategic issue lands on the agenda of a leadership team, it’s probably weighty or complicated. If there was a simple solution, the team wouldn’t need to discuss it. Complex, long-standing problems resist easy resolution. Therefore they engender disagreements, which healthy teams don’t fear. We expect debate and make the most of it.

Big discussions tend to have four elements:

Clarification → Ideation → Development → Implementation

To clarify is to define the nature of the problem. To ideate is to formulate several possible strategies or solutions, without assessing them at once. To develop a plan, a team must identify the best option, delegate responsibilities, and assemble resources. Finally, the team implements the plan: they have the needed authority, resources, and support.

There’s room to disagree in each phase. A healthy team welcomes debate, even disagreement. They know it’s dangerous, not helpful or productive, when everyone agrees or pretends to agree. The team is thankful, not defensive, during debates, even if people say, “You’re wrong!” Proverbs 9:7–9 says,

Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse,
and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury.
Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you;
reprove a wise man, and he will love you.
Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser;
teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning.

Three times, the passage says scoffers and the wicked listen to no one. But the righteous love correction and instruction and grow through it. The wise say, “God knows all things.” They hold him in awe and listen to his agents. Fools are proud and imagine they “know everything” (1:1–17; 12:15; 26:12). Proverbs 9 leads to more principles for healthy disagreement.

Principle 3: If we hope for healthy disagreement, we must be open to correction.

Principle 4: Focus on the problem at hand. We attack problems, not people. An idea may be foolish, but we never call people fools. We expect each other to try to grow in wisdom.

Principle 5: In healthy conflict, we aim to edify each other.

A healthy team welcomes debate, even disagreement.

Proverbs assumes correction is an act of love—as it should be. Ideally, we trust each other’s motives. We all want to be wiser. Healthy disagreement is the fruit of trust. It also increases trust when we handle our differences responsibly.

If the first six people on a team rapidly agree on every major point, the seventh may need to act as if the team has succumbed to collective insanity and attack every point that has a whiff of weakness. The goal isn’t endless discussion. We must shift from reflection to action, but we also question a rapidly formed consensus, if only to identify and shore up weak spots.

Principles for Healthy Disagreement

Allow me to restate these principles somewhat differently.

1. Healthy teams hear all ideas, regardless of the rank of the speaker, as we clarify, ideate, develop, and implement plans. When brainstorming, we list and entertain every serious idea.

2. Healthy teams focus on the problem at hand. We revisit old mistakes only if they have a direct bearing on a discussion.

3. Healthy teams attack problems, not people. A proposal may be foolish, but we never call people fools. Healthy conflict promotes the group’s common interests and goals. They don’t litigate the status of members in the group. They think, If Lisa is in the room, she belongs in the room.

4. Healthy conflict aims for trust among group members. Since truth is the coin of the realm in relationships, members should be clear about their goals and agendas, so everyone knows why they take a debated position.

5. Healthy conflict is a group activity. Every back-channel conversation seeks to improve group processes or functions. Teams don’t form cabals that try to control outcomes.

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