Discussing contentious issues is never easy. Even with friends and family, conversations can quickly descend into conflict or become divisive when they drift into territory laden with present-day landmines. Topics connected to controversies over gender, the sanctity of life, marriage, and an ever-increasing list of trip-wire political issues can be hazardous for relationships. When the often invisible boundaries are crossed, it is not uncommon to be confidently informed, “You cannot legislate morality!” As those that are seeking to be reasonable and rational actors, how should we respond? Here are some important things I’ve learned in working to navigate such conversations well.
Lower your tone and lessen your aggressive posture.
I have a problem with wanting to lean into debate and argument. I discovered long ago that I have something of an argumentative nature. And I’ve noticed that I may have passed the argument gene down to some of my children as well. On this issue, I shared something with my oldest son about this a few months ago.
At fourteen years old and standing nearly 6’4” he is already taller than I. Additionally, he has phenomenal self-confidence, and like his dad, he loves to argue. But like so many of us who love to argue, when a conversation becomes a debate, and the argument gland is engaged, zeal can lead to a louder tone and a perceived aggressive posture. Therefore, I had to teach my son what I believe is a valuable lesson.
“Son, you have great self-confidence and are blessed with a sizable stature. Your confidence, tone, and size will often put people on the defensive. Therefore, you must try to decrease your tone and pacify your posture.”
My advice may seem strange to some, but I have found—being 6’2” and presenting a confident and passionate attitude—that it is essential for me to lower my tone consciously and present a resigned and meek posture when conversing over potentially contentious issues. A person can almost guarantee a fight when they exhibit a physically and verbally aggressive stance. As the great wise king of Israel observed, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). And never forget, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5)
Aspire to be persuasive. And that does not mean manipulative.
At the height of the shutdowns, in the early days of the COVID response, I found myself engaged in a long conversation with a close friend who shares many of my beliefs and convictions. But on the issues of shutdowns, masks, and government mandates, like many, my friend was on fire with passion. When the subject arose, his tone and posture would immediately become insistent and forceful, intimidating some around him. As we spoke, I sought to encourage him.
“I agree with many of the things you are saying. It isn’t the position you hold that is a problem. It is that you need to aspire to persuade. Not force your perspective, but to communicate it well.”
As soon as I said “persuade,” he heard the word “manipulate.” In some ways, I understood his response. There are ways in which persuasive communication can seek to be coercive. At once, I could tell that my concept of persuasion was drastically different than his. For several minutes I had to explain what I meant by persuasion, and help him to see the importance of calm, rational, and coherent arguments when reasoning with others.
We certainly do not want to railroad or browbeat others when discussing delicate issues. Our aim should not be to press our worldview by compulsion or intimidation. Instead, we—like the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 4—should seek to be winsome. The ready herald ought to be able to convince and exhort “with great patience and teaching” (see 2 Timothy 4:2). Minds and hearts are not often changed quickly or easily.
Seek understanding and harmony, not victory.
Typically, the “thou shalt not impose your morality” response is reactionary and often not logically considered. The proposition “you cannot legislate morality” has strengths and weaknesses. But, in the final analysis, it becomes clear that all laws are at some level or another a form of moral legislation. Convictions are often held and defended vigorously, even when weak and their defense is not well articulated or skillfully reasoned.
As adept as we may be at promoting our arguments, we need to remember the apostle Paul’s admonition, “If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18, CSB). Or Christ’s beatific proverb, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9, CSB).
On many occasions, I have found myself engaging with family members whose perspectives differ from mine. In no sense seeking to boast, it has not been unusual for me to discover that in many of those conversations—as an apologist and pastor—I’ve dedicated more time to considering the issues than they. Therefore, my reasons and arguments have tended to be far more convincing and sound. As a result, there is a temptation to obliterate their rationale and emerge victorious. But victory at the expense of what?
Admission of defeat and submission to a more potent argument rarely makes an individual an ally. Winning a fight at the cost of a relationship is no victory at all. Instead, seeking to understand another’s perspective, and they mine, has been paramount to maintaining harmony and living to engage with them another day. Over time, this has led to stronger relationships, deeper conversations, and thankfully, some changed minds.
Endeavor, at all costs, to be loving.
Finally, as the apostle Paul wrote, as an introduction to perhaps his most well-known passage, “I will show you an even better way” (1 Corinthians 12:31, CSB). Though I have the most compelling arguments and a well-crafted defense, if I “do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1, CSB). The truth of Paul’s teaching resounds through the ages.
Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not arrogant, is not rude, is not self-seeking, is not irritable, and does not keep a record of wrongs. Love finds no joy in unrighteousness but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
1 Corinthians 13:4-7, CSB
There is simply no better way to say it. Jesus told His followers, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Love is the evidence of God’s Spirit dwelling within us (see Galatians 5:22). Therefore, above all of the well-crafted arguments and careful apologetics, “put on love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts” (Colossians 3:14, NKJV).
Photo by Kindel Media
Miles is the senior pastor of Cross Connection Church in North San Diego County, California. He serves as a board member at Enduring Word and Blue Letter Bible.
Miles has a master of divinity degree from Gateway Seminary in California, and is finishing a doctor of educational ministry at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky.
Miles and his wife Andrea have four children, two dogs, three rabbits, a tortoise, a chinchilla, a hamster, a cat, and a crested gecko.