As a teacher for most of my adult life, I knew not everyone would — or should — blindly agree with my perspective.
For at least two decades, I chose to teach my seminary graduate courses around conference tables rather than from the front of auditorium-style classrooms, specifically so that student learning would occur in the give-and-take of shared ideas. My philosophy was that around the table we are all learners and also all teachers, and the line between us kept shifting.
Now that I am retired from my professor responsibilities, I spend a lot of time communicating my thoughts in written form. Occasionally when I write a controversial article — usually political but sometimes theological — I receive expected pushback from people who have been good friends of mine for many decades. If the conversation arrives at an impasse or becomes disrespectful, however, my response to these friends often has been to propose, “Let’s just agree to disagree.”
That suggestion has not satisfied those who want instead to debate what I have written. Some of them have encouraged me to engage more fully our philosophical differences, in the spirit of healthy exchange.
I have done that, committed to dialogue as a way of bringing people together, while simultaneously resisting ongoing dispute that can sometimes turn argumentative and drive people apart. In the same way that I have needed to guide or even end a particularly heated discussion in the seminar room that was becoming contentious or off-topic, occasionally online I have wished once again to be able respectfully to say, “Let’s agree to disagree.”
The phrase has personal significance in my life. After completing my master of divinity degree at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary at age 26, I began my first full-time position as minister to youth at St. John’s Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C. The job provided a valuable opportunity for me to grow and learn.
The senior pastor who brought my name to the search committee had served the congregation for 28 years. Initially, I did not know how much he would influence my life. Claude U. Broach was a gentleman scholar, liturgical Baptist, partner in reformation thinking with his crosstown fellow pastor Carlyle Marney, and Charlotte city icon. Soft-spoken and kind but courageous, he had shepherded the people of the congregation through their “disfellowshipping” by the local Baptist association because of the baptismal policy St. John’s had adopted after months of prayerful study. As a passionate supporter of ecumenism — and one of the few invited Protestant observers at Vatican II in Rome — Broach was a proponent of ecumenism long before many Baptists publicly agreed that relating to Roman Catholics as brothers and sisters in the faith was appropriate.
To the variety of attacks and criticisms leveled at him — for serving a Baptist church with a name that sounded Episcopalian, guiding worship while wearing clerical robes from a sanctuary platform with a divided chancel, befriending and thus validating a well-known theological “liberal” like Marney, refusing to require immersion of Christians joining St. John’s who had previously experienced believer’s baptism but regardless of mode, preaching to deepen spiritual maturity and encourage social justice rather than “evangelize the lost,” cooperating with Catholics “as if they were Christians” or committing other lesser-known“ failings” — Claude Broach responded by following an ethical tenet that expressed his personality and defined his approach to ministry. That principle was: “Let’s agree to disagree.”
“Our differences will not separate us but rather increase our understanding and strengthen the bonds of Christian love.”
His commitment to the respectful expression of differences was reflected in the church covenant the congregation read together each time someone was baptized or ritually became part of the St. John’s fellowship. One of the promises in that document stated: “We will love and encourage each other in the family of the church and admonish each other as occasion may require. Our differences will not separate us but rather increase our understanding and strengthen the bonds of Christian love.” Broach’s ethical stance that one should “agree to disagree agreeably” set the tone for how members of the congregation responded to opposition and condemnation. It also made a deep impression on me as a young minister.
“Disagreeing agreeably” is a popular topic in today’s political climate. A Google search for the phrase garners 250,000 results. One executive coaching tip for the business world recommends that two acts can help business associates or competitors to disagree agreeably: first, they must “acknowledge the other person’s idea is valid”; and, second, they should “assert that (their) position is different — not better, just different.
A fuller list of steps that can lead opponents to disagree agreeably is comprised of 10 behaviors:
- Pick your battles.
- Understand the stakes.
- Wait until you’re calm.
- Be respectful.
- Speak for yourself.
- Don’t interrogate.
- State the facts.
- Speak to common interests.
- Aim to clear the air rather than win.
- Consider compromise.
Glen Smith, professor of political science at the University of North Georgia, has published a book offering both a philosophy of political dialogue and ways to diffuse contemporary controversial arguments: Disagreeing Agreeably: Issue Debates, with a Primer on Political Disagreement.
The phrase “agree to disagree” first appeared in print in 1770 in a memorial sermon preached by John Wesley at the funeral of his rival, George Whitefield. The two 18th-century leaders of the Great Awakening had long argued about theological differences, but Wesley admitted that some doctrines are non-essential and should not therefore disrupt relationship. To his brother Charles, Wesley sent a letter soon after the funeral attributing the peacemaking concept to Whitefield, writing: “If you agree with me, well: if not, we can, as Mr. Whitefield used to say, agree to disagree.”
I believe George Whitefield was correct 250 years ago when he thought that agreeing to disagree could save a friendship. And, similarly, I think Claude Broach was right 48 years ago for using the same technique to maintain respectful relationships.
Therefore, at some point in a verbal dispute with someone with whom I have a relationship but with whom I disagree on some point of theology, politics, ethics or other philosophical belief, I sometimes still suggest that we “agree to disagree.”
This stance is flexible, and I only move to this request after first engaging with my dialogue partner. When, however, it becomes evident that neither of us will likely be persuaded to believe differently, or if more heat than light begins to be expressed, I seek to conclude the debate by calling for disagreeing agreeably.
“There are, nonetheless, some ideas and concerns to which I am strongly committed.”
There are, nonetheless, some ideas and concerns to which I am strongly committed. Although at some juncture I will agree to disagree with a thoughtful interlocutor for the sake of maintaining friendship, I cannot be persuaded to change my response to these matters that shape my life as a follower of Christ: treating people who follow other faiths with respect and compassion; celebrating the calling of women into every form of Christian ministry; affirming the reality of climate change and working to reverse our human footprint on earth; supporting Black Lives Matter in our racially torn American society; opposing the racist phenomenon of white supremacy and its insidious intrusion into segments of evangelicalism; welcoming and affirming LGBTQ people as beloved children of the Creator God and as my siblings in the human family; decrying the political turmoil that is destroying the soul of our nation; following a radical Lord who calls me to risk myself to champion justice and mercy for everyone; and cooperating with diverse partners to identify and participate in God’s work in the world.
Agreeing to disagree is a way to prevent conflict and preserve friendship. I learned to admire this strategy many years ago. However, I cannot use it as a way to escape engagement with tough issues, nor can I claim it as a comfortable cover for avoiding the hard work of being a Christian disciple.
Rob Sellers is professor of theology and missions emeritus at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary in Abilene, Texas. He is the immediate past chair of the board of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. He and his wife, Janie, served a quarter century as missionary teachers in Indonesia. They have two children and five grandchildren.