I’ve been pondering the unwelcome reality of disagreements with friends.
My recent Briefing review of Michael Jensen’s book on Sydney Anglicanism* reflects a difference of opinion between Michael and me that we are still in the midst of discussing. I’m also in the process of writing something in response to John Dickson’s ebook on women and sermons, and this too will highlight disagreements with John about some important issues.
Now, I have known and respected Michael and John for a long time. They are both warm-hearted and extravagantly-gifted brothers in Christ, with whom I agree about most of the important things in life (John’s support for Manchester United not being one of them!).
But how should Christians conduct ourselves when we disagree? There’s lots to be said on this topic, and I’d like to explore just one aspect briefly here—an aspect, I would hasten to add, that is not aimed particularly at Michael or John.
I’ve just been thinking how easy and tempting it is to play the man and not the ball.
For non-football types, this means targeting an opposition player, usually with the intent of putting them out of commission, rather than following the movement of the ball and playing the game for its own sake.
Des Hasler, the legendary Manly rugby league player (and now coach), was renowned for doing the opposite; that is, for playing the ball and not the man. His nickname as a footballer was ‘Sorry’, because after burying an opposing player in the turf with one of his characteristic bone-jarring tackles, Hasler would often mutter ‘Sorry mate’ to his opponent as he shakily got to his feet. You were carrying the ball and trying to score. I had to tackle you. Nothing personal. Sorry mate.
As in football, so in debates and arguments, we should strive to play the ball not the man; to discuss the issue itself rather than attack the person presenting the issue. This is not easy. It requires the ability to separate the pros and cons of a particular argument or issue from the personality who is presenting them, and to subject your own arguments to the same honest scrutiny that you bring to bear on the alternative view.
In my experience, this is not only hard to do, but all-too-rare to encounter (especially online).
Several little indicators give it away. You know you’re dealing with someone who is playing the man not the ball when he makes a straw man of your view; that is, when he presents your side of things in an extreme or ugly light, or describes or illustrates it in such a way as to make it unattractive. By contrast, a ball-player endeavours to describe and present the opposing view as fairly and reasonably as he would like someone to present his own view.
Ball-players also freely and honestly acknowledge what is good and right in the opposing view, and avoid intemperately damning the whole because of a defect in the parts. They seek to stick to the issue at hand, and not broaden or generalize the disagreement into a questioning of character or bona fides.
Playing the ball also means seeking to remain in good relationship with the person you’re disagreeing with, so that you can hopefully shake hands and share a coffee after your debate, or continue to work together on other projects or platforms. This is the ideal, and we should strive for it—to avoid targetting the person, and to deal instead with the issue, in the hope of coming to a common mind.
All the same, while we should seek to play the ball and not the man, there’s no getting around the fact that the ball is usually carried by a man. Ideas and arguments do not float in the ether. They are presented by someone, and debating the ideas will almost always affect that someone.
So with the best will in the world, most people do find it emotionally challenging to be criticised or disagreed with, especially in a public forum, even if it is done in a good way. When we critique someone’s work or ideas, we shouldn’t be surprised that it affects them, and our relationship with them, at least in the short-term.
And even if there is no emotional hurt, the most careful and gracious disagreements still generate relational and practical implications. So imagine you and I disagreed about baptism (for example), and had a fair, reasonable and gracious discussion about the issue, without managing to persuade one another. We would hopefully still remain gospel friends and in good relationship, and cooperate in gospel work where possible, given that we agreed on everything else that was important. But we might not be able to be members of the same church or denomination, or speak at the same conferences or events—if baptism were an issue of significance in those contexts. And if our arguments were presented publicly, the outcome might affect our respective reputations or relationships with readers and observers.
All this is a sad but unavoidable reality of life in an imperfect world, it seems to me. Disagreements will almost always be difficult, have unwished-for consequences, and take up our time and emotional energy—even as we seek at all times to play the ball and not the man.
* The review will go online here at The Briefing on March 18.