Have you ever silently argued with the pastor’s sermon while sitting among the smiling congregation? Have you gritted your teeth or rolled your eyes? Have you looked up the verse you believe contradicts the pastor’s point and silently showed it to your spouse?
I’m guessing, if you’ve been in church for very long, you know the feeling of disagreeing with a pastor’s sermon—sometimes strongly. I know I do.
That’s normal—good, actually. Uniqueness is part of our nature. We don’t all see with the same lens; we don’t all think in the same ways. Our variety is part of what makes us beautiful. When done right, disagreement can become the pathway to growth. Our viewpoint is expanded, our understanding enlarged.
Unfortunately, disagreement-done-right is a learned skill, one that is sometimes rare in church settings. I’ve been on both sides of this equation. I’ve spent my whole life attending church meetings, reading teaching books, listening to sermons. I’ve attended a variety of churches from a variety of denominations. I also grew up as a pastor’s kid, and my husband and I served as senior pastors for five years (prior to joining Lifeway). So, I know what it is to disagree and to be the one who is disagreed with. I’ve seen it done well, and I’ve seen it play out like a dumpster fire.
The question is, What do we do when we find ourselves disgruntled and disagreeing?
For many of us, our gut response is to react emotionally. Maybe we get grumpy. Maybe we fume about it during the car ride home. Maybe we feel the need to voice our dissent in strong terms. However, the emotional response usually won’t get us to a helpful ending. For this reason, I’ve learned to step back and ask myself a few questions:
1. What does this disagreement show me about my heart? Might the Holy Spirit be using this to illuminate a growth area within me? This is the first question we should ask ourselves in disagreement or conflict. We all want to believe we are 100 percent in the right, that we have perfect theology, but the truth is that most disagreements are nuanced. Most situations are not as simple as we might want them to be. Understanding God and His word certainly isn’t simple, either. Even if we are somehow entirely in the right, God hides a lesson for us in every situation—if we are willing to listen.
When someone hurts me, I find it helpful to acknowledge the pain or anger in my heart, and then I turn to Jesus and ask Him, “What do You want to teach me in this?” He always has good things to say; He can turn any hurt into good in my heart. Working through disagreement takes Holy Spirit-led self-awareness and a willingness to see our own blind spots and growth areas. The more aware we are of our own shortcomings, the less likely we will be to pass judgment on others. Before confronting our leaders—or talking about them behind their backs—we need to examine our own hearts and hear God’s perspective.
2. Is this disagreement an issue of heresy? Let’s be clear: If a church is teaching that Jesus is not the Son of God or another heresy, you should definitely get out of there. However, sometimes people play the heresy card because it’s easier than walking through healthy conflict toward resolution. Most church disagreements are not over heresy, but debatable matters. Identifying whether the issue is heresy or debatable is essential to knowing how to respond.
3. Will disagreement over this issue make it difficult for us to run together? Some disagreements, while not an issue of heresy, are big enough that we cannot run well on mission together. For example, if I believe the gifts of the Spirit (healing, miracles, prophesy, and so forth) are for today, and you do not, the way we approach our Christian lives and ministry will be vastly different. We can still love and appreciate one another, but it may not make sense for us to attempt to work closely together.
If you find yourself in an environment where you cannot wholeheartedly serve the mission of the leaders, it’s probably not the right place for you. But don’t leave in anger. Don’t make a mess on your way out. As a former church leader, I can say that it meant a lot to me when people came and told us, with love in their hearts, that they were moving on—even if it was over a theological disagreement. And we could hug and bless them as they left. Too often, that conversation never happened. It was easier to just disappear and block us on Facebook. I challenge you, should you find yourself leaving a church, to take the higher, kinder road.
4. Am I willing to walk out the sometimes messy process of disagreement? Our culture does not teach us healthy conflict resolution. Most of us are trained from childhood to either avoid conflict altogether or to derail the healthy process of conflict through anger and aggression. Whether our tendency is to grab control through aggression or to avoid conflict through rejecting those who hurt or offend us—we need to recognize that healthy conflict is neither passive nor aggressive. It is bravely assertive. It means speaking the truth vulnerably, with an open heart eager for reconciliation, and valuing connection over proving oneself “right” in the conflict. (This is a very big topic, which I can’t do justice to here, but I highly recommend Danny Silk’s book Keep Your Love On for those who want to learn more about healthy conflict.)
This question assumes the leaders of your church are also open to healthy disagreement. At Lifeway, we are blessed to have pastors who welcome heathy debate and disagreement. This is what church should look like—a place where people can disagree in love, where relationship trumps agreement and we are all growing together into a greater understanding of the multifaceted goodness and glory of God.
5. Am I in this church because of covenant or agreement? For much of Church history, people have gathered around theological agreement rather than covenantal relationships. But this model means that every time someone disagrees, they need to move on. Relationships are severed. Hearts are wounded. Judgments are solidified. Gathering because of agreement leads to arrogance and isolationism—to a belief that only our group has the whole truth. I know this, because I’ve been there. I’ve been part of more than one church that felt it had a corner on the truth. The truth is, none of us has it right—not completely.
Instead of gathering around agreement, acting like a political party, we need to gather around relationship, much like a family. It can feel terrifyingly scary to commit with our hearts, and not just our brains, but Jesus didn’t invite us into His political party. He invited us into His beautiful and messy family. Covenant relationship doesn’t mean we will never disagree. It means we promise to work through our disagreements and to fight for the relationship.
Sadly, some groups have taken the idea of covenant and twisted it as a way to control and manipulate others. Let me be clear: Healthy covenant relationship will never demand agreement. (If you find yourself in a manipulative or spiritually abusive place, where you are not allowed to think differently than your leaders, please do not stay. Jesus has something better for you. Reach out to someone you can trust for help.)
But when we can disagree and still love, that is powerful. Imagine what we might be able to do—as a group of brave, wholehearted, wildly different people who are bound together by connection, who won’t let disagreement create division, who love fiercely and refuse to give up on one another. What would the world do with such a brave and powerful force? What will they say when we look so much like Jesus?
The next time you find yourself disgruntled and disagreeing, ask yourself these questions. Be brave enough to face the mess, to keep on loving, and to work toward disagreement done right. In my life, I’ve found that working through conflict deepens a relationship like almost nothing else. You can trust Jesus with the process. He will make it into something beautiful.