Respectful Conversations about Divisive Issues: A Place to Start

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you for a reason for the hope you have. But do this with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15, NIV)

A Myth that Precludes Conversation

Over the last few years, I had the opportunity to engage other Christians in conversations regarding the following controversial issues about which Christians have strong disagreements: American politics; the evolutionary creationist/young-earth creationist debate; immigration reform; and same-sex marriage.

Christians hold widely divergent views on these “hot-button” issues. One of the most important results of my in-depth conversation with Christians who situate themselves at opposite poles on these issues was to dispel a very prevalent, pernicious myth.

The myth is that Christians who line-up on a particular side of the issue are “inferior” Christians who are more committed to a social or political position than to biblical authority. That is simply not true as a generalization. In my conversations, I have found that there are equally committed Christians on both sides of these issues who aspire to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ and who hold a “high” view” of Scripture, with much of the disagreement emerging from differing interpretations as to the meaning of relevant biblical passages.

This erroneous myth is destructive because it precludes the possibility of having respectful conversation about disagreements. After all, if you decide up-front that “they are the bad guys,” there is no point in talking: “I have the Truth, you don’t, end of conversation.”

Once you realize that there are faithful, deeply committed Christians on both sides of these issues, you have taken the first foundational step toward having a respectful conversation about your disagreements. How should you then proceed? I will suggest three practical steps that you can take when engaging someone who disagrees with you (on any issue, in any setting).

Steps toward Respectful Conversation

The first step toward facilitating a respectful conversation about a controversial issue is applicable in those situations where you don’t know very well the person who takes an opposing view. In such cases, take the time to really get to know the person who disagrees with you.

A Christian scholar friend of mine told me about an evolution in his response to his critics during Q& A sessions after making presentations at academic conferences. He moved from being defensive to personal engagement. After one presentation, he sought out his most vocal critic and invited him to dinner. Over a good meal, they got to know one another on a personal level, trading outlandish war stories about campus politics at their respective schools and even exchanging soccer coaching tips for their daughters.

By discovering that they had some of the same joys, fears and challenges in life, they started building a relationship of mutual trust, which opened the door for the second step of engagement: uncovering the reasons for your disagreements about certain issues. Even for persons you think you know well, you don’t know them well enough to sustain a respectful conversation until you adequately understand the reasons they have for their beliefs about a given issue.

Everyone has reasons for what they believe, which includes you and the person who disagrees with you. Therefore, it is important to get those reasons out on the table at the very beginning of a conversation. You can do this by simply asking, “Why do you believe that?”

In settings where you are engaging a person whose background differs widely from yours, her reasons may be revealing and helpful as you seek to understand her better. Her interpretations of relevant biblical passages and her other beliefs will be informed by the particular faith tradition in which she is immersed. Her beliefs will also be informed by her personal biography, the experiences she has had in life. Her beliefs may also be informed by her gender and her socio-economic-status. These elements of what scholars call her “particularities” or her “social location” provide some of the reasons for her beliefs. The same is true for you. You need to uncover those reasons or your conversation will hit a dead end.

To uncover the reasons for the other person’s beliefs, you need to listen well; not being quick to talk. By your listening well, the other person will see that you are really interested in understanding their reasons for the position they are taking; you really want to understand their point of view, trying your best to empathetically “put yourself in their shoes.”

When the other person sees that you understand their reasons for the position they are taking, then it is time for you to start talking, sharing your beliefs and the reasons you have for your beliefs. When your respective reasons for your differing beliefs are out on the table, then you have laid the groundwork needed to navigate the third step of engagement: uncovering some common ground and illuminating remaining differences sufficient to be the basis for ongoing conversations.

In what follows, I will call my first two steps my “getting to know you” phase. My experience suggest that these first two steps are the “place to start.” These steps must be taken before there is any hope for fruitfully embarking on the third step in subsequent conversations.

A Biblical Rationale

My proposed strategy for respectfully engaging those who disagree with you flows from my Christian commitment. Jesus calls all who aspire to be his followers to “love our neighbor” (Mark 12:31). To get to know someone well enough to create a safe, welcoming space for that person to express their beliefs and their reasons for holding to those beliefs, and then having respectful conversations in an attempt to uncover our agreements and illuminate our disagreements is, for me, a deep expression  of love for that person. So, the strategy I have suggested for engaging those who disagree with me is not peripheral to my Christian faith; it is a center-piece of my Christian faith; it is my understanding of how I should love those who disagree with me.

Obstacles to Respectful Conversation

The obstacles to actually implementing the strategy for respectful conversation that I am proposing are enormous. I will briefly point to a few of these obstacles.

The first obstacle is lack of humility; my believing that I fully understand God’s Truth about the issue. Because we are all finite, fallible human beings, we all “see through a glass darkly” (I Corinthians 13:12). None of us has a God’s eye view of the Truth about the issue at hand. Therefore, we can learn from those who disagree with us.

This does not mean that I should be wishy-washy about what I believe, or that I should succumb to a faulty relativism. As 1 Peter 3:15 suggests, I should be prepared to state my beliefs with clarity and deep conviction. But I may be wrong. So, I need to model that unusual combination of commitment and openness to correction that Ian Barbour points to as a sign of “religious maturity”: “It is by no means easy to hold beliefs for which you would be willing to die, and yet to remain open to new insights; but it is precisely such a combination of commitment and openness that constitutes religious maturity.”

Another obstacle is lack of patience. The conversations on controversial issues in which I have participated in recent years have barely scratched the surface relative to my proposed third step, and, therefore, as far as I can tell, have not led to momentous changes in the beliefs of the participants. But an absolutely necessary strong foundation of mutual understanding and mutual trust had been laid by the two “getting to know you” steps that will enable participants to better grapple with the substance of their agreements and disagreements in ongoing conversations. The initial conversations in which I have participated need to be followed by ongoing conversations. And, as I am fond of saying, one cannot judge beforehand the results of a respectful conversation. We will all need to be patient and see what emerges from such ongoing conversations since that will take time.

But I have seen significant changes in how those involved in these initial conversations now view those who disagree with them; they have come to trust their integrity as brothers and sisters in Christ. They have come to understand and appreciate the ways in which the other person aspires to be a faithful follower of Jesus. They have embraced the opportunity to have Christian fellowship with one another in the midst of their disagreements.

In a world where Christians too often demonize other Christians who disagree with them on controversial issues, such changes in how we view those who disagree with us are no small accomplishment and they open the door for fruitful ongoing conversations (Step 3) based on mutual understanding and trust; conversations that will require much time and patience. They may also be significant steps in the direction of an answer to the prayer of Jesus that all Christians “may be one” (John 17:21) in the midst of their disagreements.

A third obstacle is fear. I can hesitate to propose an unpopular minority position on a controversial issue because I fear that others, including family and friends, may call into question the integrity of my Christian commitment.

At the institutional level, there is often fear that to even allow discussion of some of these controversial issues in churches, denominations, para-church organizations or Christian institutions of higher education will lead to schism or a diminishing of membership or constituency support, and there is ample evidence that this has already taken place.

These risks at the institutional level are real and should not be taken lightly. But I pose a question to the leaders of such Christian institutions, based on my unswerving commitment to the belief that all Christians, and their institutions, ought to always be striving to gain a better understanding of the “Truth” (as only God fully knows it) about any given issue: If faithful Christians have disagreements about a given issue, should that override the fear that seems to preclude creating safe spaces to respectfully discuss these disagreements?

The following words of 1 John 4:18 too easily roll off my tongue, but they may be calling all Christians to take the risks associated with an unyielding commitment to seek after Truth: “perfect love casts our fear.”

I Have Seen it Happen with my Own Eyes  

Talking about words that too easily roll off the tongue, my proposed strategy for facilitating respectful conversation may elicit expressions of agreement, in the abstract. But does that strategy really “work” when you manage to gather in the same room those who disagree strongly about a given controversial issue?

At one level, I am not concerned about whether my proposed strategy “works.” I have argued that it is the “right thing” for Christians to do, as a deep response to the commandment of Jesus that we who claim to be his followers should love those who disagree with us, independent of the results of such respectful engagement.

But a marvelous bonus is that, in addition to this intrinsic value of respectful conversation, such conversation also has the potential to have enormous instrumental value in the form of laying the foundation from which conversation partners may inch, however so slowly, by means of subsequent conversations, toward a greater understanding of God’s Truth relative to the difficult issue being discussed.

Lest you think this is wishful thinking in the abstract, I will provide some compelling empirical evidence for this assertion from two recent conversations in which I have participated, focusing on my claim above that the initial “getting to know you” phase of a conversation can effect a significant change in “how those who disagree with one another view each other” (the tell-tale sign that a “genuine conversation” has started, as suggested by the Mennonite scholar Carolyn Schrock-Shenk in the book Stumbling Toward a Genuine Conversation on Homosexuality, edited by Michael A. King, Cascadia Publishing House, 2007, p. 15).

The setting for the first conversation, in the summer or 2013, was Point Loma University in San Diego, where The Colossian Forum (TCF), for whom I serve as a Senior Fellow,  gathered a group of nine scholars who disagreed strongly about the “Origins” issue of “how” God created the universe, with the starkly contrasting views being young-earth creationism and evolutionary creationism. We got to know one another by reading scripture and praying together, and participating in a variety of informal activities, ranging from enjoying meals together to a splendid hike on the shore of the Pacific Ocean. And we talked respectfully about our disagreements.

Over these few days together, I didn’t witness huge changes in the beliefs of participants about “how” God created. But I did witness a portion of the gradual changes in how participants viewed those who disagreed with them. One young-earth creationist has changed his view that a particular evolutionary creationist who he engaged at this forum was a “dirty, rotten compromiser,” and has apologized to that other scholar and has committed to apologizing to all those to whom he portrayed the other scholar in that negative light. In the other direction, this particular evolutionary creationist has changed his view that the young-earth creationist was not interested in doing “credible science,” and now views him as a fellow highly-qualified scientist, who struggles, as he does, with reconciling scientific findings with his interpretation of the creation accounts in Genesis.

The climax to our time together in San Diego was when, in our closing session, we each prayed for the person seated on our right, whatever his/her views on “how” God created, thanking God for that person and praying for specific needs that we learned about during our time together. The person on my right had recently lost his teaching position and was struggling to keep food on the table. I prayed that God would graciously provide for his needs, and it made no difference that we disagreed about “how” God created the universe.

The setting for the second conversation, also hosted by TCF in the summer of 2014, was Calvin College. TCF gathered together about 25 Christian scholars, practitioners and pastors, including gay Christians and “straight” Christians, to talk about “Christian Faithfulness and Human Sexuality.” The featured presenters included a prominent gay Christian who believes in the moral legitimacy of lifelong, committed, monogamous same sex-marriages and an equally prominent gay Christian who disagrees, believing that gay Christians are called to a life of celibacy. The four days of conversation were intense and challenging, while being respectful.

Once again, I didn’t witness sea-changes in the views on the participants about LGBT issues during these conversations, since we didn’t get far into Step 3. But as we got to know one another better, again through worshiping together and sharing meals and informal conversations, I did witness an increase in mutual understanding and mutual respect among those who disagreed strongly about these difficult issues, with a growing appreciation that all participants aspired to live faithful to their respective understandings of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

A humorous incident that brought home this change in how participants viewed those who disagreed with them occurred when a gay Christian said to a “straight” Christian with whom he had strong disagreements words to the effect that “based on my reading of much that you have published, I came to Grand Rapids prepared to dislike you. But now I find that I like you.” Although these two participants had some tense exchanges at these meetings, I believe they have laid the foundation for some fruitful subsequent conversations.

Some readers may view the above two examples as my making too much fuss over very modest accomplishments. But to change your view about someone who disagrees with you is no small accomplishment and is increasingly rare in our day, both inside and outside the Church. I will grant that these examples represent only a “beginning” in an attempt to gain greater clarity as to God’s Truth about some very difficult issues. These initial “getting to know you” conversations need to be followed by more in-depth conversations about substantive agreements and disagreements. But I believe it is the only fruitful place to start.

My Personal Aspirations

Closing on a personal note, I share with you the ideals to which I aspire whenever I engage someone who disagrees with me, confessing that I often fail to measure up to these ideals


·       I will try to listen well, providing each person with a welcoming space to express her perspective on the issue at hand
·       I will seek to empathetically understand the reasons another person has for her perspective
·       I will express my perspective, and my reasons for holding that perspective, with commitment and conviction, but with a non-coercive style that invites conversation with a person who disagrees with me
·       In my conversation with a person who disagrees with me, I will explore whether we can find some common ground that can further the conversation. But, if we cannot find common ground, I will conclude that “we can only agree to disagree;” yet I will do so in a way that demonstrates respect for the other and concern for her well-being and does not foreclose the possibility of future conversations.
·       In aspiring to these ideals for conversation, I will also aspire to be characterized by humility, courage, patience and love
It is my hope and prayer that all who read this musing will also consider embracing these ideals because I believe they are a deep expression of what it means to love the persons with whom you disagree, to which Jesus calls all who profess to be his followers.