There's an adage about the internet: "Don't read the comments."
I should probably listen to that advice more often. It's an unfortunate truth that, in the comments section of any website or post, you're most likely going to be confronted with immaturity and prejudice that make you feel uncomfortable to be a fellow human.
What's even more unfortunate is that Christians are not immune from this kind of behavior, especially around hot button topics. At least once a week, I see situations like Christians arguing back and forth with non-Christians (and even other Christians) on topics like feminism or gender roles.
And there's no shortage of topics that can provoke this kind of division: same-sex marriage, female ordination in churches, sexual orientation, political debates, racial relations and "my denomination is better than your denomination" type content. This week, for example, plenty of people have been debating Muslim beliefs and whether the Koran condones terrorism.
These may all be worthy topics to discuss – but how we disagree with others as Christ-followers makes a world of difference.
So when we disagree online or elsewhere, here are some areas we should keep in mind.
Social media doesn't help us
We can get too used to hearing only our own worldview – a phenomenon which is increasingly common with the rise of social media. We may be more biased than we realize.
At a recent Christian media conference, an editor from a high-profile Christian news outlet commented, "On the internet, we live in our own little worlds."
By definition, our worldview on the internet is filtered and selected. You pick and choose your friends and pages you follow on Facebook, and you'll see updates based on what you're interested in, thanks to algorithms that aim to please (https://www.theguardian.com/media-network/media-network-blog/2014/may/13/internet-confirmation-bias). With more and more people getting their news exclusively from Facebook (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-06-16/australians-digital-news-trust/6548232), we can easily be reinforced in thinking that our view of life is the "correct" one.
In theory, we've got more information on the web, but it can easily become less if we only subscribe to sites that happen to be in tune with our own opinion – whether it's politics, philosophy, faith or whatever it might be.
Without realizing it, it's all too easy to end up in our own silo – with no frame of reference for how non-Christian friends see the world. This is why it's important to read widely and critically on topics that matter.
More than one opinion can be valid
Sometimes our politics and our faith can be so intertwined that we think they're interchangeable. But it's still important to ask ourselves if we're disagreeing based on the Bible, or just on our own opinion (or that of other Christians around us).
In the last election, for example, I remember seeing articles on why voting for the Greens was, and was not, the Christian thing to do. Disagreements like this are not always a matter of right and wrong. Each one of us carries bias that we may not even be aware of – whether it's from our upbringing, our culture or other experiences.
We also should seek wisdom wherever it may be found, even with someone that we disagree with. We need to keep humble and ask ourselves if we're disagreeing on the basis of human opinion, or on the basis of the Bible. (This is where going back to the Bible is essential.)
I love the quote from Aristotle, which says: "It's the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it." Even if we conclude that we still don't agree, it's an important part of faith to tackle issues with discernment.
Change of mind begins with the heart
I've concluded that getting into heated debates in places like Facebook is the digital equivalent of standing in public preaching at the top of your lungs. It's not inherently wrong necessarily, but it's not very effective. You may mean well – a percentage of the time, it may even speak to someone who's listening – but nine times out of 10, it changes no one's mind.
Why? Because there's no relationship. The Bible advises that we should gently engage and build relationships with those who don't agree with us:
"Again I say, don't get involved in foolish, ignorant arguments that only start fights. A servant of the Lord must not quarrel but must be kind to everyone, be able to teach, and be patient with difficult people. Gently instruct those who oppose the truth. Perhaps God will change those people's hearts, and they will learn the truth" (2 Timothy chapter 2, verses 23-25, NLT).
Is this what we see around us? Too often, we can forget in the heat of the argument that no one wins when an argument is fought solely on the basis of being "right".
Chances are, when the two parties come away, no one wins, no one is edified and both are pushed further into their respective silos. It becomes a matter of pride, rather than a matter of heart.
So let's be mindful that proving ourselves right isn't important compared to graciously speaking truth. After all, we have the responsibility to be good representatives of what we believe – "so that it may benefit those who listen" (Ephesians chapter 4 verse 29).
I don't think we should shy away from stating what we believe. But, like Paul said in Ephesians, we need to speak the truth in love. We need to treat our disagreements as gospel opportunities, not as a forum for us to prove that we're correct.
When we disagree, here are a few questions to ask ourselves:
- Are we hearing other sides of the story, even if we don't agree with them?
- Is our disagreement based on the Bible, or our own opinion? (Read up and research.)
- Are we speaking in a way to benefit the person we're speaking to, or to prove ourselves "right"?
Let's keep an eye on how we respond to others, whatever the forum, and, even as we disagree, maintain our gentleness and grace.
Cheryl McGrath is a communications professional at the Christian mission organisation CMS Victoria. She has a background in editing and publishing, and lives in Melbourne. Cheryl McGrath's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/cheryl-mcgrath.html.