Disagreeing with Grace: Why Lines are Hard to Draw

Over the last week or two, we’ve seen large-scale disagreements play themselves out in a variety of locations. The Gospel Coalition’s Jared Wilson posted some troubling words, which offended and hurt many, and he was called out. Wilson’s original post has since been pulled, but both parties have reconciled, at least over the offense. There is a deeper disagreement here–one between different interpretations of Scriptural teaching on the marriage relationship–but it was truly a relief to see apologies pushed forth and publicly accepted. I was worried, for a bit there.

The other big disagreement of the last week or so comes to us in a rather odd shape–the chicken sandwich. Dan Cathy, the president and chief operating officer of Chick-Fil-A, stated that he did not support homosexual marriage, going as far as saying that as a nation we are “inviting God’s judgment […] when we shake our fist at [God] and say, ‘We know better than you.'” It is no surprise that this was met with controversy; it is rare that a discussion of homosexuality does not end in some sort of intellectual spat. Chick-Fil-A is likely not taken off guard by this, as they have been the target of these sorts of protests and suggested boycotts for years now. Regardless of your thoughts on the issue, there may be good reason to continue to eat at Chick-Fil-A, but I’ll leave that argument to Jonathan Merritt over at The Atlantic.

I’ve been forced over the years to consider deeply what it actually means to disagree with someone. I’ve had professors who would adamantly suggest to me that the Earth is less than 20,000 years old, while others would scoff at the ignorance of those who held such a view. But these thinkers, these men and women of God, respected the intellect of their academic peers, even if they disagreed with a particular position or belief.

As a theologian, I happen to enjoy a lot of what Calvin does. I’m not what many would call a “good” Calvinist, in that I believe that free will really does matter, but I’m still okay with the label; I’ve certainly earned it enough times. When I learned that a professor of mine explicitly stated that he believed Calvinism wrong, I hit a bit of a shock. Here was a professor who I knew was brilliant, and had considered the subject for years longer than I had. What was I to do with this apparent contrast?

I gave Calvinism a second thought, rather than the professor.

You see, disagreement can be a tricky project. Here’s why:

On the one hand, I don’t for a second want to stop seeking out the truth of whatever matter I happen to be investigating. In fact, it would be extremely arrogant to cease; it would be as if I were claiming to have correct opinions on all issues. This seeking is facilitated by, aside from reading and studying broadly, interacting with those who hold positions that differ from my own. Spending time with people who seek after the heart and mind of Christ can teach me, even if I currently think they are wrong. Maybe they are mistaken, of course, and we shouldn’t just give up our beliefs because someone intelligent disagrees with us. But if we come to a place where we are so sure of every position that we stop learning, we’ve lose our ability to study in our deep arrogance.

The other hand, however, contains what I think is the more difficult issue: we should live what we currently believe. The kicker here is that if we believe something, if we consider and dwell on something long enough to say we actually and actively believe it, we had better learn how to live it out. We must speak strongly, stand firm in our convictions, and recognize that we are often in good company.

If those seem contradictory, good; you’ve followed my point. We must find a place between a steely, rock-hard disposition that prevents any real learning and a malleable piece of clay that conforms to whatever respected person you spoke with last. There’s a measure of grace needed, here, both to give and to receive; we must receive grace that we may recognized our faults and ask forgiveness, and we must give grace to those who disagree with us, remembering that they likely have good reasons to believe what they believe.

There are limits here, of course. Some beliefs may be vicious, and not even worth entertaining. But remember this, as you press forward into this crazy world of ours: you’ve likely had and defended terrible beliefs; maybe you have some now. Let’s grow and think together.

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J.F. Arnold

James received his MA in Philosophy of Religion at Talbot School of Theology in 2013. He holds a BA in Biblical Studies from Biola University, and is a graduate and perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute. James blogs on a number of subjects, including technology, theology, and hip-hop. He has written for Biola’s Center for Christianity, Culture, & the Arts, The Gospel Coalition, and he is an editor for Mere Orthodoxy. You can also keep up with him on Twitter (@jamesfarnold).