Non-Essential ≠ Unimportant

Now don't misunderstand me. Non-essential does not mean unimportant. It may sometimes; but at other times, what at first seems non-essential may prove to be important.

For instance, the question about prayers for the dead may at first seem non-essential. But as you come to recognize that this particular practice undermines justification by faith alone, you begin to see how important the topic is. Praying for the dead assumes that any decision they made in this life does not stand. It says we can directly affect the eternal states of others, when Scripture is clear that our eternal state is determined only by our faith in Christ alone.

6. HOW CAN CHRISTIANS DISAGREE WELL?

Finally, how can Christians disagree well?

Perhaps you have heard this helpful statement that came out of the German reformation: "In essentials unity, in non-essentials diversity, in all things, charity (or love)." We must agree on the essentials in order to have unity, which we've discussed. And we allow for diversity in non-essentials, which we've also discussed. But how do we achieve that daunting command to love in all this?

Roger Nicole has suggested that we answer these two questions:

What do I owe the person who differs from me?
What can I learn from the person who differs from me?

Let's think about these questions for a moment.

What Do I Owe?

What do I owe the person who differs from me? First, I owe love. We should speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15).

Second, I owe respect. Do to others as you would have them do to you (Matt. 7:12). When you are in a disagreement, make it evident that you care about the person you're disagreeing with as a person, more than care about winning an argument. Listen carefully to what they're saying. Clarify anything you haven't understood. Always go for what people mean, even beyond what they've said. One of my theology professors always wrote out the pros and cons of the differing views.

The principle here is that you want to represent the opposite perspective as well as you can, so that the proponents feel satisfied with your presentation. After all, debates tend to harden proponents in their own ideas.

In all of this, consider what goals you share. Can you see what your friend is aiming at in what he's saying? One way I try to explore differences is to use what I call a "decision tree." I try to begin where we both agree, and then trace out the point at which we diverge and ask why he made one decision while I made the other. Your goal should always be to avoid alienating people, but instead to encourage them. That will usually get farther in persuading them anyway!

What Can I Learn?

The second question to ask yourself in learning to disagree well is, "What can I learn from the person who differs from me?"

After all, perhaps it's the case that I am wrong. Certainly I can learn something of my own assertiveness, and the temptations I face in discussion. Are we more interested in winning a discussion and safeguarding our reputation, or in discovering truth and leading it to triumph?

A couple of years ago I was reading a biography of John Wesley and I ran across this brief account:

It was customary for the itinerant and local preachers to take breakfast together, on Sunday mornings, at City Road. On one occasion, when Wesley was present, a young man rose and found fault with one of his seniors. The Scotch blood of Thomas Rankin was roused, and he sharply rebuked the juvenile for his impertinence; but, in turn, was as sharply rebuked himself. Wesley instantly replied: ‘I will thank the youngest man among you to tell me of any fault you see in me; in doing so, I shall consider him my best friend.'" (L. Tyerman, Life and Times of Wesley (Harper & Bros; 1872), III.567.)