This is the sixth of ten posts about discussing strong disagreements. See the series summary, with links to published posts here.
We’ve said that discussing strong disagreements may require a lot of time, and that it will require uncommon spiritual and intellectual constancy to the truth and one another. It’s a long, focused process. That’s tricky enough by itself, but there’s a further complication. See, disagreements in belief usually imply differences in behavior. When you think differently you, act differently. Sometimes, differences in belief even imply mutually contradictory behavior. They make it impossible to share some parts of life. You can’t, for example, both use an old, unchanged Lutheran liturgy and adopt best practices for contemporary Evangelical church growth in the same service. You can’t have an ongoing open-door policy and maintain a predictable family schedule or workload distribution.
Especially with people whom we love, that inability to share behavior can be very painful. It’s hard to maintain the respect, love, and commitment to truth that discussing strong disagreements requires while everyday patterns regularly remind us of a separation from the people we love. Of the impossibility of sharing simple or important things. The need to come to some sort of agreement about how to behave together may arise well before the discussion reaches anything like agreement.
That’s inconvenient. People who strongly disagree surely will not be able to come to a completely mutually acceptable system of behavior until they have reached agreement. But if we love the person with whom we disagree, that system will be achingly desirable. The lack of it will hurt.
So it may seem necessary to speed your discussion - to demand its completion - in order to gain harmonious behavior. You’ll want to make a plan.
That desire for an agreeable plan is good. But its connection to the difficult discussion isn’t. Proper belief can’t be forced by circumstance. We might be able to enforce uniform behavior, but we cannot - no one can - force belief. Agreement can’t be compelled; it must be discovered. Demanding quick agreement for the sake of shared behavior makes a big, simple mistake about how belief works, and, in its bluntness, can quickly destroy the trust and patience that discussing strong disagreements requires. Don’t do it.
That’s why it’s so important to keep action plans completely separate from discussions of strong disagreements. Sometimes we must agree to act in a certain way, even though we do not yet agree with one another. We must set standards for your shared behavior that acknowledge the ambiguity of our disagreement.
The conversation by which we make action plans like these will seem a whole lot more like diplomatic negotiation than like fellowship. Either both parties will compromise in their desired behavior when they are around each other, or one of them will submit to the other’s behavioral preferences. Each party will need to decide what they can and cannot do to preserve lived fellowship, and each party will need to hear what the person they love can and cannot do according to their conscience and beliefs. Then they’ll need to find a way between them. It’ll be a tough, important meeting, one that requires a whole bunch of mutual respect.
During these action meetings, we must speak bluntly about desires and concrete annoyances, not expecting to remove them (since we strongly disagree), but rather, seeking, while the disagreement persists, a way to maneuver around them that hurts as little as possible and allows as much loving fellowship as possible.
And, again, that respectful meeting must remain completely separate from our discussions of strong disagreements. If behavioral demands creep into our discussions, we’ll have to sacrifice truth for the sake of being together, and discussion will become impossible. Truth is sometimes found more slowly than would be convenient, yes, but belief cannot be forced. Do not use the possibility of behavioral harmony to strong-arm something that looks like agreement. Quite simply, it won’t produce agreement, will likely lead to fake community, and may result in long-term bitterness. Instead, keep them separate. Come to a mutually-acceptable acceptable set of temporary behavioral standards, and continue your who-knows-how-long trek to find the truth together. That beauty will surely be worth the wait.