How to Disagree like a Christian: Part 2


By: Justin Anderson

Last week on the blog we discussed some of the online conversations surrounding Tim Keller as an example of how Christians should argue with one another and the world in a changing cultural landscape. Some Christians are making the case that we need to change our tactics in order to better match the tone of the moment. Namely, the tone has become more negative and adversarial than in prior years and we need to match it.

The reason Keller has been in the crosshairs is that he has consistently advocated for and modeled a civil, winsome approach to these arguments and public conversations. His approach is now seen by some as too soft on his opponents. Everyone in the discussion is quibbling over what not to do or how not to approach things, but few have articulated specifically how they think Christians should argue with nonChristians.

Into that fray, I will bravely step. Please read my sarcasm. This is not brave but I do hope to be specific about how I think Christians should argue, especially with nonChristians, in this cultural moment. Most of us don’t (or at least shouldn't) spend a lot of time arguing online with nonChristians, but my aim with this blog is that it would also be helpful for preachers. We should always be addressing nonChristians in our sermons and this is a good way for you to think through doing this on a weekly basis.

I will outline this process in 8 parts (or 2.5 sermons).

  1. 1. Establish Your Purpose

Whenever you are arguing - especially when you are doing so formally, in an essay - it’s important to state your purpose right off the top. You need to tell your intended audience exactly what you are arguing for and why. Keep your aim specific, this will keep your arguments sharp and prevent you from ranting. Keeping your arguments focused is not only a more effective way to make your point, it also honors your opponent by not expecting them to answer 47 different ideas at once.

  1. 2. Keep the main things the main things

After you establish your purpose, stick to it. Don't let your arguments wander (and another thing!) into other categories. Doing this weakens your argument and can distract you. Argue about important things, the biggest ideas. If you find that you are arguing a subpoint of a point, see if you can refocus on the main idea. There are a million little ideas that we can argue about, but the big stuff matters far more. Stick to your big idea, write it at the top of your page in six words or less so that you don’t wander off or lose focus.

  1. 3. Affirm Agreement

Before getting into your argument, make sure you affirm areas of agreement. This is especially important when you are arguing with fellow Christians. Affirm the truths that you share. Even the more liberal Christians share a lot of your faith, and you should take the time to affirm the fact that you are brothers in Christ who disagree about an important issue. This is important because it sets the stakes really clearly. Too many arguments I see online seem to be do or die because of the tone but are actually about secondary issues that don’t directly impact our understanding of the gospel. Affirming major areas of agreement, and especially the genuine faith of the other person establishes the parameters of the discussion and can go a long way towards encouraging civility.

  1. 4. Describe your opponent fairly

I did my Master's Degree under Dr. Wayne Grudem and one of the most important things he taught me was to describe your opponent’s argument in a way that they would fully affirm. This is a high bar that many fall far short of. I hope that I don’t have to tell you that you shouldn’t make straw man arguments. This is not just a baseline but I actually think it’s sin to strawman your opponent’s argument. You are misrepresenting their argument, and misrepresenting is another word for lying and lying is a sin.

As a Christian, you need to go the extra mile to make sure you don’t just fairly explain their argument but endeavor to argue their position in a way that is better than they even would. The bare minimum should be that we argue their point in a way that they could fully affirm. Otherwise, you lose credibility with your opponent and you make your own argument weaker. Having to reckon with the best version of an argument makes your argument sharper and stronger, and that’s a win.

  1. 5. Stay on Target

This may be a bit redundant but one of the main things I see when I watch Christians argue is they lose their focus and begin to argue things that they didn’t intend. Again, this makes our arguments weaker and isn’t fair to your opponent. Stay focused on the one thing you set out to argue and make all of your points focused on that one idea. This makes every argument more effective.

  1. 6. Argue Positively

If your whole argument is about what they have wrong and doesn't include a positive argument, you don’t have an argument. Breaking down how someone else is wrong is, frankly, far easier than making an argument for something. Make sure that the core of your argument is for an idea and not just against your opponent’s. This is my main complaint about the First Things piece about Keller. They critiqued Keller’s approach to public discussion without actually offering an alternative way to argue. If you don’t have a productive, positive argument to make, I’d recommend you keep your mouth closed until you do.

  1. 7. Talk like non-Christians are listening

Sometimes brothers fight like brothers. We’ve all been in arguments that seemed far more intense to onlookers than they felt to those involved. I can get pretty heated with my actual brother and closest friends without it getting personal because we are brothers. But online and public arguments aren’t like this. We have to stay civil and, dare I say, Christian. We should never be biting or sarcastic or belittling in any way. Save that for private debates, if anything. In public, we have to honor each other with our speech, even when we vehemently disagree. Our opponents are always image-bearers of God, worthy of honor and dignity and respect. Show that with your words and tone.

  1. 8. Reaffirm Agreement

Once you have made your argument and all your points - and I’m sure thoroughly destroyed your opponent - reaffirm your agreement. This is especially important with Christians. I can - and do - disagree a lot with Christian brothers, but at the end of the day, we will spend eternity together in the presence of Christ. We need to act like that’s the most important thing because it is.

I hope this was as helpful an exercise for you as it was for me. Just writing this all out has sharpened my own arguments and will continue to make me a better preacher and person. If you take nothing else away from this, take this: make sure you are making good-faith arguments that fairly describe your opponent and make a specific, positive argument of your own. This will save us all a lot of headaches and make our arguments stronger and more Christian.