Differing viewpoints often lead to arguments—but they don’t have to and shouldn’t. The Bible offers advice for how to disagree without being disagreeable.
We’ve all been there: Casual chitchat at a social event morphs into a discussion about whether taxes should be raised on the wealthy. Or why gun control is or isn’t a good thing. Or other hot-button topics come up, like climate change, homeschooling or vaccines.
The person we’re talking with may emphatically state his or her views on the subject. Trouble is, what the person says is the exact opposite of what we’ve been told, understood or experienced.
There’s nothing wrong, by itself, with disagreeing. Everyone has different life experiences, which lead to unique perceptions, opinions and beliefs. We can’t be expected to always see eye to eye with the people we interact with. We can respectfully disagree.
Intellectually, we may know that. But if someone challenges us on something we’re passionate about, or states something as fact that we believe with all our heart to be untrue, it’s hard to not get worked up emotionally.
We might react by dogmatically declaring why we’re right, disparaging the other person’s views or attacking him or her personally—all of which escalate conflict. At this point, we’re not simply disagreeing; we’re also being disagreeable.
Once we’ve let ourselves get into this mind-set, our aim becomes winning a debate. If the other party doesn’t see things our way, we get angry, causing the other person to go on the offensive. It can turn into an ugly dispute with both parties yelling and raising their voices to try to be heard. Each person walks away feeling frustrated and upset.
Avoiding arguments that generate strife
Throughout the Bible, we’re told not to engage in these kinds of disagreements. Paul admonishes us, “Avoid foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they generate strife” (2 Timothy 2:23). Verse 24 continues, “A servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all.”
Galatians 5:20 lists contentions as one of the negative works of the flesh.
On biblical and doctrinal topics where there is only one right answer, the Bible does not say Christians are supposed to force the truth on others who have not had their eyes opened to this truth.
That being said, there are many opinions where there is room for healthy disagreement. In this situation there’s a respectful exchange of opposing ideas. Both sides of an issue feel heard and valued. Each party gains a better understanding of the issue at hand, and the relationship is preserved.
The Bible tells how to disagree without being disagreeable
The Bible spells out how to have a healthy disagreement—how to disagree without being disagreeable.
If we’re honest, most of us can think of times when we didn’t consider biblical instructions on this topic and instead got pulled into very heated disagreements. In the end, feelings were hurt, relationships were scarred, and nothing was solved.
What a different outcome we could have had, and can have in the future, by following these six biblically based principles:
Choose your battles
We live in a “speak your mind” culture. If we overhear others discussing the latest political controversy, we don’t think twice about jumping in and giving our opinion, even if it’s a dissenting view.
If someone says something on Facebook we think is wrong, we believe it’s our right and responsibility to correct the person online.
Surely, there are times when this is appropriate. But very often we should just let it slide.
We must discern whether or not we should “answer a fool according to his folly” (Proverbs 26:4-5; see our online article “Proverbs 26: When Should You Answer a Fool?”).
If someone is spouting off nonsense that could cause serious damage if not addressed, that deserves a response. On the other hand, if the matter isn’t really important or is just a reflection of a different opinion, or if the other person is expressing very strong views and doesn’t seem open to other perspectives, the wisest course may be to keep silent.
Rarely are we going to be able to change others’ opinions by challenging them intellectually; doing so may only start a quarrel.
Furthermore, if we’re continually voicing contrary views, that, too, can irritate others. There’s no reason to contradict people on unimportant things. If we’re going to express dissenting opinions, it should be for things that really do matter.
We can be correct about an issue, but if we present our case in a combative manner, we’re still in the wrong. That means no insults, name-calling, ridiculing, raising your voice or shouting. Don’t be condescending, too assertive or tell the other person, “You’re wrong!” These things only bring intensity and hostility into the discussion.
Admittedly, I felt offended and shot back with my own less-than-kind words. Soon we were talking over each other and not hearing what the other was saying.
Things wouldn’t have escalated if I would have remembered to respond gently and disagree politely.
We must be kind, courteous and pleasant in our interactions with others (Ephesians 4:1-2, 32), even when they vehemently disagree with us and even when we feel hurt.
Disagreements can’t intensify if the individuals involved are truly gracious. Even if just one person is being courteous, the other will often follow suit.
True, he or she still may not come to agree. But he or she may at least be willing to listen to us and learn why we think the way we do.
Listen more, talk less
We should listen more than we talk, and we should be willing to hear another person’s viewpoint. James 1:19 tells us, “Be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” Proverbs 1:5 adds, “A wise man will hear and increase learning.”
Often we do just the opposite. Rather than listen, we’re thinking about what we’re going to say next and trying to figure out when we can jump in and make our point. Or we might monopolize the conversation, frustrating the other person because he or she can’t get a word in.
Give the other person time to voice his or her ideas, without interrupting. Really try to understand the other person’s standpoint.Give the other person time to voice his or her ideas, without interrupting. Really try to understand the other person’s standpoint. This says we value his or her perspectives and reduces tension.
If we’re unsure what the person is trying to say, we can ask questions for clarification. Sometimes we make assumptions about what others think. We need to make sure we truly disagree with them, before confronting them.
Think before you speak
The last part of James 1:19 warns us against being rash. If we strongly disagree with someone and blurt out whatever first comes to mind, we will often rub people the wrong way. Take some time to think through exactly what to say and how to say it.
If we see a social media thread we strongly disagree with, rather than immediately write a response, we should give ourselves time to let our emotions calm down. This may help us see that this isn’t something worth voicing our opinions on. Or, if we do decide to say something, it may help us see how to share our information in a way that’s not offensive. (For more information, see “Before You Post on Social Media.”)
Proverbs 29:11 sums up this principle well: “A fool vents all his feelings, but a wise man holds them back.”
Look for common ground
Disagreements heat up when the opposing sides see no common ground. But if we can agree on something, even a minor point, it will help us see the other person as a friend and not a foe. Usually there’s something the other side said, believes or values that we can concur with.
The point to connect on may be that we’re on the same team. The apostles practiced this principle. Paul, Peter and Barnabas didn’t always see eye to eye about how to do God’s work (Galatians 2:11-16; Acts 15:30-41). Yet they still saw each other as working toward the same goal, referring to each other as “brother.”
Remembering our common hopes and dreams can motivate us to treat others with love and respect.
Sometimes the information we disagree about comes in the form of unwanted suggestions.
When my sons were young, a neighbor often shared unsolicited advice about how to raise them. I didn’t always agree with her ideas, but I could usually still find a hidden nugget of wisdom in what she said.
At the very least I could see she liked my kids and meant well. Focusing on that helped keep those exchanges from turning into arguments.
Act in humility
The purpose for discussions should be to gain a better understanding of a particular topic, not to prove we’re correct or boost our egos (Philippians 2:3).
If we shift from trying to point out something another person might not see or understand to convincing him or her we’re right, friction is inevitable (Proverbs 13:10).
We might think we’re better informed than the person we disagree with, but the truth is, we may still be able to learn something.
A few years back, my youngest son was taking some advertising classes in college, and we got into discussions about whether particular ads were effective. When we didn’t agree, I automatically thought my views should trump his, since I had a degree in advertising and had worked in the field for many years.
But then I stepped back and realized he was right much of the time. He had exposure to some new ideas that weren’t addressed back when I was in school.
Others may have some helpful insights, thanks to their unique experiences and backgrounds. We should always approach disagreements with humility, willing to be shown another aspect of the topic we hadn’t thought of.
When we encounter differences of opinion, we must make peace a priority. Romans 12:18 says, “As much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.”
Granted, there’s no guarantee that by following these principles, all of our disagreements will end agreeably. We can’t dictate how others act.
However, we can and must strive to learn how to disagree politely and avoid being disagreeable ourselves.