Cordial Disagreement is the Highest Honor

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?

Cordial Disagreement Honor

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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1 reply
  1. Susan says:

    How is progress possible without change and diversity of thought? It isn’t.

    I agree. We need free speech but we need responsible free speech. Not people taking it as a license for ad hominem attacks.

    I don’t know why people can’t figure out not to get personal with people with whom they disagree but it seems endemic and it makes God’s claim that sin exists irrefutable.

    I did have a different experience from you though. I tried to read Nietzsche once many years ago but I couldn’t get past the intro and as I reflect on it I think God stopped me.

    I think philosophy has caused a lot of doctrinal error in Christianity. Why was Augustine consulting Plato when he wrote Christian theology? It seems to me if you want to articulate God’s doctrine that you refer to the Bible exclusively.

    That’s not to say that you can’t learn from philosophy. You can learn how to use your natural mind better if you are logically disposed by nature or have studied and mastered logic.

    But I think God has his own system of principles….some call spiritual laws or principles that one can only learn from the Bible and never from a biblically illiterate philosopher.

    If that sounds intolerant I don’t mean it to. I just believe God has His own spiritual order, plan ways and training that are exclusively His way and He is the copyright holder on His own methods. So we shouldn’t be watering down His ideas with the lesser ideas of men.

    There is the spiritual mind shaped by God through the scriptures and biblical meditation cf. Psalm 1 and there’s the natural mind that is sharpened by interaction with the world.

    I am naturally going to develop my natural mind just by being present in the world.

    But you have to seek out the scriptural answers to engage in biblical osmosis to develop your spiritual mind and consciousness more fully.

    Sorry for sounding so intolerant but I need clarity to get to the bottom of God’s great truths.


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