The gift of saying ‘I disagree’

February 16th, 2015

“Women shouldn’t be in authority over men,” his female coworker said. “The Bible is clear about that. They should only teach other women and children.” Since he was a member of my church (Saint Junia, named after a female apostle), he took exception to what she said. His coworkers weren’t talking about abstract issues; they were talking about another female coworker who had just graduated from seminary. The abstract had become personal. He emailed me to ask how he should reply.

Since I’m a theological minority in fundamentalist territory, I’m pretty used to getting into biblical dust-ups over everything from gay marriage to infant baptism. In all of these cases, I’ve found that one of the best witnesses is to simply say, “I disagree.”

I told my friend that he could mention Deborah, one of the earliest judges of Israel, who was clearly a leader of men as well as women (Judges 4:4-5:31). He could talk about Paul’s friend Chloe, who sent “her people” to him to let him know his pastoral guidance was required in Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:11). He could mention Junia (Romans 16:7), who Paul said was “first among the apostles,” or any number of other early church leaders. These are all examples of women leading churches and nations.

He could also go the hermeneutics route: He could point out that when Paul (if it really was Paul) was talking about women, it was for a particular context in a particular time. He could point out that Paul also made arguments (pretty lousy ones, actually) about women having long hair, or wearing hats when they pray, because short hair is “natural” for a man (1 Corinthians 11:14-15). All those portraits of long-haired Jesus should be replaced with buzz-cut Jesus!

I told my friend he and his coworker actually disagree about at least three things. The first is how to read and interpret the Bible. They could spend a long time just talking about how to interpret various scriptures, or “what the Bible says.” The second disagreement is over the theological principles she derives from her interpretation: that God ordains certain gender roles in ministry, and disapproves when we bend or break those roles. The third disagreement is over ethics and polity. What is the just or unjust response if a woman experiences a call to ministry for the whole church, not just to be a teacher of women and children? How should the church respond? How should her would-be followers behave?

This three-part movement, from hermeneutics (interpretation) to theology (how we talk about God) to ethics and polity (how we implement our notions of good and bad, right and wrong) is one that we live out daily in our Christian lives. We are often sloppy about how we talk about these processes, slipping from one to the other without transition or explicitly identifying our angle. And truly, the fact that I name them as distinct logical steps would put me at odds with people who claim to do exactly “what the Bible says.”

But I also told him that he could be the best biblical scholar, theologian, and ethicist in the world, as well as an eloquent debater, and it would make very little difference in his disagreement with his coworker. It wouldn’t make a difference because there is still a fourth movement, an unstated set of values about “What is at stake” that affects all of our arguments which we bring with us into the study of Scripture, or any argument.

These values are based on tribal loyalties and social identity. His coworker belongs to a church that doesn’t allow female preachers. If she were to concede that her opinion was wrong, it would create cognitive dissonance in the way she thinks of all her social relationships in her church. As one of my friends says, “The whole Jenga tower would come toppling down.” The same is true for him. What is at stake for him is how he conceives of his relationships with women in his life, his sense of meaning and purpose he gets from his church, and his ongoing experience of God’s revelation to him in the gospel of an inclusive Christ.

Sometimes the most gracious answer is simply “I disagree.” We let the other person know that what’s at stake for us prevents us from following their direction in reading, interpreting, theologizing and applying.

But saying “I disagree” is not an end; it is a beginning. If your dialogue partner is open to it, they will ask why, and open-ended questions are a way to witness to our faith, because we become dialogue partners. We can move through successive levels of meaning: through Scripture, through hermeneutics, through ethics and finally to personal stakes. For me, uncovering those hidden stakes is almost always a lesson in empathy and love. When we have these opportunities, it’s sad to miss the blessing in disagreement because we either a) dismiss all conflict as negative or b) resort to polemic and spiritual bullying.

This is an idealist attitude, of course, and one I’m not always able to maintain. Some people are only interested in trolling and bullying, in aggrandizing their own sense of self and sense of power. It takes wisdom and discernment to figure out if we’re “throwing our pearls before swine,” as Jesus said, or engaging an open-minded dialogue partner. But a true friend with whom we can disagree is a gift, an invitation to learn more about each other and ourselves.

Dave Barnhart is the pastor of Saint Junia UMC in Birmingham, Ala. He blogs at

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