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Respond to Conflict like Francis Schaeffer

I tend to tune out social media controversies and negative online comments. It’s generally a good course of action given the storms of shock and outrage about nearly everything on any given day. Even attempts at good-faith responses sometimes fan the flames.

Avoiding such storms works well because of the distance the internet provides. But when Henry, a real-life friend of mine, objected on social media to something I was personally involved with, it raised a different set of questions. Since the critique was on social media, should I respond there? Should I give a long, nuanced reply, sure to be read by few? Should I say something punchy, sure to get everyone’s attention? Should I ignore it? As Christians, how can we learn to disagree well, especially with other Christians?

In 1970, Francis Schaeffer, one of the most astute apologists of the 20th century, published The Mark of the Christian. I first read the book about 50 years ago, and it continues to shape how I think about encounters like the one with my friend. It’s a brief book; you can read it in about an hour. Yet it may carry more weight today than at any time in the last half-century because it reminds us of the importance of loving our neighbor and being able to disagree well—vital skills in an increasingly polarized age.

Two Passages in John

The Mark of the Christian is Schaeffer’s meditation on two passages in John’s Gospel. He begins with John 13:34–35: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Schaeffer marvels at Jesus’s words:

In the midst of the world, in the midst of our present dying culture, Jesus is giving a right to the world. Upon his authority he gives the world the right to judge whether you and I are born-again Christians on the basis of our observable love toward all Christians. . . .

In other words, if people come up to us and cast in our teeth the judgment that we are not Christians because we have not shown love toward other Christians, we must understand that they are only exercising a prerogative which Jesus gave them. And we must not get angry. . . . We must go home, get on our knees and ask God whether or not they are right. (22–23)

The second passage Schaeffer focuses on is John 17:20–21. Jesus prays for his disciples first, then continues, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

Schaeffer famously calls this sort of loving oneness “the final apologetic” (25). The way we handle conflict among Christians is supposed to attract people to Christ.

Discipleship of Disagreement

It’s hard to maintain that the way Christians disagree with one another right now draws people to Christ, especially when the disagreements are on social media. The opposite may be more common. Our disagreements often sound more like vitriolic wrangling than respectful dialogue with a brother or sister in Christ.

The way we handle conflict among Christians is supposed to attract people to Christ.

We have to do better, but developing a different approach to conflict takes practice. If we aren’t finding ways to show love as small disagreements arise, we’ll be unlikely to show love when a major dispute erupts.

It begins with our attitude when we clash with other Christians. It begins, as Schaeffer states, “with a desire to solve it, rather than with a desire to win.” When we disagree, we need to find an outcome that “will give God the glory, that will be true to the Bible, but will exhibit the love of God simultaneously with his holiness” (50).

Schaeffer says our love must be observable, something others can see. Observable love often requires saying sorry and asking for forgiveness—with a spouse, a friend, a child, a parent, or another person or group we’ve wronged. This is simple, but it won’t be easy. In my experience, it takes great strength of character to say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Will you forgive me?”

Still, what if we have a real and legitimate difference with someone? What do we do then? Schaeffer says doctrinal differences will sometimes require us to part ways with other true believers. But even then, “we should never come to such a difference with true Christians without regret and without tears” (45). We cannot fail to state that what’s wrong is wrong, Schaeffer argues, “but the observable love must be there regardless of the cost” (48).

Personal Love

Schaeffer sought to live out his message. In the early 1970s, George, a friend of mine, spent a summer at L’Abri, the work-study community Schaeffer and his wife established in Switzerland. Night after night, he heard Schaeffer speak. George was impressed that no matter what challenges to Schaeffer’s positions were posed, whether offered combatively or from genuine curiosity, he gave a full and serious answer. He sought to disagree lovingly, whether or not the other person was a Christian.

It takes the greatest strength of character to say, ‘I’m sorry. I was wrong. Will you forgive me?’

The disembodied nature of social media sometimes makes it harder to respond with observable love than when we communicate in person. In the end, there were several valid ways I could have responded to Henry’s post. After mulling it over, I eventually decided to write him directly, saying, “I saw your post, and I thought, ‘This is too important an issue to discuss on social media.’ I wonder if we could get together and chat. Can I buy you lunch?”

So we met and we ate. We were both able to talk about the issues without making it personal. We heard each other’s perspectives more fully in a safe and calm setting. Henry and I were both able to correct some misimpressions and affirm points we had in common. And importantly, we were able to maintain our relationship. I’m grateful that Schaeffer’s book, decades ago, helped point me in the right direction.

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