Debate has raged in recent weeks about pastor and author Alistair Begg’s advice that a grandmother attend her grandchild’s wedding to a transgender person. Now that the dust is somewhat settled, it’s worth asking what we can learn from the whole episode.

I’ve explained elsewhere why I disagree with Begg’s advice, but here I want to reflect on how we navigate our differences about such matters within the body of Christ. How can Christians disagree so that there is minimal collateral damage to the kingdom of God?

In this case, the disagreement is not about sexual ethics (Begg’s position on that is clear). It’s about a specific, more prudential question: How should Christians who maintain a traditional understanding of marriage function in a society that is increasingly abandoning it? In the circumstance Begg was addressing, for example—a grandmother-to-grandchild relationship in which the grandmother’s conviction is clearly known—is attendance at a gay or transgender wedding ceremony ever permissible?

While I come to a different conclusion about this than Begg, his position should not discount his decades of faithful ministry. Yet many responses portray him as fundamentally compromised or untrustworthy or as a proponent of gay marriage. While it’s perfectly appropriate for people to articulate their disagreement, the wholesale denunciations and cutting of ties seem reflective of a broader dysfunction in how Christians express disagreement.

Unfortunately, “cancel culture” is increasingly common in the church as well as the world. Especially in disagreements that play out over the internet, we often display a reactive, all-or-nothing mentality that ultimately reduces the other person to our disagreement with them—even a disagreement on a secondary or tertiary matter. We desperately need to retain and cultivate the ability to say, I disagree with so-and-so on issue X, but they are still my brother or sister in Christ, and so our disagreement takes place in this larger context. Too often, our disagreements reflect little or no awareness of Christian unity and love.

Could fruitful Christian leaders of the past survive the climate we are currently creating? Would John Stott be cancelled for his views on annihilationism? What about C. S. Lewis for his rejection of biblical inerrancy? Or Dietrich Bonhoeffer for his position on the historicity of Genesis 2–3?

I am not minimizing the importance of these issues. Nor am I saying, Let’s just be nice and not talk about our disagreements. But if the disagreement is with a fellow Christian, the way we disagree must be constrained by that reality.

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What does healthy Christian disagreement look like? It’s not formulaic, and I don’t have all the answers, but here are a few ideas worth considering.

Take a break from public disagreement on Sundays

Some of the most heated battles among Christians take place on Twitter on Sunday, even Sunday morning. I wonder if the enemy can use this to distract us from that time in our weekly rhythm that should be especially set aside for rest and worship. What if we took a break from our feuds on the Lord’s Day and instead committed to worship, prayer, and rest?

I cannot bind anyone else’s conscience on a prudential matter like this, but I am making a personal decision to avoid engaging in public disagreement on Sundays, and I would invite others to consider whether something similar might be fruitful in their own lives.

Cultivate a culture of honor

The New Testament calls us to a culture of honor (Rom. 12:10) and gentleness (Gal. 6:1). This does not mean we avoid accountability or criticism as necessary. There is a place for public rebuke (e.g., 1 Tim. 5:20), including of leaders (Gal. 2:11).

However, we need to consider the overall culture we are creating in the church right now, especially for leadership. More than ever before, pastors and other church leaders are operating in a climate of suspicion. According to a recent poll, less than a third of Americans rate clergy as honest and ethical. Relatedly, pastors are increasingly discouraged.

Again, legitimate criticism must be allowed. But the overall trajectory of our culture is such that distrust toward clergy (and distrust toward institutions and leaders generally) is multiplying. This is bad for us all. The entire body of Christ benefits when our leaders flourish. And who can flourish in a climate of suspicion and speedy judgment?

So when we engage in criticism, we do well to ask: What is the overall culture I am cultivating with my words?

Show love amid disagreement

One reason love is so important is that the world watches how we disagree with each other. Jesus taught that “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Further, he prayed for our unity so that the world would believe in him (John 17:21).

In a recent podcast, Trevin Wax drew attention to Francis Schaeffer’s comment on this teaching of Christ: “Jesus, here, gives the world a right to do something on the basis of his own authority. He gives the world a right to judge whether you and I are born-again Christians on the basis of whether we show love to all Christians.” How did the controversy around Begg’s comments come across to non-Christians who are watching us?

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Again, love does not mean refraining from disagreement. But when we engage in public disagreement with a brother or sister in Christ, we should consider its broader effect on the credibility of the gospel. Charles Spurgeon gives us a good model here. Discussing his disagreement with George Herbert, he said:

Where the Spirit of God is there must be love, and if I have once known and recognized any man to be my brother in Christ Jesus, the love of Christ constraineth me no more to think of him as a stranger or foreigner, but a fellow citizen with the saints. Now I hate High Churchism as my soul hates Satan; but I love George Herbert, although George Herbert is a desperately High Churchman. I hate his High Churchism, but I love George Herbert from my very soul, and I have a warm corner in my heart for every man who is like him. Let me find a man who loves my Lord Jesus Christ as George Herbert did and I do not ask myself whether I shall love him or not; there is no room for question, for I cannot help myself; unless I can leave off loving Jesus Christ, I cannot cease loving those who love him. … I will defy you, if you have any love to Jesus Christ, to pick or choose among His people.

In the years and decades ahead, we will likely face many more complicated questions of what Christian faithfulness looks like in our society. We will not always agree. But even our disagreements can honor Jesus and commend the gospel to those around us if we have a “warm corner” in our hearts for all the sheep of Christ.

Gavin Ortlund (PhD, Fuller Seminary) is president of Truth Unites and theologian-in-residence at Immanuel Nashville. He is the author of eight books, including Why God Makes Sense in a World That Doesn't.

A version of this article originally appeared at Truth Unites.

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