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Can we agree to disagree?

01 September 2023

A conversation between Mark Buchanan and Gordon T. Smith about having difficult conversations

Mark Buchanan and Gordon T. Smith are two well-known authors and professors at Ambrose University in Calgary. After an ongoing discussion between them about growing intolerance for minority positions in faith communities, they agreed to share a short summary of it here.

Gordon T. Smith: Back in 2014 I spoke at a pastors’ conference of the Canadian Baptists of Western Canada held at the Banff Springs Hotel. Their executive minister at the time asked me to speak on Can We Agree to Disagree? He told me his denomination had always had a capacity to agree on the central tenets of the faith while allowing for diversity of opinion on second-order matters. But he had a growing concern this was no longer the case – that, indeed, there was increasing intolerance for such diversity.

I spoke on this and then followed up with a published version of the talk for Faith Today (the Nov/Dec 2014 issue is online at At the time I thought, This is a problem, but not a major concern. We’ll sort this out.

Now, in 2023, I believe it is a major concern, not just a problem. Our social environment has become more and more polarized with a growing tendency to demonize those who differ from us. And just at the moment we need the Church to model for society a capacity to disagree graciously, the Church instead is succumbing to the polarization and demonization.

I wonder if you see things similarly?

Mark Buchanan: I remember in 2014 having robust, generous, generative conversations about matters that, though often difficult, invited everyone’s best thinking and deepest humility. You’re right – we’re losing all that, and at the very moment we need it most.

Why are we so afraid?

Acting (and reacting) out of fear muddles us. It makes us, always, the worst version of ourselves – stiffest, stingiest, angriest, nastiest, most cowardly. The growing exclusion of and hostility toward other perspectives – and this is happening everywhere, not just in the Church – is entirely based on this kind of fear. It will not get us out of the woods, just deeper in, more lost than ever.

And it will not advance the gospel even an inch.

If I were to give this epoch a name – like the Age of Innocence, the Age of Faith or the Age of Anxiety – I would call it the Age of the New Orthodoxy. And I wouldn’t mean this as a compliment. I’d mean the kind of orthodoxy that is narrow and dogmatic and rigid and bitter – and above all fearful. In the past this level of fearful orthodoxy created witch trials, inquisitions, burnings at the stake. We’re not there yet, but the mood is suggestive.

Jesus told us not to be afraid and He gave us His Spirit so we would not be slaves to fear. It’s courage we need right now, courage joined to humility, not least because the wisdom we currently lack may very well come from voices on the margins.

What a terrible loss if our fear makes us deaf to such voices.

GS: One element of this new development is not merely that we can’t agree to disagree, but that our communities no longer give space to those with a minority view. This is an obvious corollary of intolerance to insist everyone defer to the will of the majority. It means there is no minority opinion, no conscientious objector. If you do not agree with the majority, you’re out.

This is not the same thing as being willing to defer to the majority when you’re outvoted. Rather, once the vote’s been taken, the majority now increasingly requires not only that everyone abide by the decision, but in effect everyone must agree with it.

For decades I believed in the ordination of women. But each time the matter came up in my denomination’s general assembly, I was outvoted. I was disappointed but accepted it. No one insisted I change my mind. No one threatened to kick me out. That is now changing. Increasingly if you do not agree with the majority, you are considered a threat, a persona non grata needing to be excluded. This is, of course, a form of authoritarianism.

The consequence? No genuine discussion and debate, no new learning, no intentional response to any new work of the Spirit.

MB: I wonder if something even more ominous is happening – the silencing of the prophetic voice. Biblically and historically these voices have come mostly from the margins (or been quickly banished to such places). Of course, few true prophets ever garner a ready welcome among those in power. But silencing them has always been the ruin of those in power. And the few times the powerful listen, it has been their salvation.

Recently I reread Howard Thurman’s prophetic 1949 book Jesus and the Disinherited, a searing and yet grace-filled exposé of racism in mid-century America. A few weeks later I listened to an audio version of Isabel Wilkerson’s 2020 book Caste, a trenchant examination of the roots of American racism and why it never goes away.

Setting those two books alongside each other has been sobering and frankly depressing. One of the themes of both books is that the powerful possess, and have extraordinary skill at deploying, near bottomless resources to stifle any voice that seeks to confront or disrupt them.Gordon T. Smith illustration by Janice Van Eck

It’s not merely that we can’t agree to disagree, but that our communities no longer give space to those with a minority view.

Prophets confront and disrupt. The Church is one place in the world where the prophet should be, if not lavishly welcomed, at least heard and taken seriously.

But less and less is this the case.

More and more I feel we’re back to Acts 7, the story of Stephen trying to speak to Jerusalem’s religious rulers. They stone him to death for his audacity. Those most in need of hearing the voice of the prophet are least inclined to do so.

GS: Yes, precisely. We need voices from the margins, however they enter the conversation. So where do we go from here? What can you and I do? What practices or perspectives can we offer?

Do we need to encourage prophets to learn the skill of speaking truth, but speaking it "slant" – to quote Emily Dickenson? This is not to be sly, but to frame perspectives from the margins in a way that is not viewed as inherently adversarial. And might the prophets in our day be poets, songwriters, artists?

And do we need to renew something we did in our high school days – debates? To actually have open forums with protagonists who argue with grace, wit and wisdom, engaging topics of substance with enthusiasm, but also an insistence on mutual respect. Can we do this without demonizing one another, and commit to stay in friendship and fellowship afterward?

Years ago Ross Hastings and I did this for Tenth Ave Alliance Church in Vancouver. The congregation was scheduled to vote on a matter and asked the two of us to provide alternate perspectives on it. My recollection is that it went well, and that that those who came appreciated that Ross and I held each other in mutual regard.

Your thoughts?

Mark Buchanan illustration by Janice Van EckWe live in a moment where even Christ followers use mockery as a form of argument. We think that sneering disdain is the same thing as informed critique

MB: The idea of a return to old-style debates is brilliant. Everything I know about debating clubs I learned (alas) from movies, but if that’s given me even a half-formed impression, I think it is a good path forward.

If I understand, you train for a debate by learning your opponent’s views to the point where you can argue those views as well as (maybe better than) your opponent. It’s this commitment to deep knowing that avoids caricature of those views and at its best engenders appreciation, even empathy, for them.

How could this be a bad thing?

We live in a moment where even Christ followers use mockery as a form of argument. We think that sneering disdain is the same thing as informed critique. Learning to debate well with substance, with care, with a love for neighbour, with a desire not to win but to clarify (and maybe to win over) – well, this has great promise for restoring precious things the Church has lost and bringing needed things the Church still lacks.

A friend of mine recently attended his denominational assembly where a policy on LGBTQ+ was being hotly debated. Some people were fiercely on one side, some fiercely on the other. But both were fierce. My friend noticed one man though, a pastor who held tightly to and argued well for a position, but never caricatured the other view, never mocked those who held it. He was intelligent, thoughtful, kind, humble. He had the respect and the ears of everyone. May his tribe increase.

GS: As the saying goes, "In essentials unity. In nonessentials liberty. In all things charity." I would only add this – that we seem to be making more and more matters confessional and thus essential – whether this is happening through the decisions of denominational leaders or through general synods/assemblies that are becoming more and more authoritarian. And the net result is a fundamentalism that sucks the life out of the conversation and thus out of the Church.

Gordon T. Smith is president of Ambrose University and Seminary, and teaches systematic and spiritual theology ( His latest book is Your Calling Here and Now: Making Sense of Vocation (IVP, 2022).
Mark Buchanan is a pastor who teaches pastoral theology. His latest books are a trilogy of self-published novels about King David ( and God Walk: Moving at the Speed of Your Soul (Zondervan, 2020).