More than any year in recent memory, 2020 has been a perfect storm for conflict.
Over the past several months, we’ve survived a particularly contentious presidential election season. We’ve experienced a summer defined by racial unrest, demonstrations and protests. We’ve weathered the isolation, stress and hardships brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. And we’ve developed sharp differences of opinion over things like masks and limitations on in-person gatherings.
In a time of such passionate polarization, how do we recover a sense of civility? Is there any hope that raging division can be replaced by respectful disagreement?
Enter the Winsome Conviction Project, a new Biola-led initiative that aims to help people communicate with others in loving ways that preserve human dignity, even as we engage in honest disagreement. Launched in October with support from generous donors, the project includes a podcast, blog, video resources, events, workshops and other aids.
The effort is being led by Biola communication professor Tim Muehlhoff and theology professor Rick Langer, co-directors of the Winsome Conviction Project, co-hosts of the Winsome Conviction Podcast and authors of a new book, Winsome Conviction: Disagreeing without Dividing the Church (IVP, December 2020). As the perfect storm of 2020 reached peak strength this fall, Muehlhoff and Langer sat down with another Biola podcast — Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture, hosted by Talbot School of Theology professors Scott Rae and Sean McDowell — to discuss the new project and how Christians can live out our convictions more winsomely. Here is their conversation, edited and condensed for length and clarity.
SCOTT RAE: Our culture is characterized much more by divisiveness and rancor and anger than it is by winsomeness. We seem to be very skilled at holding our convictions in a scorched-earth way, which is not great for building bridges and fostering relationships across issues and across the types of questions that we have pretty serious divisions about. So, Tim and Rick, tell us a little bit about what you mean by the term “winsome conviction” and why it’s so important today.
TIM MUEHLHOFF: Just turn on your television, watch the news and do the exact opposite. That’s what we mean by winsome. We are locked into what Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown linguist, calls the “argument culture” — where we demonize each other and finding common ground is seen as compromise, seen as weakness. We’ve lost the relational level of communication today. The relational level of communication is made up of the amount of respect between two individuals, the amount of acknowledgment and the amount of compassion. In this argument culture, is it possible to be cordial? Is it possible to be civil? Is it possible to start with common ground — areas of agreement — and work toward areas of disagreement, which would be a flipping of the argument culture? That’s what we mean by winsome: Can we do this and keep our sense of humor? Can we do this and keep our convictions, but still show charity toward the person with whom we disagree?
RICK LANGER: One thing I would add to that is oftentimes we state our convictions as if it’s a way to end the conversation. Part of the Winsome Conviction Project is to say: How about if we stated our convictions in a way that begins a conversation, that invites others to contribute, respond, interact — and therefore will deepen and enrich our convictions? Not just, as you put it so well, Scott, the scorched-earth version that, once stated, ends conversation and leaves a charred landscape in its wake.
RAE: But these things we disagree about are not trivial things. They’re not like disagreeing about what your favorite movie of all time is or who your favorite sports team is. These are things that we hold really deeply, passionately. These are convictions that we’ve staked our lives on. Certainly, it’s easy to understand why people can be very passionate about this and go out of bounds, so to speak, and not be particularly winsome. The things we’re debating are things that really matter. How does that play into this idea of winsome conviction?
LANGER: One of the challenges for us as Christians is we tend to view things either as simply being a matter of taste or it’s a matter of conviction. If it’s a conviction, then it’s an absolute conviction and it should be a conviction that’s universally held by all Christians — and indeed, anyone who disagrees with it is simply kind of professing their lack of a sincere Christian faith. One of the big points we make in the book is I think there are things like that — things that we might call areas of absolute conviction or Christian conviction. And there are certainly matters that are merely matters of taste.
But in the middle there’s this whole area that Paul really unpacks and dives into in Romans 14 that he calls disputable matters, or what we might call areas of personal conviction. They aren’t universal convictions, but each individual Christian needs to form their own opinion. As Paul says, “I want you to be fully convinced in your own mind.” So this is an area of conviction, but it’s your own mind and it’s before Jesus you stand and fall. So it’s a personal conviction. It’s an area where there’s room for Christians to disagree. And I think we’ve forgotten that area exists
SEAN MCDOWELL: That’s a really helpful way to break it down, because sometimes with non-essentials that are important, people die on those hills as if they’re essentials. You’re drawing this distinction and just thinking it through can help us communicate more effectively together. Tim, you mentioned that communication is broken down into two areas: content and relational. What are the roles that each of those play, especially in conflict?
MUEHLHOFF: Well, the content is important. That’s our argument. That’s our conviction. That’s why we feel strongly about a particular issue. But here’s what we learned from communication theory: If the relational level is broken, no one cares about your content. If I don’t feel respected by you, I don’t want to hear your argument. If I feel like you have no compassion toward me and I feel like you don’t acknowledge my position, then I don’t care what your argument is because we’ve been sidetracked.
What I find interesting is Paul says, “I want you to speak the truth.” Content. “I want you to do it in love.” Relational. Peter says, “Be ready to give a defense of the reasons that you believe.” Content. “But do it in all gentleness and respect.” Relational. You can look at the book of Proverbs and you see a beautiful balance between the relational and the content.
I think the argument crisis today is that we’ve lost the relational. There was a time when people could be friends. We take a look at G.K. Chesterton in our book. He was friends with humanists like H.G. Wells and Rudyard Kipling. After a bitter debate, they were able to go to the pub together and have a conversation. That’s what we’ve lost today. Just mere association with the person on the other side is seen as compromise. So I think we need to desperately try to reclaim the relational.
“One of our biggest challenges is actually successfully achieving disagreement, because we so frequently don’t understand each other. If I can’t state your viewpoint in a way that you nod your head and say, ‘Yes, that’s right, that is what I think,” then I can’t possibly disagree with you, because I don’t know what you think.”
– Rick Langer, Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies
MCDOWELL: Tim, in your book, Defending Your Marriage, you discuss spiritual warfare as it relates to our marriages. But how does spiritual battle play in our disagreement with fellow believers? In other words, how can you tell if this is just a normal disagreement or if some kind of spiritual warfare might be at play?
MUEHLHOFF: Well, Sean, that’s a great question because we would be so naive at a Christian university or a church to think that Satan, our adversary, isn’t trying to destroy our unity. He does not care how he does that. He wants to get a foothold. So when I’m having a theological debate with a brother, if I start to demonize the other person, if I start to let anger control me, if I’m attacking that person and feeling the temptation to do so, I think it’s wise to pull back and pray some spiritual warfare prayers to protect our unity.
I think we need to pray a mantle of protection around our disagreements. I think we’d be naive if we didn’t think spiritual battle is at play in some of these real disagreements about politics, theology, diversity or immigration. Satan wants to get a foothold and drive the church apart.
LANGER: I think we talk about sometimes a root of bitterness springing up, and you notice that happens a lot in arguments, just ordinary discussions. But that’s the exact language that Paul uses to identify that with giving Satan a foothold. And yet at that point, you really realize that the spiritual warfare issue is intimately connected with our ability or our inability to have healthy conversations with one another. I’ll kind of listen to the tapes that are rolling in my own mind as I think about a person with whom I’m having a disagreement. And I’ll realize, “Oh my gosh, I’m drifting into bitterness.” That’s the thing that just gives Satan a foothold to divide the body of Christ.
RAE: It’s one thing to hold your convictions in a winsome way once you’re involved in the conversation. But starting difficult conversations may be even tougher than maintaining civility once you’re in the midst of them. We talk to a lot of students who don’t have any idea how to even begin to approach some of these subjects with their peers, with family members, or whoever it might be. What kind of practical advice would you give to someone when it comes to starting one of these difficult conversations?
LANGER: You need to make up your mind at the outset whether or not you want to hear from them or if you want to tell them something. One of the things I would really encourage people to do at the outset is just stop and say, “How well do I understand their position? What questions might I ask that would help me understand it?” Begin the process with an attempt to have discovery, reflection, inviting input from the other person. Even though you know that you may disagree, you probably don’t understand their position super well.
One of our biggest challenges is actually successfully achieving disagreement, because we so frequently don’t understand each other. If I can’t state your viewpoint in a way that you nod your head and say, “Yes, that’s right, that is what I think,” then I can’t possibly disagree with you, because I don’t know what you think. I have to go through a certain effort to be able to really articulate another person’s viewpoint well enough that they can nod their head and say, “Yes, you’ve not only captured what I believe, but you’ve captured how I feel about that issue.”
So I would encourage people to begin a lot of these conversations with that kind of an effort and say, “Hey, I know we disagree about this issue, but I’m not sure I understand all of your reasons why or some of the reasons that may sit behind why you feel that way. Could you talk to me just a little bit about your conviction on this issue?” It invites them to tell kind of a broader story and it moves it far more into an area of seeking mutual understanding — not as a replacement for having the honest disagreement, but as a starting point for laying a context for having a disagreement.
“I think the argument crisis today is that we’ve lost the relational. There was a time when people could be friends. … That’s what we’ve lost today. Just mere association with the person on the other side is seen as compromise.”
– Tim Muehlhoff, Professor of Communication
MCDOWELL: Rick, how would you describe a successful conversation in which there is disagreement? Because that’s a very different mindset than a lot of people who say, “I want to win and show the person why [I’m right].” You’re framing this differently, aren’t you?
LANGER: I think one of the big hallmarks of any successful conversation is the way you feel about the person you had it with afterward. Have you deepened your respect and understanding of that person? Have you given and received love from that person? These are things that I think are just mandatory for Christians, whether we’re talking to friends or enemies. We love our friends. We love our enemies. And these are things that we need to be able to convey in conversation.
Another hallmark of a good conversation in an area of conflict is that you really do understand not only what they’re thinking, but why they’re thinking that. If you find yourself thinking, “Tim, he just believes this thing and it just is a completely stupid viewpoint.” Do you think Tim is completely stupid? Is it really that plausible that this person with a Ph.D. is completely stupid? If you’re feeling that their arguments and reasoning for holding the position they do are that way, then you probably don’t actually understand the reason why they hold that position. Sometimes those reasons are more personal than they are intellectual: where they grew up, life experiences that they bring to the table. These things shape our opinions profoundly. But they help us make sense of each other. ... It’s what we call thickening the conviction, understanding the backstory, understanding the heart and the feelings a person brings to it. A big part of a successful conversation is understanding the person better in all of their kind of dynamics.
MUEHLHOFF: We do this all the time. We demonize the other person and get into that kind of black-and-white thinking Rick just described. We’ve been working with a Christian high school and church and have collected people’s comments about how hard it is talking about the election. Here are two that stand out. One friend of mine said, “There is nothing that the Democrats believe that I could vote for. Nothing.” Another friend of mine said, “Listen, I’ll make this really simple: Republicans are liars, period.”
That demonization — don’t think that that’s something that only non-Christians do. I mean these are both committed believers that I just quoted. And yet, for whatever reason, they’ve slipped into the argument culture and now they’re doing what Peter said not to do. Peter said, “I don’t want you to give an insult for an insult. I don’t want you to do that. I want you to give a blessing instead of an insult.” That’s where some people say, “There is no blessing I can give to that individual. There’s nothing good to bless.”
Somehow Jesus was able to have the moniker “the friend of sinners.” We need to go back to his table fellowship model — that you can hold this tension of really disagreeing with a person, but also having fellowship and keeping the relational level alive as you have these disagreements on the content level.
MCDOWELL: I’ve listened to both of you speak on this, read some of your works and tried to do this in my life and find myself falling short many times. But I also find myself in conversations with people who aren’t even trying to put these principles into practice. What do you do when you kind of have that moment and you realize, “I’m trying to live out civility and respect and charity and this person isn’t?” Do you step back and call them on it? Do you narrate the conversation? Do you end it? How do you navigate that?
LANGER: My reflex reaction is to say, “Hey, I’m feeling like our conversation isn’t working and here’s some of why I’m feeling that.” It’s uncanny how often everything changes if you can somehow get both people on the same side of the table and the problem on the other side. So we’re looking at this problem together and saying, “Hey, we’re not having a good conversation right now. What could we do to make it just a little bit better?”
MUEHLHOFF: John Gottman, one of the top relational experts today, says this: “How a conversation begins is how it’s going to end.” I just taught a class with a colleague at Biola and we just fundamentally disagree theologically and even politically on certain issues, but we absolutely had a blast. When he would disagree with me, he would say this: “I really respect Dr. Muehlhoff and when he said this in that last lecture, boy, hang on to that. That’s really, really good what he said. But I have a question about that because I think I disagree maybe at this point.” It was such a soft startup that it really got us on a roll. And by the way, we were able to keep our sense of humor. I think that was really important. We’re ardent college football fans and we joked about each other’s teams and stuff like that. So the humor part is really important. And then it’s how we disagreed with each other, that we felt respected even as we were disagreeing with each other.
RAE: Guys, let me push back a bit on this — hopefully in a winsome way. But as I read through the Gospels, there are several instances in the life of Jesus that come to mind where I think you can make an argument that he wasn’t practicing this kind of civility and winsomeness. When he threw the money changers out of the temple. When he called the Pharisees whitewashed tombs. Or in the Gospel of John, when he referred to the religious leaders as, “You are the children of your father, the devil.” How do you incorporate those examples from the life of Jesus into your notion here of winsome conviction?
LANGER: I have certainly thought about that as well. If you were to learn rhetoric from the Holy Spirit, so to speak, you’d find that sometimes he speaks in what you might call a prophetic voice: You read Old Testament prophets and they will declare bold judgment. You’ll find other times when the Holy Spirit is called the Comforter or the Paraclete, the one that comes alongside, and so he kind of speaks in a pastoral voice. But he’s also the one who leads us into the truth. So he speaks in a persuasive voice.
I would want to say at the outset, there’s probably room for these different voices at different times. I think one of our biggest worries is we’ve either defaulted to the pastoral voice only, where you just kind of meet the person where they’re at and you say words of love and kumbaya and that kind of a thing. And if that isn’t good, then you turn up the prophetic mode. And if the prophetic mode doesn’t work, then you turn up the volume on the prophetic mode. We’ve forgotten there might be this middle ground where we really can have a conversation.
I don’t want to claim that that’s the only way we could ever talk or the only thing that would ever be warranted. There are times where you just shout at a person, “Get out of the street because the bus is coming,” and you don’t want to invite them into a conversation. You just want them out of the street. I’m just concerned that we have defaulted into either of these two directions of merely kind of taking the “whatever, it’s all good” or the absolute “draw the line.” We’ve lost this whole middle area of conversation that I would argue, even in the life of Christ, would be the preponderance of the way you see him interacting — not denying the fact that there may be times and places where he interacts in another way.
MUEHLHOFF: I would just add to that: We have to let Paul be complex. I mean this is the man who powerfully says that evil can be overcome by good. He powerfully says when your enemy is hungry, don’t take advantage of him, but rather give him food, give him drink. And yet, this is the same man who took on the Judaizers in some very powerful language. So I think we’re going to have to do what we call situational communication. It’s not one-size-fits-all, but we have to take a look at each instance. Because remember, when Paul’s speaking on Mars Hill, we know what he thinks about idols. But when he gets up to address the men of Athens, he says, “Men of Athens, I observe that you’re men of worship.” And you think, “What? What?” That’s Paul using winsome communication right there. I think we have to make Paul a complex communicator who often allows the situation to drive what may be the best thing to say in that moment. On Mars Hill, he decided to focus on their positives — the “men of worship” — and not that fact that he despised idol worship.
RAE: So let me ask one final question for both of you. What advice would you give to people for how to have winsome convictions and winsome conversations about the presidential election?
MUEHLHOFF: Rick and I just did a test group with some of our friends who are just people we admire to death, their walk with the Lord, their commitment to Jesus’ kingdom. And yet, everybody was conflicted. We broke people into different groups and everyone was conflicted on how they were going to vote. I think at the end of the day, nobody’s particularly happy. So give grace and understanding and just know the conflictedness you feel is being felt by other people. Give grace even to those who aren’t conflicted.
LANGER: One other helpful way to begin one of these conversations is just to make your own statements a little bit more provisional. Instead of saying, “Here’s what I believe,” say, “Here’s what I think I think. Here’s what I think I think about President Trump or about Joseph Biden or about the election.” It just gives room for softening. Again, it’s that image that Tim picked up from John Gottman about the way you begin the conversation is the way you end it. So to be able to say something like, “Here’s what I think I think,” makes it both easier to skate into it and also easier to give room for your own adjustment, but also for interacting with the person who disagrees with you.
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The Winsome Conviction Project
The Winsome Conviction Project, which launched at Biola this fall, is a 5-year initiative aimed at helping people, churches and organizations to deepen convictions without dividing the body of Christ or alienating the watching world. The project is being led by co-directors Tim Muehlhoff, professor of communication, and Rick Langer, professor of biblical and theological studies and director of the Office for the Integration of Faith and Learning.
Visit winsomeconviction.com for podcast episodes, blog posts, videos, events, workshops and information on Muehlhoff and Langer’s new book, Winsome Conviction: Disagreeing Without Dividing the Church.
Subscribe to the Winsome Conviction podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favorite podcast app.