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Gatherings of Hope

How to Love Those You Disagree With

By Natalie Hart

There are hundreds of articles, books, and videos on how to have an effective conversation with people you disagree with—avoid “you” statements, listen as much (or more) than you speak, don’t raise your voice, avoid personal insults, try to find common ground, etc. You will find good advice almost anywhere you look. But that isn’t what this article is about.

This article is about the orientation of your heart. How do you love someone in the middle of a difficult conversation? How do you point the way to Christ when you are talking with someone who disagrees with you? 

Rev. Julian Guzman, director of the Urban Church Leadership Center, says,

“We don’t hate or denigrate those we disagree with. Love everyone in the conversation. We are nothing without that.”

This seems so obvious that we shouldn’t need to say it, but it’s too easy to think of examples of Christians hating and denigrating those who are not like them. Christians on every side feel disappointed and even betrayed by their co-religionists. In the current political climate of deep divisions coming into the light, every conversation, every sermon can feel like a minefield.

Moreover, the things we disagree about often go deeper than differing interpretations of an event or a speech. Our ideas about who God is and what God requires of us are involved, so we aren’t just fighting about who’s right about this thing, we’re fighting about who’s right about God.

While this is frustrating and difficult, it also opens an opportunity for the church to lead. Rev. Khary Bridgewater, senior program officer at Gatherings of Hope, says,

"The church needs to give the world a better example, a better way to have an argument, a different model to respond to. We don't want to have the debate how the world has the debate and often we do."

Agree to Disagree?

So where can we look for a different and better model of how to have a loving disagreement? We can look to the originators of the phrase, “agree to disagree”: George Whitefield and John Wesley, two leaders of England’s evangelistic renaissance in the eighteenth century.

In 1732, George Whitefield came to Pembroke College in Oxford and was mentored and counseled by brothers John and Charles Wesley. According to J.D. Walsh, Whitefield called John Wesley his “spiritual father in Christ.”1 After Whitefield was ordained in 1736, Wesley left the country to evangelize in the United States, and Whitefield took over the flock in England.

It seems more accurate to say that he took the flock by storm, and became famous for his preaching. Walsh describes how Whitefield took the lead:

“Yet at this critical phase of the revival, young, exuberant Whitefield took the lead, dragging behind the older, more cautious Wesley. In spring 1739 Whitefield took the momentous step of preaching outdoors—first to the grimy coalminers around Bristol, and then to the street poor of London. This turned methodism outward, from respectable Anglican societies toward the huge unchurched mass. Whitefield now pushed the reluctant Wesleys into following him as field preachers.

“In 1739, as vistas of astonishing evangelistic success opened up, Whitefield and the Wesleys worked in the closest harmony, as brothers and equals. When Whitefield won converts through his amazing oratory, he relied on Wesley to help organize and instruct them.”

But in 1740, it all soured. Whitefield and the Wesleys disagreed on the doctrine of predestination and the role of grace. Their Methodist movement split into two camps, and they published and preached passionately about their differing views, each blaming the other for the split. Their followers even set up rival churches on the same street in London in open competition with each other.

Yet even through this, Whitefield could recognize their differing gifts, his in gaining converts, and Wesley’s in caring for the newly converted: “My business seems to be chiefly in planting; if God sends you to water, I praise his name.”

Fellow evangelists tried to repair the breach, but were unsuccessful. The Wesley brothers and Whitefield prayed and wept together in 1741, but it wasn’t until 1749, when Whitefield left the formal leadership of the Calvinistic Methodist Societies and the two men agreed not to build chapels in the same areas that the heat of their conflict cooled.

They were able to put their theological differences into context of their greater zeal for the kingdom of God. Their relationship warmed so much that Whitefield asked John Wesley to preach his funeral sermon. Whitefield gave Wesley a ring, “in token of my indissoluble union with them in heart and Christian affection, notwithstanding our difference in judgment about some particular points of doctrine.” It was in Wesley’s 1770 funeral sermon that we get the famous phrase, “agree to disagree”:

“And, first, let us keep close to the grand scriptural doctrines which he everywhere delivered. There are many doctrines of a less essential nature, with regard to which even the sincere children of God (such is the present weakness of human understanding) are and have been divided for many ages. In these we may think and let think; we may ‘agree to disagree.’ But, meantime, let us hold fast the essentials of ‘the faith which was once delivered to the saints;’ and which this champion of God so strongly insisted on, at all times, and in all places!”2

Are They a Good Example?

There are several things we can learn from the story of George Whitefield and John Wesley that can help show us how to have better disagreements.

Respect each other’s gifts. Even though Wesley expressed frustration over preachers who didn’t stay to train the newly converted (possibly a dig against Whitefield, who did exactly that),3 he could recognize the great work Whitefield did: “Mention has already been made of his unparalleled zeal, his indefatigable activity, his tender-heartedness to the afflicted, and charitableness toward the poor. But should we not likewise mention his deep gratitude to all whom God had used as instruments of good to him -- of whom he did not cease to speak in the most respectful manner, even to his dying day.”4 He may be speaking of himself at the end, as a recipient of Whitefield’s gratitude and respectful speech. We have already mentioned how Whitefield appreciated Wesley’s gifts in nurturing those who had come to faith.

When we respect each other’s gifts, we recognize that God is in charge of who He uses for the kingdom, and that He gives gifts to all His children (even those we may not like). When we do this, we come to see the other person as more than just a representative of a view we disagree with; we see them as one who bears the image of God.

Put disagreements in wider context. Although their theological disagreement was deep, and the role of grace in salvation affected who they thought God was, they seem to have recognized that faith and repentance were central, and the issue of predestination was not—at least later in their relationship. At the height of their conflict, they each preached and published against each other’s views, not mincing words, but they were eventually able to feel that what united them was deeper than what divided them.

When we look at the wider context of God’s kingdom, we may be able to take some of the heat out of our disagreements.

Seek each other out. J.D. Walsh quotes Whitefield on a meeting between him and the Wesley brothers in 1741: “It would have melted any heart to have heard Mr. Charles Wesley and me weeping, after prayer, that if possible the breach might be prevented.” They did not stop trying to repair their separation.

When we continue to pray with and for each other, we have a harder time dismissing each other.

Search your own heart and change if change is required. Whitefield seems to have been able to acknowledge when he’d been in the wrong; Walsh quotes him writing to another minister in 1739, “Success, I fear, elated my mind. I did not behave to you, and other ministers of Christ, with that humility which became me.” This ability to see when they were interpersonally in the wrong (even as they continued to disagree theologically) enabled them change their behavior: they agreed not to build competing chapels in the same location, which was also a signal to those they lead not to stay mired in conflict.

When we are able to admit that we are in need of forgiveness and that we may need to change, we are engaged not only in conflict resolution, but also in making disciples (both of ourselves and of others).

Be patient. It took nearly ten years for the men to repair their personal relationship and they never managed to change the other’s mind on their theological differences. They agreed to disagree on those and were able to go forward for the good of the kingdom and of their friendship.

When we are patient with each other, and with God, we allow Him to work, and that makes possible even what seems impossible.

While at certain moments Whitefield and the Wesleys were probably bad examples of how to be loving in the midst of disagreement, over time they respected each others gifts, kept meeting and praying together, and recognized when they needed to change. Their ability to come together for the good of the kingdom in the midst of deep differences is a good example for us.

So how can we move forward?

Whitefield and Wesley had worked together closely for many years before their disagreement started. What can we learn from them about how to love those we disagree with when we aren’t already in deep relationship with them?

Bathe the situation in prayer. Pray for the people you disagree with and make sure these prayers are not missiles sent from you, telling God what these other people need to learn or do differently. Instead, pray to see these others as God sees them; pray for their wellbeing; pray for their ministry—when you pray for someone in this way, it is difficult to see and treat them as “the enemy.” If you pray for God to plow up the hard soil of their hearts, make sure you pray the same for yourself. Pray for God to reveal to you what you should do and how you should be—if God reveals that you need to change your behavior, then change.

Get to know each other. Talk together. Find out each other’s gifts. Ask about more than just the thing that divides you. Listen to their answers. A conversation may not bring you any closer to changing the other’s mind, but it can go a long way toward dialing down the heat of a conflict. I was recently in a meeting between the Grand Rapids Association of Pastors and two representatives of local police unions to talk about police and community relations, and the union representatives said repeatedly how grateful they were to be asked to have a conversation. The meeting demonstrated the power of speaking respectfully to each other about matters of deep conflict; although we do not yet know what fruit that meeting will bear, having an open, respectful conversation was a good first step. Rev. Bridgewater was recently in a conversation with someone who was angry with him about something they didn’t resolve, but she spoke to him with such respect the whole time, that he was moved to compassion for her—her behavior pointed Rev. Bridgewater to Christ, and helped head off any combative defensiveness he may have been feeling, which made the conversation a relationship builder instead of destroyer.

Look at the wider context. Rev. Guzman advises: “Come into the conversation with a kingdom mindset. That will make a difference.” It will not help you agree, but recognizing that you are both sinners who need the forgiveness and grace of a loving God can help take the heat out of the discussion. Keeping a kingdom mindset can help keep you from speaking out of self-righteousness or defensiveness.

Remember that you do not need to get to agreement. God does not ask the prophets in the Bible to change anyone’s mind or heart—that is His job. God asks them to speak the words He tells them to (Ezekiel 2:7 “You must give them my messages whether they listen or not”). Remembering what is your job and what is God’s job can take some of the pressure out of the disagreement and make it more possible for you to listen, and to speak respectfully and even compassionately.

Have patience. No matter how respectfully you may speak, how closely you may listen, or how much you’ve prayed, some issues and some relationships will take time to reach a point of resolution. Trust that God is at work, even when you are frustrated.

This may sound like a lot of work that isn’t very satisfying. You don’t get to just be right and yell people down. You don’t get to dismiss them as unworthy because they’re wrong. And you don’t get to put them down to others because you don’t like how they think. It would be a lot simpler to see your job as pastor as telling people what they should think. But your job as pastor is to guide people and make disciples, and for that you need to build relationships—even with people you disagree with. What a light shining on a hill we are to the world when we do this.

  1. Unless noted, all quotes about Whitefield and Wesley are from J.D. Walsh, “Wesley Vs. Whitefield,” Christian History Institute. 
  2. John Wesley, “Sermon 53 On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitfield.”
  3. John Wesley, as quoted in Ian J. Maddock, Men of One Book: “I was more convinced than ever that the preaching like an apostle, without joining together those that are awakened and training them up in the ways of God, is only begetting children for the murderer.”
  4. John Wesley, “Sermon 53 On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitfield.”
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