Handling differing ideas in church discussions
When I disagree, should I lay my ideas against or alongside those already voiced?

Harold N. Miller

"I'll never go in that Sunday School class again." The finality with which she spoke was leaving no room for dialogue on the matter. The class in question included several natural leaders, self-confident and secure, ones who are energized rather than threatened by the expression of differences of opinion—it means someone is going to learn something! Differences had the opposite effect on her. She, I was thankful, had another class to go to. But what was I as pastor to do with the troubling class? She was only the most recent in a line of ones wounded in that class.

As I reflected on how our Sunday School class functioned, I realized the strategy typically used was that of placing new ideas against ideas already voiced by a brother or sister. We would often say the idea of another class member is wrong. Members hammered out any group positions by highlighting others' points they did not agree with, arguing against those points, weighing the counter-arguments. It was a debate in which the ideas of the strong won.

The class discussion was vigorous and efficient—differences between competing opinions were clearly drawn, if not accentuated. But I was seeing that the process was also ruthless and could wound those who are weak. Those without the personal gifts or emotional stamina needed to champion their ideas and opinions found that their voice was not heard. Those who cannot separate rejection of their opinion from personal rejection (most of us struggle with this) withdrew from the discernment process—the public confrontations that are part of making differences of opinion explicit were too costly. Further, some new Christians on occasion would find themselves confused when two mature Christians disagreed: who should they choose to believe?

I agonized for about a year over how we as a church should handle our differences of opinion. How should we work through differing ideas and move toward common understandings and agreement in our congregational meetings, adult Sunday School classes, denominational assemblies?

An approach to working through our differences other than the debate style began to form in my mind: that of placing differing ideas alongside (rather than against) one another, opening the way for gentle dialogue. We pass over (rather than counter) the points of the other that we feel are wrong, affirming the ones with which we agree, and raising considerations we feel the other left out. We preface our comments with the word "also" rather than "no." The ignored-points soon have less strength and may be abandoned by those who spoke them, moving the group closer to a common position. After sharing what we feel is God's truth, we listen for what witnesses to all, watching the not-so-good-ideas drop by the wayside in a gentle gathering of consensus. (Generally the only time a deficient idea does not get dropped is when it gets attacked!)

The Roman Catholic church models this nonconfrontational style in its public handling of any changes in official church dogma. As one observer wrote, we Protestants need to "recognize that real changes can take place in Roman Catholic theology without there ever being any official repudiation of past positions. It is simply part of the fabric of Roman Catholic theology to reinterpret the faith as time goes by, laying stress in new areas and de-emphasizing old ideas without announcing the changes" (George Carey, Christianity Today, Nov. 7, 1986, p. 36).

I began to see several reasons why it is good for a church to have its discussions begin with this second style and to continue using it for most (generally, all) of its discussions.

First, the church is poorer every time a climate of confrontation silences members who do not have the personal gifts or emotional stamina needed to participate in such a climate. The ideas of the strong are not necessarily the strongest ideas.

A further reason for moving toward a nonconfrontive style remains valid even in a group of persons who are emotionally secure: it is in line with Christian love and humility to lay one's ideas alongside another's rather than against. The moment I counter another's ideas, I am acting as if my ideas are better than the other person's. Mine may very well be better, but at what point—and by whom—should that assessment be drawn? Do I announce at the outset as an individual whether that is the case? Or do we decide as a group after hearing each other?

In the debate style as I take my turn at listening to the other person, I am demonstrating (if I truly am listening) that I really do value the other person, really do want this to be a group decision. But shouldn't I begin with that stance of listening rather than judging? Christian love and humility calls me to value the other's ideas as much or more than mine consistently from the start—not just by turns. The debate style is in the spirit of robust American democracy, but the spirit of Christ seems to call for something higher. We should move to setting ideas against each other only after it is clear all have felt their ideas valued and heard. (And only when the matter is so important that we need a common position.)

Third, it is the heart at rest and peace which can sense the Spirit's leading, and few of us are mature enough to remain at peace internally through the complete course of a debate. When ideas are placed against each other, we who are holding those ideas tend to take an adversarial stance—we tend toward defending present personal positions rather than searching together with the others for new group positions. We become deaf to the Spirit's voice in the words of our brother or sister.

A form of this article appeared in Gospel Herald July 9, 1991

Further reflections on this theme:
    When I began urging the Sunday School class to work at practicing this second, nonconfrontational, way of expressing differences of opinion, I met considerable resistance since I was suggesting they give up the basic tool they had used to forge their life views: the vigorous exchange of ideas. The strength of the resistance surprised me. They pictured their beloved class going flat as we stripped it of the stimulating encounter of conflicting ideas. Groups go stale when everyone pretends there are no differences for the sake of "unity."
    But I reassured them that the difference between these two approaches to discussing issues is not that one allows honest expression of opinion and the other does not. The difference is in the way one states that opinion. Do we use the language of description (I-messages) or the language of judgment (you-messages)? And I assured them that I did not want our church to completely abandon all confrontation. A group which never places differing ideas against each other may allow aberrant ideas to linger too long on its fringes since any analysis of their deficiency is only implicitly (not explicitly) drawn. Fear of conflict can keep us too silent. But I pointed out they were a long way from the danger of avoiding all confrontation!
    We in leadership at our church will attest to how difficult it is to rid oneself of an old pattern and learn the language of a new. Some individuals heard our concern for gentler discussions as only a call to watch the emotional tone of our words when we state disagreement and to add caveats or polite prefaces to our confrontations. But we were asking for something deeper. The call is to acknowledge the validity of the other's perspective. Unless the other is a total zero or insane, some amount of truth lies behind what they say, and so we don't respond "no, that's wrong" but rather "also there is this." Once we acknowledge that no one can say everything as they contribute to a discussion (nor would we want them to try!), couching disagreements in terms of offering an additional perspective becomes easier. And the emotional tone and politeness of our choice of words begins to take care of itself.
    Even now, more than five years after many of us in our church pledged to move toward placing differing ideas alongside rather than against one another, we often don't get it right.
    At a recent leadership meeting, we were looking at our goal that small group members grow in tune with the Spirit of God. The presenter urged the small group leaders to work at keeping their groups Jesus-dependent rather than leader-dependent, to not as leaders quickly say what a particular Bible passage means, or to not quickly lead in areas in which members have gifts but to leave space for members to grow in hearing and obeying the Spirit. As soon as the session was opened for discussion, two elders, using language which expressed that the presentation was wrong, pointed out that many people want a leader to tell them what God is saying, and that some persons at immature developmental stages may legitimately need a leader who is directive, who can "re-parent" them.
    As his critics were talking, the picture flashed through the presenter's mind of a wood-paneled courtroom with the two elders seated on a raised platform behind a long bar and with him standing down in the center seeking to justify his position to them. And his ego hated that picture. So he scrambled verbally to stay on an equal level with them: "That's excellent. But our goal is always to move members from leader-dependence to Jesus-dependence."
    Several in the meeting picked up the presenter's defensiveness and the emotional tension in the air. So I used it as an occasion for discussing at our next leadership meeting how to handle differing ideas.
    The two elders realized their comments had been presented as outright disagreements when they were actually just additional perspectives.
    The presenter realized his need to get beyond defensiveness. We as leaders need to allow people to disagree with us—even though we are committed to seldom express disagreement ourselves. We want to accept persons saying we are wrong, to hear them with as little defensiveness as possible, being glad that the conflict or disagreement is now out in the open where we can deal with it.
    We all picked up a tip we can use on someone who is using the language of disagreement when we sense the language of additional perspective might be more appropriate (and gentle!): ask, "Are you saying something that is contrary to the point just made or are you just making a further point?"