5 Ways to Deal with Disagreement Without Getting REACTIVE.

by | Nov 24, 2023 | Extended Family, Faith | 13 comments

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On the October 12th podcast, I shared the story of the first time I stood up to a Christian authority in my life.

If you haven’t listened to this week’s podcast yet, you really should (and you can find it here)–it’s one that touches on a topic that I am incredibly passionate about: the devolving of evangelical education.

Something I’ve been noticing recently happening in virtually every space on the internet, in “real life,” in the church, in politics, literally everywhere is this concerning “us vs them” mentality.

One of the ways that we get this “us vs them” mentality is, frankly, due to a lack of education about the “other.” For example, when I was in Jr. High, my Baptist youth group had a whole night of youth group dedicated to talking about why Catholics aren’t “real Christians.” I was 11 or 12, listening to my youth pastor explain what Catholics believe just thinking the whole time, “This dude is full of bologna.” See, my best friend at the time was Catholic and I spent a lot of time at their house. I did prayers with them at night. I went to her sister’s first baptisms, their first communions. This guy may have been describing something, but it sure wasn’t Catholicism.

But why was I the only one who seemed to get that? Because no one else there actually knew a single thing about Catholics.

When people grow up in very sheltered, cloistered communities it can be easy to think we know more than we actually do.

It’s not because of a lack of intelligence, it’s just about a lack of education. When you don’t know what you don’t know, you don’t know how much you don’t know!

What can be tricky, however, is when we deconstruct from the beliefs of those sheltered, cloistered spaces but don’t deconstruct the way of thinking.

It’s interesting how much reactivity, misplaced anger and fear are used to drive people to action these days. (And by interesting I mean absolutely terrifying, but also just academically a very interesting phenomenon to observe.) Connor and I have been talking quite a bit recently about what we can do to be less cloistered in our personal lives, less tribal, less reactive when we come across someone who believes something that we consider vehemently to be immoral or unjust.

Ironically, we often come back to the same principles we try to use here in our work to make sure we’re speaking and acting out of a place of evidence and logic rather than reactivity and disgust. So I thought I’d outline for you a few principles we’ve been implementing in the Lindenbach house, and what I’ve been thinking through in an attempt to figure out how I can, in my own little way in my own little life, help combat some of this us-vs-them, all-or-nothing thinking we can be prone to.

Now, these situations are more about actual, real-life people and social media rather than larger, systemic issues. I think we need to talk about those things differently because theologies don’t have souls–people do. 🙂 So let’s go!

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1. Be comfortable saying “I don’t know.”

This may sound stupid to some people, but when you’re raised in a faith culture that sees “I don’t know” as an admission that you might go to hell… this can be a big deal.

Weirdly enough, when we’re trained to be 100% certain about faith answers–even when they’re often contentious points across denominations–we can easily fall into the trap of 100% confidence about everything we believe. Even the things not based in education or experience.

When we’re comfortable saying “I don’t know,” and actually asking ourselves, “But how much do I really know?” about topics we feel strongly about, we can become students again. We can learn, we can grow, we can change.

“I don’t know” isn’t a dirty phrase. It’s a freeing one.

2. Be slow to assign motives.

When we’re speaking from a place of reactivity or fear, it can be easy to jump to worst case scenario, straw-men attacks of people.

If we categorize someone as “one of us,” or “on our side,” and then they disagree with us on something that can feel like a betrayal if we were raised in a community where we were expected to all agree on everything.

But if someone has proven themselves to have good character, to be fighting the same fight as you, to agree with all the core principles that guide your lives, then we simply must have space for disagreement on the peripheries.

Giving “benefit of the doubt” doesn’t mean that we ignore red flags or push real threats under the rug. But what it does mean is that we assume good intent until proven otherwise. In our reactive, us-vs-them culture, often we’re rewarded for the opposite. Rage and disgust without any evidence is not healthy. If there’s reason to be angry, then there should be evidence. Not just wild speculations and emotional outrage.

We’ve worked so, so hard to make sure we remain evidence-based in our critiques, in our arguments, in our message. We have worked to make sure that our anger is backed up by cold, hard facts. And I will very, very gently say that it is very beneficial for us when our audience’s critiques of the authors we discuss remain based on facts and not on extreme straw-men representations of their viewpoints, too. Trust me, their stuff is wild enough that we don’t need to be making stuff up for outrage–it’s outrageous as it is!

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3. Unnecessary arguments are like zits. If you pick them, you’ll make a mess and leave a scar.

One of the topics we’ve talked about in the patreon group is how a lot of us who deconstruct can have very strong opinions regarding faith practices that, if we pick a fight about them, can drive people away from us rather than create a bridge. For example, worship music. Many people who deconstruct have a hard time with worship music because it’s so tied to so much from their problematic church past.

Worship music can be used to manipulate people. But it’s also just a universal experience to want to sing together in a group of others, it’s a very therapeutic and euphoric activity, and feels like a refreshing encouragement to many, many people.

If we, whose primary concern in the church is about power imbalances and injustice, focus all our energy on criticizing things like worship music, or whether or not the church has pews or seats, or if they are singing the right songs, or any other small thing that isn’t actually the core problem, we alienate and drive people away.

Friends, we are tired. All of us are tired. The last three years have felt like ten. If we want to combat a culture of rage, reactivity, and fear we have to stop sometimes and say, “not a fight worth having with this person.” Save your energy for the fights that get to the heart of the matter, not the red herrings that are just causing antagonism and hard feelings without actually bringing about any real change.

4. Remember my part in the body of Christ, and stop trying to be the whole body.

One of my best friends and I joke all the time that we agree on all the basic parenting principles, and execute them all completely opposite. We did baby sleep differently, we feed our kids differently, we have different screen time boundaries, different ways of educating our kids, different ways of virtually everything. But we agree on the core principles, we just have different kids so we have to do different things! And both of us are completely supportive of the other, even while knowing that we’d never do it that way ourselves.

When we first started this work way back before I was even a mother, I would get really frustrated when I’d see people speaking out against injustice but not specifically speaking about the same stuff we were talking about. But what I quickly realized was that we just had different “kids.” And we were clearly advancing the same larger cause for justice and truth, but just from different angles.

We had different kids, so of course we’re going to do things differently. It reminds me of the famous “Body of Christ” passage in 1 Corinthians 12, and please I do suggest, read it again even if you think you remember it word-for-word, it’s such a powerful passage:

1 Corinthians 12:14-18:

“Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body.

If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.”

Do you hear that? You’re allowed to just be a foot. You have permission to just be one small part. You don’t have to do everything, you just have to do your bit. Do you understand how freeing that is? The whole world isn’t on your shoulders. You’re a part of a larger movement, a larger body. To me, when I see just how much work there is to be done, that’s such an encouragement.

5. Learn to differentiate between disagreement and danger.

This is what it really comes down to. Because when there’s danger, you absolutely DO need to acknowledge it and fight. You absolutely DO need to speak up. And if proven bad, we absolutely DO need to talk about motives and character of people who have harmed and continue to harm others.

I don’t need to really tell you guys that, though–you’ve seen us stand up against toxic teachings, and you’ve seen the good fruit of healing, life, and safety that comes from resisting these dangerous messages!

What’s tricky, though, is that often our bodies throw up “danger” signs when we’re just experiencing disagreement.

And again, I think this is especially true for those of us who grew up in very cloistered faith circles.

We can disagree about things we feel very, very passionately about without hurting each other. If that person is not trying to control other people, not trying to force others to agree with them, but is simply capable of living side by side seeing the world in different ways, it is incumbent on us to not try to control them, either.

Disagreement often feels dangerous. It triggers our nervous systems, makes us feel defensive, and can be translated as a threat. But often it’s just disagreement. Sometimes it’s strong disagreement! But the best thing we can do for our relationships and our witness to the people around us is to not lash out during disagreement because we feel threatened, but instead step back, calm down, look at the situation logically, and figure out if this is truly dangerous, or just a difference of opinion, perspective, or experience.

I really wish that the wider evangelical culture would become more comfortable with disagreement.

Maybe then we wouldn’t be living in so much fear of the “others” around us, or be so hesitant to hold ourselves to the same rigorous academic standards of the general public. Maybe if we weren’t so afraid of disagreement we’d be more open to changing our minds about toxic teachings. Maybe if we weren’t so disagreement-averse we’d actually learn to have ears to hear and eyes to see.

But as for me and my house, we’re just going to work on being hospitable, gracious, and kind while holding firm boundaries.

It’s a tricky job, as Richard Beck says in his book Unclean, but goodness if it isn’t an important one.

What do you think? What else would you add as a tip for how to remain civil with people we disagree with? Did you do something that worked really well this Thanksgiving with difficult family members? Let’s chat in the comments–and don’t forget to sign up for the newsletter if you haven’t already!

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Rebecca Lindenbach

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Rebecca Lindenbach

Author at Bare Marriage

Rebecca Lindenbach is a psychology graduate, Sheila’s daughter, co-author of The Great Sex Rescue, and the author of Why I Didn’t Rebel. Working alongside her husband Connor, she develops websites focusing on building Jesus-centered marriages and families. Living the work-from-home dream, they take turns bouncing their toddler son and baby daughter, and appeasing their curmudgeonly blind rescue Yorkshire terrier, Winston. ENTJ, 9w8

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13 Comments

  1. Cynthia

    Love all of this!
    One thing I find interesting is that people can change their religious beliefs, but they often don’t recognize the ways in which their entire way of thinking may have been influenced by their background. It’s like a fish who doesn’t know that it is swimming in water.
    I’ve occasionally had to correct atheists who had strange beliefs about what Jews believe, because when they lost their religion it didn’t occur to them to also question whether what they had been taught about Jews was correct.
    I’ve also had to explain ideas like religious tolerance to folks who had gone from being in an environment where everyone had to believe X, to believing that X was wrong and therefore they felt obligated to get everyone else to reject X. They had rejected the specific belief X, but hadn’t thought to question the whole notion that people should be told or coerced into certain beliefs.

    Reply
    • Rebecca Lindenbach

      Yes, well said!

      Reply
  2. Lynn

    Yes! And yes and yes.

    And yet — what do you do if you are in a relationship with somebody who doesn’t get it? My husband of 15 years has recently explained that the reason he has pulled away from me emotionally is because he experiences all disagreement as hostility, and because he has changed his mind on some things (about 10 years ago), and I didn’t, therefore he experiences me as hostile to him. He doesn’t seem to “get” that this is unhealthy — he insists that it is normal and common (because look at all the wars, right?).

    Reply
    • Rebecca Lindenbach

      Oof that’s so difficult. I wonder if this is something you guys have the ability to work through in couples’ counselling? This is the sort of communication issue/emotional maturity issue that counselling is often quite helpful for.

      In terms of the immediate short-term, if your husband feels that disagreement is hostility (which I agree it is not) limiting unnecessary disagreement while you guys work on being able to disagree amicably could be helpful. Like if you are different politically, you could just have a boundary that you don’t talk politics with each other right now. (not forever, just while you work on the issue)

      But the way I see it, there are two sides of responsibility in situations like this:
      1: The person who is fine with disagreement needs to not be purposely seeking conflict. E.g., don’t force them into conversations you know you disagree on, don’t interject to remind them of disagreement they are already aware of, don’t show them memes/movies/make jokes that you know will make them feel hurt.
      2: The person who doesn’t like disagreement needs to learn to live with disagreement amicably.

      But you can’t do his job for him. That’s why I honestly think counselling may be helpful–because this is exactly the kind of thing counselling is great for.

      Reply
      • Rachel

        Yes! “I dont know” is so freeing.

        My husband and I are bivocational youth ministers. Weve worked in a PCA church and an SBC church. Neither of us have been to a seminary so we don’t have as much specific education as other ministers. I remember when we first started, feeling so much pressure to have all the answers and being scared that someone might ask a question I couldn’t answer. How badly would that reflect on me? What would the students or other adults think? My youth minister growing up always gave answers to everything and opinions on how to fix problems. I felt like I had to be the same way.

        Fast forward to now. Several years ago, I stopped feeling like I had to have all the answers. I’ve always been a curious person and enjoyed learning. I realized there were some answers we just DONT KNOW. Like, no one does. Plus, I’m a military brat. My dad was a chaplain in the army, and he worked alongside chaplains of other denominations and faiths. So I didn’t grow up un a background of “us vs them”. All the chaplains worked together, even when they believed differently.

        So I finally had an Elsa moment and put all the pieces together in our own ministry. It’s okay for me to tell a student, “I don’t know.” I did it last Sunday, actually, lol. In fact, often when I’m asked a question, I’ll answer with a description of the different perspectives people have and tell the teenager to decide for themselves. Like, “Some people believe X because of Y & Z. Others believe A because of B & C.” I don’t want students just absorbing my thoughts and believing something just because I do. I want them to hear information and make their own decisions. Of course there are some foundational things about the gospel that we stand on. But secondary and tertiary topics? Let the kids dive into the Word themselves and pray and strengthen their own faith when they seek what God has to say and not just take what I say.

        Ive had to do that in my own life, and, every time, God proved Himself more and more loving, good, and true with each question I was wrestling with in my heart.

        Honestly, even though I feel confident in how I approach questions from students, I still feel a little self-conscious about it. Even though I don’t act on it, the pressure is still there to give all the “right” answers that I know most people in our church/denomination believe.

        Actually last Sunday when that student came and asked me a question (it was about Revelation), I started listing the perspectives. An older adult was around us and she jumped in, saying what she believed and that she had the Biblical evidence to support it. I just acknowledged her on that and then continued to tell the student that people who stand on other perspectives will have reasons from the Bible about why they believe that, too. The other adult jumped in saying she had studied a lot about it so she knows. I admitted that I haven’t studied this particular topic deeply enough to elaborate much. I gave the student the names of a couple resources from different perspectives on that topic. I said she could look at what they say, pray about it, and make a decision herself. I still felt self-conscious though, especially with the other older adult jumping in. My husband was really supportive when I shared what happened with him. And reading yalls content – especially this article – is so encouraging!

        Sorry for that novel of a comment, but you just hit on something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently!

        Reply
        • Shari Smith

          Oh I love this!! Isn’t it interesting how, even though we want to grow and our churches often sincerely want us to grow also, there’s still that pressure to already just have the answers. But being able to say the words, “I don’t know,” actually frees us up to learn and grow and mature in faith!

          Reply
        • Em

          Yes, realizing you can say “I don’t know” is so freeing! I’ve also found that it’s freeing to not have to make a decision about some of the tertiary things. To your point about information, there’s so much available now and an opinion is only as good as the information behind it. I feel like for most things I’m content to just know the perspectives and pray about it and one day, could be years from now (could be never) if God is leading me to have a definite opinion I trust that He’ll guide me to it.

          It’s so cool that you’re sharing that process with the teenagers around you. That is literally life changing information that they can take and apply to every area of their lives and it will make them better people over all. Good for you!

          Reply
    • Shari Smith

      That’s a hard one. I think you can only really show that it’s safe to disagree by being a safe person to disagree with. Maybe, like Andrew discussed on last week’s podcast, asking some questions could be helpful for shifting the focus. Questions like, “why does this feel hostile to you? What do you think might happen if we disagree on something? Why does normal or common mean we have to accept it?” Curious empathy could allow room for a sense of safety within the conversation.

      Obviously, if his disagreement with you makes the situation feel hostile or unsafe to hold these discussions there’s likely deeper stuff happening there that may require a different approach or help from an outside professional.

      Reply
  3. Laura

    It is so hard to voice different believes with other Christians because then they think I’m backsliding or not really a Christian and become concerned for my salvation. So it sounds to them that me believing that men and women are equal and do not need to adhere to those cookie cutter gender roles means that I’m not following the Bible. Its also the same with American politics. If you’re a Christian, you have to vote for this particular party or you’re not really a Christian.

    Thankfully, I get along well with family when it comes to these topics.

    Reply
    • Bernadette

      Being concerned for your salvation because you disagree with them? Wow. Didn’t know I could find salvation by sharing the same opinions as other Christians. /s

      Reply
    • Shari Smith

      Oh yes!! I feel this on a soul level. I think this is really a big part of why it doesn’t feel okay to say, “I don’t know,” or to disagree, because if we don’t have the right answers to the absolute truth, the stakes are raised impossibly high. It can feel like we’re literally risking our salvation, and this is where, like Rebecca pointed out, it can feel triggering to our nervous systems. Somehow Christians, as a group, need to find a way to lower the stakes and make it okay for there to be safe disagreement.

      Reply
  4. Codec

    It is interesting how you bring up the tribal nature of humanity and how the digital age effects that.

    To quote one of the most profound moments in video games. “The world is being engulfed in truth”.

    To recognize that you are tribal is to recognize something profound about the human condition. That we are social animals. That we seek to belong. Sometimes this fomes at the expense of the truth.

    Reply
  5. Jim

    I would love to see these principles played out and encouraged here and other social media. Knee jerk reactions do not help with creating a robust dialogue.

    Reply

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