3 Ways to Disagree With Nonbelievers

“We should desire real discourse for the good of the causes we believe in and for the good of the world that we care to convince.”

It might be easy for us to turn the other way when we encounter people who disagree with our stances on political and worldview issues. But for the sake of the kingdom and the good of the world, we are called to lovingly engage people just as Jesus did.

But what does that look like in a world where complete thoughts can be watered down into a 140-character tweet? It means being a good listener, loving as Jesus loved, and, well, just being who we are called to be as followers and modelers of Christ.

I follow politics and public discourse. I think it’s important to stay in the loop on what’s happening in the world and in American life. More than that, however, I think it’s important to engage in these things. But it’s an understatement to say that much of what happens in public discourse isn’t pretty—including the contribution from Christians, unfortunately.

The last several presidential elections have revealed a division in our culture. The amount of true discussion and debate over the issues of greatest importance has taken a back seat to well-crafted one-liners delivered at just the right time for maximum rhetorical impact. A lot of time is spent talking past each other and not listening to each other.

This goes beyond politics. There’s an increasing entrenchment in our views and a vilification of people who hold other views. We’re not working together. How do we dialogue for the common good and with the goal of finding solutions? I don’t hear a lot of people asking that question.

Evangelicals have a lot of problems with where culture is going, and rightly so. But we aren’t getting very far with the culture in our discourse with them. Why? I think the answer is engagement.

In my book Subversive Kingdom, I argue that we shouldn’t be about control. Rather, we should be seeking to live as agents of the kingdom who are showing and sharing the love of Jesus to a hurting world. So, how do we get to that place of engagement?

Let me list three simple and biblical ways to wisely engage with our neighbors and our culture, regardless of how difficult an issue is.

1. Love your neighbor as yourself.

Without going into great detail, as many of us have heard this preached or taught it ourselves, to love our neighbors is to see them as God sees them and to care for them as God would have us care for them.

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While we can, and should, describe love as more than just feelings (which I’ll do below), I want to focus here on that feeling of love—to truly feel love for our neighbor. Love means we see people as creatures made in God’s image.

If you want to cultivate a heart that loves your neighbor, you need to know your own heart better. I am the greatest sinner, not them, because I know my heart. Realizing this will break you, humble you, and open your eyes to see people as you’ve never seen them. That, in turn, will enable you to love them as you’ve never loved them before. This leads to my next point.

2. Practice the Golden Rule.

Love leads us to practice the Golden Rule: “Whatever you want others to do for you, do also the same for them” (Matt. 7:12). It’s unfortunate that one of the most practical and powerful teachings in all of Scripture is often too quickly said and too rarely practiced. When love for neighbor is genuine and deeply felt, it changes not only what we feel for others, but also how we treat others.

The Bible includes many passages that illustrate what treating others as we want to be treated looks like. We are to consider others as more important and to look out for their interests (Phil. 2:3-4). We are to bear burdens for others (Gal. 6:2). What if we looked at those with whom we disagree through eyes called to bear their burdens and to be concerned for them more than ourselves?

Don’t we want that for ourselves? Don’t we want to be understood? Don’t we want our positions honestly considered? But too often we think of others’ views in the worst way, while demanding others to think of our views in the best way. That’s hypocrisy.

Without love, we are just clanging cymbals (1 Cor. 13:1) in the public sphere or in our coffee-shop conversations. Love is the fuel for disagreeing without being disagreeable. Love elevates our dialogue and seeks the greatest good.

My goal when I critique someone else’s position is that he or she would say that I have articulated his or her position correctly even though we disagree on the position itself. Without love and the Golden Rule, people and arguments are demoted to caricatures, and that gets us nowhere.

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3. Be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to get angry.

Finally, we need to head the words of James 1:19. Following these words, James explains that our anger doesn’t accomplish God’s righteousness. This may be one of the best ways to explain what the Golden Rule looks like in an actual conversation.

As we engage with those who have different perspectives and opinions, we should focus on listening. Too often, we “engage” by preparing our responses while others are still laying out their case. This is pretty much what we see on news debates every day. We can do better by listening well.

Listening not only makes us respond better to people, but it shows we respect them. We speak best when we know what they said, what we are saying, and how we should say it. Saying something that seems well-worded to us may not seem that way to others. Good listening leads to good understanding, and good understanding leads to good and accurate responses.

And then when they respond, we refuse to get easily angered and offended. We take the words of others in the best way possible and keep focused on the discourse and not the attacks.

True Christian Discourse

Christian leaders need to teach the values of civil public discourse. Before we expect it from anyone else, we must be the ones to model it.

It starts with obeying the Great Commandment to love your neighbor and following the Golden Rule. It makes us better listeners, wise regarding when and how to use our words, and not easily offended or angered.

More than a good zinger or a clever quip to try to win an argument, we should desire real discourse for the good of the causes we believe in and for the good of the world that we care to convince.

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Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham distinguished chair of church, mission and evangelism at Wheaton College and the Wheaton Grad School, where he also oversees the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.