We are called upon by the Lord to contend earnestly for the faith (Jude 3). But that does not necessarily involve being contentious; it involves avoiding compromise, standing forth for what we believe, standing forth for the truth of God — without welching at any particular moment. Thus, we are bound to meet, at various points and various levels, people with whom we disagree. We disagree in some areas of Christian doctrine. We disagree as to some details of church administration. We disagree as to the way in which certain tasks of the church should be pursued. And, in fact, if we are careful to observe a few principles that I would like to expound for you, then I would suggest that they might be valuable also in disagreements that are not in the religious field. They also would apply to disagreements in politics or difficulties with people in your job or friction within the family or contentions between husband and wife or between parents and children. Who does not encounter from time to time people who are not in complete agreement? Therefore, it is good to seek to discover certain basic principles whereby we may relate to those who differ from us.
In order to approach this subject, there are three major questions that we must ask; and I would like to emphasize very strongly that, in my judgment, we need to ask them precisely in the right order: (1) What do I owe the person who differs from me? (2) What can I learn from the person who differs from me? (3) How can I cope with the person who differs from me?
First, I suggest that we need to face squarely the matter of our duties. We have obligations to people who differ from us. This does not involve agreeing with them. We have an obligation to the truth that has a priority over agreement with any particular person; if someone is not in the truth, we have no right to agree. We have no right even to minimize the importance of the difference; and therefore, we do not owe consent or indifference. But what we owe that person who differs from us, whoever that may be, is what we owe every human being — we owe them to love them. And we owe them to deal with them as we ourselves would like to be dealt with or treated (Matt. 7:12).
And how, then, do we desire to be treated? Well, the first thing that we notice here is that we want people to know what we are saying or meaning and that we have taken into consideration and understand what those with whom we disagree have said. In short, I would say we owe our opponents to deal with them in such a way that they may sense that we have a real interest in them as persons, that we are not simply trying to win an argument or show how smart we are, but that we are deeply interested in them — and are eager to learn from them as well as to help them.
Second, we need to ask the question: “What can I learn from those who differ from me?” It is not censurable selfishness to seek to gain maximum benefits from any situation that we encounter. It is truly a pity if we fail to take advantage of opportunities to learn and develop what almost any controversy affords us.
The first thing that I should be prepared to learn is that I am wrong and the other person is right. Obviously, this does not apply to certain basic truths of the faith like the deity of Christ or salvation by grace. Yet, apart from issues where God has spoken so that doubt and hesitancy are not permissible, there are numerous areas where we are temperamentally inclined to be very assertive and yet can quite possibly be in error. When we are unwilling to acknowledge our fallibility, we reveal that we are more interested in winning a discussion and safeguarding our reputation than in the discovery and triumph of truth.
Moreover, we may learn from one who differs from us that our presentations, while correct as far as they go, fail to embody the truth in its entirety on the subject in view. Although what we assert is true, there are elements of truth that, in our own clumsy way, we have overlooked. The person who differs from me may render me great service by compelling me to present the truth in its completeness and thus avoid pitfalls created by under-emphasis, over-emphasis, and omissions. Thus my account will be “full-orbed” rather than “half-baked!”
Finally, it is also proper to raise the query: “How can I cope with those who differ from me?” That is to say, how are we to argue with others?
In evangelical circles, biblical arguments carry a maximum of weight if properly handled, for they invoke the authority of God Himself in support of a position. Yet we must ever strive to take account of the fullness of biblical revelation to have the boldness to advance as far as it leads, and the restraint to stop in our speculations where the Bible ceases to provide guidance.
Beyond this, we must also employ general arguments, namely logic, history, and tradition. While the authority involved is not on the same level as the Bible, it has a bearing on the discussions and must be considered by those who wish to make a strong case.
Perhaps the most important consideration for the Christian is to remain aware at all times of the goal to be achieved. Are we attempting to win an argument in order to manifest our own superior knowledge and debating ability? Or are we seeking to win another person whom we perceive as enmeshed in error or inadequacy by exposing him to the truth and light that God has given to us?