A Couple of Transatlantic Misunderstandings – Part 1

It has been well noted that England and America are two nations separated by a common language, and as an Englishman who spends much time there I can confirm that this is indeed the case. But although English is my first language I’ve managed to pick up some Americanese and can occasionally bridge the gap!

There are a couple of turns of phrase which I use quite often that seem to cause confusion in both countries, but for completely different reasons and depending which side of the Atlantic I happen to be when I use them. One is a phrase very commonly used in England, which oft-times raises eyebrows amongst American believers, and the other is a phrase I picked up from American believers which causes a bit of confusion in the Motherland. So in an attempt to undo the confusion I continue to cause on both sides of the Atlantic, let me define these terms (hopefully) to the satisfaction of both my American and English brothers and sisters. I will deal with one today, and the other in the morning.

The first phrase, which I have used since childhood, and which I have never known an Englishman to misunderstand, is the simple phrase, ‘Agree to differ.” And this comes up because I often teach that one of the most important things Christians need to learn to do is to master is the art of being able to agree to differ. However, what Americans seem to hear when I say that is that is the suggestion that Christians should just avoid addressing difficult issues and not try to come to one mind, so as to reach agreement in order to maintain the unity of our faith. They perceive me to mean that we ought to accept a kind of lowest-common-denominator-type stance on things, pretty much just ignoring what scripture teaches regarding them thus leaving the tough issues undefined, ambiguous and un-dealt with so as to keep the peace. Such would, they say – and quite rightly too – be to not take what the New Testament teaches about striving to be of one mind very seriously. So let me clarify what I mean by saying that believers need to learn how to agree to differ.

I think it is is probably the case that there aren’t two followers of Jesus alive on the planet at any one time who would agree with each other about everything. Indeed, how many even godly husbands and wives tick the same boxes about absolutely everything? It is therefore vital that we understand that what holds us together in fellowship is obedience and faithfulness to the Lord, and not the need for comprehensive or complete agreement on what that necessarily looks like in every circumstance. Further, because everyone is at a different place in their discipleship, it is simply ridiculous to assume that every Christian will share the same outlook and understanding regarding everything, even though we are all reading the same Bible.

This is not, of course, to say that there are no red-lines. But it is to say that a lot of Christians seem to have so many red-lines it’s just crazy. I have known believers to fall out and break fellowship with each other over such secondary matters as differing understandings of the relationship between election/predestination and free-will, whether it’s alright to read Harry Potter books or not (and even the writings of C S Lewis), the timing of the Rapture and even over which political party o one votes for. And such fallings out and divisions between Christians, which scripture condemns as being actually carnal and sinful, occur precisely when we don’t properly understand what it means to be able to simply agree to differ.

I am not implying that such differences shouldn’t ever be pursued to see if things might be resolved and agreement reached, but it is simply the case that often, no matter how much discussion and debate ensues, neither party has a change of mind (why should they?), and to try to then pursue matters beyond that point is at best simply a waste of time (having the same old debate again and again and again and again and again), but at worst to actually risk introducing the temptation to end up with wrong feelings towards one another and actual relationship breakdown.

Definition: agreement to differ is simply the mature biblical response to intractable disagreement over issues that are not foundational, thus guarding the wider unity of the relationships being put potentially at risk because of the ongoing discord. I don’t mean that we dumb everything down and continue to just fellowship willy-nilly with believers in serious unrepentant black-and-white chapter-and-verse sin, or who push serious doctrinal error such as denies the very foundations of the Christian faith, but what I do mean is that there are somewhat wider parameters and scope for acceptable differing understandings of things, both doctrinal and practical, than we often think. Whatever our understanding might be regarding, for instance, the timing of the Rapture relative to the Second Coming, or whether the Church has replaced Israel permanently or temporarily Or anything else of a similar vein), it doesn’t make any qualitative difference to the godliness, or lack of it, of our everyday lives. Likewise, if a truly godly family likes Harry Potter as entertainment whereas you disapprove, then what does it ultimately matter? If they aren’t demanding that everyone else approves, or that others ought to do likewise, then what possible harm is done?

In both Romans and Corinthians Paul teaches that there are things regarding which the Lord has not provided any black-and-white-chapter-and-verse definitive instructions. The way to handle such things, he says, is for each believer to simply be true to their own conscience and to leave everybody else to theirs. Whether it’s meat-eating versus vegetarianism, or observing or ignoring special days such as sabbaths, Christians are to just leave each other alone and make no judgement. I must do what my conscience dictates regarding such matters, and you must do likewise. And although Paul obviously gives examples that pertained then, there are a gazillion ones that would fit the bill today. and which are therefore our equivalents. Drinking alcohol or not, watching TV or not, celebrating Christmas or not, reading Harry Potter books or not – the list is endless!

Regarding such matters scripture teaches that there is no necessity whatever for Christians to be in agreement, or to even try to come to agreement. Each is free – indeed, commanded – to be true to their own conscience and we must never interfere with other believers freedom to do the same. So this is what I mean when I say that, when biblically appropriate so do do, Christians need to learn how to just agree to differ.

I will deal with the second of these phrases in the morning. So see you then!

2 thoughts on “A Couple of Transatlantic Misunderstandings – Part 1

  1. Hello Beresford,

    Americans commonly use the expression ‘agree to disagree’ to mean the same thing that you explained ‘agree to differ’ conveys in England.

    If an American didn’t know this, that would indicate a lack of experience with their own language – something that shouldn’t be ruled out.

    More likely though, an American who accuses this expression of indicating a lack of passion or conviction is someone like me – only maybe worse. People like me would, by nature, rather fight and we dismissed by this the suggestion of agreeing to disagree. We hate it. But we need to grow up. I hope I’m more mature today than years ago and think I am. But I wouldn’t care to have to converse with a person who didn’t understand that expression.

    I applaud your patience.

    Mark

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    • Good to hear from you Mark. Thanks for the comment. Perhaps I’ve just been meeting belligerent Americans all this time. 🙂 So how goes it? Are you still doing the Missionary work in France and Africa? Take care and God bless.

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