Whether it’s about Covid, political issues, or theological positions, all of us will—at some point—be in a situation where someone asks us to comment on a divisive issue. This is something more significant than ‘Do you prefer pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving or Christmas?’, ‘How early do you start listening to Christmas music?’ or, ‘Isn’t it a shame J.J. killed the Stars Wars movies for the foreseeable future?’ Well, that last one could raise emotions. Still, I’m asking about something divisive.
Here, the word divisive means something that divides along significant lines. This is an issue that could cause family members not to speak to each or believers to part ways from a local church. This also means that the issue itself may not be universal. Every family has a history and every church has a local context. Some topics and situations could be more divisive than others. For example, questions about Democrat or Republican were not as divisive fifty years ago than they are now. Today, it could be something related to such diverse topics as abortion, vaccine mandates, gender identity, and the entertainment industry’s relationship to China.
So, what do you do when someone asks your opinion about such topics—topics that you know, in that situation, could lead to division? How you do you respond when someone puts you on the spot and wants to know what you think when your answer could cause you to lose a friend, lead to a hostile work environment, or see someone walk away from your church? Consider these suggestions on navigating these difficult situations.
1. Remember believers are called to seek unity and peace. Christians should not delight in being agents of chaos and disruption. Certainty, we stand against the kingdoms of this world and delight to see sinners turn from idols to worship the living God (1 Thess 1:9). But the way we go about seeing Christ’s kingdom expand is through the foolishness of gospel preaching and the weakness of humble, loving service to those around us (1 Cor 1:20–25; Mark 9:35). Thus, we are called to “strive for peace with everyone” (Heb 12:14). The Christian ought not to be marked by quarrelsomeness. We don’t try to poke our neighbor in the eye with controversial statements. Our goal should always be unity and peace unless we are called to betray the clear teachings of the Bible to achieve it.
2. Pray for wisdom. This doesn’t have to be a long prayer. Consider Nehemiah’s prayer when he was standing before the king and was asked what he wanted as help for Israel. There wasn’t time to leave for a lengthy prayer. One moment he was talking to God and the next he was answering the king (Neh 2:4–5)! The goal is to have speech that is always “gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer each person” (Col 4:2). We need God’s help for this.
3. Be mindful of the environment surrounding the question. Who is asking this question and where are they asking it? The public square is a different place than the local church. This doesn’t mean I should hide my beliefs at work. But it does mean that conveying them will take a much longer explanation. One may have to build-up a basic Christian worldview with coworkers to give some context for a conviction before just throwing it out there. Otherwise, we could bring confusion rather than clarity, disgrace rather than truth. This is different than discussions among believers. We already have much common ground from which to talk, even if the believer is from a different church tradition (Jude 3).
4. Consider the person’s motivation. This can be tricky because we cannot always discern someone’s motives. At the time same, we can usually detect whether or not someone is looking for a fight or genuinely wants help navigating an issue. For those looking to argue, it’s okay to not give them kindling for the fire. It may be wise to simply change the subject or walk away rather than answering a fool (Prov 26:4).
5. Try to understand the other’s person’s perspective first. If you feel like you can’t walk away (see 4 above), or someone is really looking for help navigating, try to get their perspective first. What do they think about the issue? How did they arrive at their beliefs? This may help you approach the issue with them in a way that is helpful. For example, if someone questions your belief in hell, you may ask them if they believe everyone goes to heaven? If they say ‘No,’ then you can follow up by asking ‘Who or what determines how one goes to heaven or hell?’ In all of this, James’ instruction is always applicable: “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak” (Jas 1:19).
6. Love the person in front of you. In part, this means being gentle when you believe the other person is wrong; even on issues that you feel very strong about. Instead of putting them on blast, express your understanding that this is a difficult and divisive issue. Then in your answer, be humble. Be patient. Be willing to lose the argument. Remember that even our enemies are due our love, not a verbal assault (Luke 6:27).
7. Glorify God in all things. This is the “prime directive” for all Christians at all times. We are not here to advance our ideas, preserve a political party, defend rights, whitewash sins, or win an argument at all costs. We are here to bring God glory. This is seen across the whole Bible, but is made especially clear in the principle Paul lays down where issues of conscience is concerned—“whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31).