There’s risk in being with people who aren’t like you. Similarity breeds safety; differences can be dangerous. But God created a diverse world. And he calls the Church to “go, make disciples of all nations.” If we clump with those who are like us, there’s no need for the Great Commission.
But how do we talk with people who aren’t like us? How do we disagree in a way that is respectful and healthy?
So how do we practice both persuasion and tolerance at the same time? Here are three “Rules of Engagement.”
1. Listen, Listen, Listen
We all come to the table with pre-drawn conclusions about people. Even if you just met someone, you’ve sized them up with your eyes and in your mind before you’ve spoken anything to each other. Their race, their clothes, their body language, the context in which you met, etc. These are all factors that can lead us to make false assumptions.
We need to do what we can to lay those aside and really listen. Especially when talking about issues of faith/theology, we need to be slow to categorize people.
See Paul’s example of these Rules of Engagement:
“Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogues with the jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.” Acts 17:16-17
Truly listening means you’re not thinking about what you’re going to say next. Instead of preparing to persuade, first listen and learn.
2. Repeat Back What They Said
If you’re really listening, then you’ll be able to repeat back what the other person is saying in a way they would agree with. If you cannot articulate the other person’s viewpoint in a way they agree, then you’re not done listening. Make sure you understand what they’re actually saying before you try to interpret and analyze what they’re saying. If you want people to show you the respect of being good listeners, then you do the same!
“So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’” Acts 17:22-23
Doing this will show them a few things:
- You’re actually paying attention (instead of acting like you’re paying attention, because what you’re actually doing is thinking about what you’re going to say next).
- You’re doing more than trying to win an argument.
- You are taking them seriously enough to really understand them before you disagree.
3. Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing (Jesus)
Too many conversations focus on important and timely issues, but they ignore what is central to the Christian faith. Often, these debates actually serve as a smokescreen to distract us from the bigger issues which matter most. Yes, these differences are worth discussing, but we must keep the main thing the main thing.
“What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” Acts 17:23-25
It’s so easy for Christians today to get distracted from what makes someone a Christian in the first place – Jesus! Let’s not refuse to talk about these timely issues. But let’s refuse the temptation to let them distract us from the Great Commission.
Tolerance and the Gospel
Tolerance is respect despite disagreement. If you agree with each other, there’s no need for tolerance. This seems pretty obvious, but most of the discussion about tolerance seems to presume “tolerance = complete approval.” You can agree to disagree with bitterness. Christian tolerance that reflects that God’s Kingdom is extended through the Great Commission, not through a new conquest.
I had a conversation with someone I haven’t seen since college. As we were talking about our respective ministries, an area of disagreement came up and we made some snarky jokes at each other’s expense, but continued in our conversation. We had a disagreement. We still have a disagreement. I think I’m right. She thinks she’s right. We still respect each other.
We must be committed to truth in love and learn how to disagree in a way that reflects the heart of God. This means we need to call sin “sin” and refuse to be silent on issues where the Bible is clear. But we must speak in a way that reflects the patience and grace of God has given to us.
The gospel is our message. It is the main thing. May our interactions with others happen in a way that reflects God’s patience and grace while they are invited to embrace the true and living God.