Cordial Disagreement is the Highest Honor

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[Original Post by Sean McDowell]


We live in a time when impatience, personal attacks, and shallow criticism characterize much of the cultural dialogue. I can hardly ever post a blog without receiving personal criticism from someone to my left or my right.

My concern in this post is not how we came to this cultural moment. That is a story my father and I discuss in our book The Beauty of Intolerance.

In this post, I simply want to remind us of the truth that cordial disagreement is not a vice, but is rather the highest form of honor for someone with a different worldview.

After all, if I ignore an idea, I don’t even think it worthy of consideration and response. I don’t consider it valuable enough for my time or energy. Some may even think it is a dismissal of the person behind the argument as well. But if I disagree with an idea, take the time to formulate a thoughtful response, and do so graciously, don’t I proclaim honor to the person and respect for the ideas?


Honoring Others with Disagreement

I was recently reading Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?, which consists of twenty-two scholarly articles written in response to the publication of Kenton Sparks’s work God’s Word in Human Words. The author of each article responds to at least one of the challenges Sparks has raised about the reliability of the biblical narrative.

In the foreword, John Woodbridge writes, “The authors of Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? address in a straightforward manner the challenges Sparks offers to the trustworthiness of the Bible’s historical narratives. They honor Sparks’s scholarship by taking his proposal seriously.”[1]

Did you catch that? Rather than considering disagreement disrespectful (or hateful), the writers believe they are actually honoring him by taking his ideas seriously and offering thoughtful responses, and yet doing so with generosity. Whether they succeed or not is beside the point. The point is that they show honor to Sparks by cordially engaging his ideas. After all, ideas do have consequences.

When I read this I thought—yes, yes, YES! This is exactly what we need today—people willing to seriously wrestle with important issues of our day because they realize that ideas matter and that cordial disagreement shows honor to those with different views.

If I were Sparks, I would be honored that so many people thought my ideas were worthy of their time, focus, and energy. I wouldn’t be upset. I would be thrilled. That’s why I love it when people offer me thoughtful responses to my ideas. If I were wrong, shouldn’t I want to change my views and seek the truth? Shouldn’t you?


Why Disagreement Matters

How can we ever arrive at truth without thoughtful pushback by people who see the world differently? The sad reality, though, is that many people lack civility and thoughtfulness in their response to people who hold different views. What a shame! How can we have genuine conversation in our pluralistic world, and value truth seeking, if people are so quick to take affront?

Personally, my deepest beliefs stem from my commitment as a follower of Christ. I am not offended when someone thinks Christianity is false. My identity has deeper roots than the opinions of others—and especially strangers. I may be saddened that people reject Christ, but I am not personally offended at their criticisms. After all, the apostle Paul said that if Jesus is not raised, the Christian faith is a sham, and no one should believe it (1 Cor. 15:14, 17). There’s a lot at stake!

Here’s the bottom line: We simply cannot thrive as a democratic society when people take personal affront to disagreement. Rather than seeing disagreement as insult, we ought to realize that gracious, thoughtful disagreement is the highest form of honor.

Please let me know if you think I am wrong about this. I would be honored.


Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, best-selling author, popular speaker, part-time high school teacher, and the Resident Scholar for Summit Ministries, California. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog:

[1] John D. Woodbridge, “Foreword,” in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? ed., James K. Hoffmeier & Dennis R. Magary (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 17.

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