A Church Divided: Drs. Tim Muehlhoff & Rick Langer
Do conversations with family or church members lately feel littered with relational razorblades? Drs. Tim Muehlhoff and Rick Langer, codirectors of the Winsome Conviction Project, navigate the treacherous terrain of discussing sensitive topics like politics and religion within families and the church. Armed with intellectual dynamite, they emphasize powerful techniques toward disagreeing without dividing.
About the Guest
- Connect with Tim Muehlhoff and Rick Langer and catch more of their thoughts on the Winsome Conviction podcast.
- And grab their book, Winsome Conviction: Disagreeing Without Dividing the Church, in our shop.
- Intrigued by today's episode? Grab more thoughts from Rick and Tim in these FamilyLife Today episodes—or read our article, A House Divided: Navigating Political Polarization.
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Does civil dialogue ever feel impossible? Drs. Tim Muehlhoff and Rick Langer navigate the treacherous terrain of sensitive topics with powerful techniques.
A Church Divided: Drs. Tim Muehlhoff & Rick Langer
Ann: Okay, Dave, we’re living in a culture that’s more divided than it’s ever been.
Dave: Oh, yes!
Ann: Are you surprised by that?
Dave: Yes, in some ways. I think one of my surprises would be the division in the Church.
Ann: The hostility toward one another, I think, is what’s been surprising.
Dave: I mean, we’ve seen it in our own family.
Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: You know, as a pastor and just being a part of the Church for three decades, you would think there would be unity on most things. That’s a naïve assumption, but you know? So, it’s like we need direction, we need guidance, we need some smart people to help us understand.
Ann: Some men that have their doctorates?
Dave: Yes, PhDs!
Dave: Have we ever had two PhDs here in the studio?
Ann: I don’t think so.
Dave: Besides ourselves?
Ann: I can hardly contain my joy and anticipation!
Dave: Have we gotten our PhDs yet?
Dave: I heard they just give them out to anybody. [Laughter] No, the truth is, PhDs are not honorary, right? We’ve got Tim Muehlhoff and Rick Langer in our studio. To do the work you’ve done to get a PhD is a real deal.
Tim: Our wives can attest to that. Our wives can attest.
Ann: [Laughter] And your families!
Dave: So, we are really in the presence of some real wisdom.
Ann: I mean, we’ve been teasing about that; but we appreciate what you’ve done.
You’ve written a book called Winsome Conviction.
Dave: Yes, so welcome to FamilyLife Today.
Tim: Well, it is great to be here.
Rick: Thanks so much for letting us come and join you!
Dave: This book—I love the subtitle: Disagreeing Without Dividing the Church. So, we get to talk about that and, especially, even dividing our families in our homes.
Dave: Tim and Noreen have been speakers on the FamilyLife Weekend to Remember® team for—what?—20—
Tim: 27 years. We started speaking when we didn’t know anything about marriage!
Dave: So did we!
Ann: We are right on the same page with you.
Tim: How long have you spoken for FamilyLife?
Ann: 31 years.
Dave: Hey, Tim, this is our interview, okay?
Tim: Oh, sorry! [Laughter]
Dave: Just in case you were wondering!
Tim: Why do you think conflict within the Church is so—? [Laughter]
Dave: We’ll get to that! But both of you guys are at Biola. Tim had us come out, a few years ago, through your marriage and—what do you call it?
Tim: Center for Marriage and Relationship.
Dave: And Rick’s out there as well. You’re in biblical studies?
Dave: That’s your degree? In theology?
Rick: So ,my PhD’s in Philosophy, but I was a pastor for 20 years.
Rick: I have a background in theology as well. About 15 years ago, I went from a pastor to being a professor at Biola. I deal with the integration of faith and learning; how our faith intersects the best of human learning. It’s a great thing to do at a university.
Dave: Yes, it sure is!
Ann: And how did you guys come together to write this book?
Rick: Tim and I worked a lot with doing classes and things like that. We co-taught various classes. One of the things that we really enjoyed was thinking through some of the challenges we face. We wrote an earlier book called Winsome Persuasion, about how we communicate to the non-Christian world about Christian conviction.
Coming out of that, we were talking to people, as we were talking about the book, and people would say, “Yes, but this isn’t a problem that’s just out there. This is a problem within the Church.”
Rick: And that’s what got us thinking about this follow-up book called Winsome Conviction.
Dave: Yes; well, let’s talk about that! I mean, even the title tells you a lot: Winsome Conviction. Define that a little bit—like convictions; winsome—how do we do it? Because, in some ways, that’s where we get in trouble, right? We have a conviction, and we end up in a fight.
Ann: We’re not always winsome.
Tim: And, you know, Americans feel this. A national survey was done last year, and
98 percent of Americans will say incivility is a problem in our country; 68 percent say it’s at crisis levels; and 42 percent say, “I do not feel safe sharing my perspective about politics, immigration [whatever] publicly.”
Now, we all hear that and say, “Well, of course, when non-Christians talk,—
Tim: —“yes, of course, incivility is going to be a big issue.” But it has absolutely come into the Church.
Dave: Oh, yes!
Tim: I know a Christian who loves the Lord and is in full-time Christian ministry, and we had to hang up on the phone, because it just got heated. We finally just agreed to cut it off, which is a good technique we know in marriage: “Let’s call a time out.”
Tim: And we needed to do that. That’s why we wrote the book. Rick’s been a pastor for 20 years.
Tim: I was an interim teaching pastor for two years at two different churches, and I got a chance to dip my big toe in it. I was shocked, Dave, just like you—not that the arguments would be there—but the intensity and “I’m not even talking to you anymore when we cross paths, going into church.” We’ve got to address that.
Dave: Yes, and what we’ve experienced, and what you’re just saying, is there are topics that we don’t bring up in our family. I mean, seriously!
Rick: You just avoid them.
Ann: Oh, absolutely!
Dave: Because it’s like: “We’re going to hang up the phone,” or “We’re going to have to walk out of the room.” We’ve gone there enough times to know it doesn’t end well.
When I pick up your book, Winsome Conviction, I’m like, “Maybe we’re doing this wrong. Maybe we’re not winsome.” Of course, we think it’s their fault. It’s got to be their fault! But maybe it’s our fault. Help us understand that, because that is too common. We’re hanging up the phone; we’re slamming down our fist; we’re walking out of the room, not just in the workplace, but in our churches and in our homes.
Ann: And let’s just say this: the social media today—
Tim: Oh, totally.
Ann: —I mean, we are just attacking one another, and the church is attacking one another. It’s like: “What’s the solution?”
Rick: Let me begin by just pointing out we come up with a lot of things that we look at Christians doing badly, and we’re just like the world. We’ll talk about this with divorce, or with premarital sex in our teenagers, or whatever, like, “Oh, it shouldn’t be this way!”
The interesting thing with our quarrels about convictions is, in some ways, I think Christians actually have a bigger challenge when it comes to convictions than a non-Christian world. Let me explain, especially between Christians. Here’s the deal: a non-Christian, who’s thinking of their convictions, says, “Well, what do I think about this?”
Rick: They might read this book or that book, and basically, you develop your conviction to please yourself—not to, necessarily, make you happy, but just what you find to be reasonable, good, and right.
Ann: —to make sense of everything.
Rick: —to make sense of the world!
Dave: And “I’m the end of that. I can decide.”
Rick: Yes, you are the court of appeal that it goes to.
Dave: Right, right.
Rick: So, a Christian decides to form a conviction, and honestly, I don’t care what I think;—
Rick: —I care what Jesus thinks.
Rick: I have inconvenient convictions; convictions I don’t like, particularly.
Ann: Oh, that’s a good way to say it: “inconvenient.”
Rick: I believe in hell!
Rick: I mean, I don’t really have a choice. And there are all kinds of things I read in the Bible that I wouldn’t have thought up. Many, over the course of the years, I’ve learned to treasure.
Rick: I realize, “Oh, that was a problem that I couldn’t have thought that up.” But it doesn’t change the fact that I’m looking to please Jesus.
So, if you have the audacity to have a different conviction than I do, what you’re really telling me is not that you disagree with my conviction, but you disagree with my vision of Jesus.
Rick: You’re telling me I got my God, whom I worship, wrong! Well, how’s that going to go over?
Rick: So, you realize, “Man, this up-scales significantly.” We do the same thing biblically; because we’re appealing not just to a book, but the Book.
Dave: Right, absolutes.
Rick: A book of absolutes.
Rick: So, you read your Bible and think that we should care for the poor. I read my Bible and think that we should be preaching the gospel to tribes across the world. Suddenly, we see these things differently. It’s like, “Oh!” But if you’re telling me the Bible says that, and I’m telling you it says something different, one or the other of us is a false prophet. You can just see the whole thing ramping up! And my observation is—and this isn’t an indictment of Christians, this is an observation—
Dave: Yes, yes.
Rick: —about the way we navigate these things. But it makes it way harder to have a disagreement about our convictions.
Dave: Yes. So, that’s reality.
Dave: I mean, we’re all nodding our heads, saying, “Oh, yes,” “Oh, yes!”
Dave: And we do have the Book. All of us hold it in high esteem, so we want to honor the truth in that Book. So, what do we do? You’ve described the problem, you know? [Laughter] So, here we are! We’re sitting at a dinner table—
Ann: —Dr. Muehlhoff—
Dave: Yes! [Laughter]
Rick: We find a person with a PhD in Communication to solve it for you!
Tim: You know how you have these marital disagreements, and you just go, “Wait a minute! That is not what I said.”
Tim: “I just…” “No, you said that,” or “I said it, but that’s not what I meant!—
Tim: Okay. So, one of the things we’re going to have to do is we’re going to have to affirm the relationship. We’re going to have to step back and say, “Listen. We’re a married couple, and we seek first Jesus’s kingdom. We’re committed to Jesus’s purposes.” Now, what we’re doing is probably ranking these differently. That’s where the tension is going to be.
I do think it’s important to step back and say, “Hey, we really do like each other as co-workers,” “I love you as my son,” or “…daughter,” “we’re just having a bona fide disagreement.” We think, at the Winsome ConvictionProject, that’s not always bad, to have what—Rick, why don’t you describe a little bit?—what you say is an authentic disagreement.
Rick: One of the biggest problems we have in these sorts of areas is the failure to actually achieve disagreement, because we don’t really understand what the other person is saying. Until I can articulate it in a way that you nod your head and say, “Yep, that’s it!”
Rick: And also, you’ve captured my feeling about it. You know, if I’m all charged about it—
Rick: —and you give me this flat statement of it, it’s like, “No, you haven’t gotten it.”
Can I actually articulate the viewpoint of a person, [which] I do not hold in a way that they say, ‘Yes, you understand’?” I tell people, “Look, until you can do that, you haven’t actually disagreed; because you don’t know what they think. And you can’t disagree if you don’t know what they’re thinking. So, make the effort to actually understand.”
That involves listening—often, the hardest part is actually empathizing. People on the opposite side of these contentious issues, you have a hard time wanting to feel what they’re feeling.
Rick: What you find them feeling is unsavory to you.
Ann: Well, I was going to say—because you could be listening—I’ve heard a lot of people. I could say something, and they’ll say, “Well, that’s stupid!”
Tim: Right. Oh, yes.
Rick: Yes, so listening doesn’t solve it, right? [Laughter]
Ann: Exactly! And then you feel rejected, so you pull back; then that animosity builds up.
Tim: See, that’s the winsome part.
Tim: That’s what we mean by “winsome.” Communication is always on two levels, not one. There’s the content, which would be: “That’s my interpreting Jesus this way.”
Tim: But the relational level is the amount of respect between two individuals, the amount of acknowledgement, and the amount of compassion.
When Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown linguist, describes today as “the argument culture,” she’s mostly saying we’ve failed on the relational level. Americans have always disagreed with each other.
Tim: The Church has always had disagreements. She feels like it’s a failure of acknowledgment, compassion, and empathy, because—you’re right, Ann—people respond like, “That’s stupid!”
Tim: Or, “You’ve got to vote!”
Tim: Or “You have to do this!” It’s like, “Well, no. I don’t have to do anything.” And that’s where the tension comes in.
We want to slow people down and give them a speed bump. We work with a large Christian high school in California to help teachers know how to talk about the upcoming elections—this was before the election—how to talk about it with themselves and with students. We came up with a four-step method. And when it would really get going, you know—one guy said to me, “Can’t I just say what I want to say?!” [Laughter] It’s like, “Yes, but you’ve got to do these four steps.”
Ann: Well, that’s interesting, because in marriage, people say the same thing. My friend used to say to me, “I don’t want to have to just put it in this beautiful little package!” I said, “Well, you don’t have to, but you’re going to suffer the consequences if you just let it all out.”
Ann: And you’re saying this is true in any conflict.
Rick: Yes, yes.
Tim: And there’s a ton of biblical warrant.
Tim: I mean, think about Paul. Paul says, “Speak the truth;”—content—“do it in love.”
Tim: Peter says, “Yes, I want you to be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in you,”—content—“do it will all gentleness and reverence.”
Tim: Wow! I think that’s fascinating! You see content/relational everywhere in the themes of the New Testament.
Dave: Yes, and I want to get to the four steps—
Ann: Yes, I want to hear those!
Dave: —but I also want to make one comment. When you were talking about listening and empathy—restating to me, to my satisfaction, that you heard me and you understand me—that’s relationship.
Rick: Oh, yes.
Dave: Something happens there, where you’re like, “Okay, I trust you.”
Dave: “You cared enough to listen well. You’re even capturing my emotion. You don’t agree, but you’ve captured it. Okay, we have a relationship that’s building.” It could be a total stranger, but something—right?—something just sort of started.
Ann: “I’m starting to trust you.”
Dave: And now we can go somewhere. But if you don’t do that, the relationship’s not there. And now, we’re both sort of isolated, walking away.
Dave: But anyway, that’s just a comment, because I’m thinking there are couples right now that are estranged. Part of it is that your spouse feels like you never really listened.
Tim: Oh, yes.
Dave: Or you could say the words back to them, but you never captured how—
Ann: And it could be their tone, like [condescending voice], “So, you’re saying that…”; you know?
Dave: You know why she’s doing that? Because she’s seen me do that a thousand times. [Laughter] She even did my look!
Rick: That’s the problem, right? Within a marriage, they know all of your tells.
Rick: So, they know, “Oh, that’s Dave’s funny little smile when he’s saying, ‘I don’t believe a single word you’re saying’,” you know?
Rick: I wouldn’t know that! I don’t know that about Dave,—
Rick: —but Ann can clear that up in a heartbeat!
Rick: So, this is a challenge, to do the thing and say, “Okay, I’m going to take a deep breath. I’m actually going to replay it. I’m going to replay it with feeling.” You said it perfectly, Dave. It’s what rebuilds trust.
Rick: “Okay, I hear you.”
Dave: “Now, we’re going somewhere.”
Rick: “Now, we can take the next step.” But until you take that first step, the other person is like, “Yeah, I’m done. I’m just not taking this trip!”
Rick: It’s basically just saying, “Hey, here’s what I heard you say. Here’s what I thought…"
Ann: Oh, is this number one? Is this our number one?
Rick: This is number one.
Tim: That’s number one.
Ann: Okay, I’m ready.
Rick: So, the first thing is to just say, “Here’s what I heard you say…” The second thing is, “What did I agree with?” Almost always, there should be some point of contact there. I won’t get into quibbles about whether or not that’s technically true or whatever. I’m just saying, “Look. lean in!”
Rick: Third thing is, “What did you resonate with?” And that’s really, interestingly, different than what I agree with. For example, a person might tell you about a story about their dad, who came in as an immigrant, and all of the challenges that he faced, and all that. They’re making a case for open borders sorts of immigration policy. Well, you might disagree with that policy, but you can still resonate with the feeling. “What was it like for your dad to live in a country, as a 13-year-old, where he didn’t speak the language, and didn’t have a place to belong?” “Oh, so I resonate with that.” And then, you get to add your part.
So, first: “Let me play back what I heard…”
Second: “Here’s what I agree with…”
Third: “Here’s what I kind of resonate with; what struck me…”
And then, fourth: “Here’s what I’d like to add to the conversation…”
We’re doing this. It became the moderator. We called it the “speed bump.” What it really was was a self-moderation tool. All that the people we kind of instantly appointed to be group leaders had to do was just, in effect, when a person said, “I don’t want to do this! I just want to respond,” [was to] say, “You can respond. We let you respond, after you’ve said the other three things.”
Ann: That’s really wise.
Rick: So, it made them pause. It opens up the opportunity for hearing. The other thing it does is—our reflex response is very emotive—
Rick: —so, this gives you a pause to let your reason kick in. Without that pause, you just [making a combustion sound]; you flame. This, basically, is a little regulator. It turns down your pilot light, so you don’t ignite the gas quite so quickly.
Dave: Yes, and the thing about speed bumps, for me, is I hate them! [Laughter]
Rick: Oh, yes!
Dave: You know? It’s like—
Ann: I know! He just went through one—
Dave: When I see one, I fly over them. [Laughter]
Ann: —and stuff’s flying to the ceiling of the car!
Dave: She’s like, “What are you doing?!” I’m like, “What’s this speed bump?” But the truth is, they’re needed.
Rick: They’re needed.
Dave: They protect the neighborhood.
Tim: Yes, yes.
Dave: They protect—like you said, it’s like, “I don’t always want to do this, but I need to.”
Dave: So, I’d like you to do this: apply the speed bump—
Ann: I was going to say that.
Dave: Okay, let her go.
Ann: Will you give us an example?
Tim: I’ll do my position. I came up with this—and again, we should say this right away: “The views represented here do not necessarily represent those of Biola University.” [Laughter]
Dave: —or FamilyLife Today.
Ann: —or FamilyLife.
Tim: —“or FamilyLife.”
Okay. So, I did not vote for President [of the U.S.].
Dave: You voted, but not for President.
Tim: I voted for the down ticket—all the props, all that kind of stuff—but when it came to President, I felt I was stewarding my vote by not giving it.
[People’s reaction to this were] like, “If you’re too lazy to vote, shame on you.
Tim: “People died for your right to vote.” “But people died for my right to steward my vote. And I simply don’t think”—this is just me—“these two candidates: I just couldn’t vote for either for different kinds of reasons. So, I purposefully offered a non-vote,” because, to me, the narrative will never change if we just think, “Well, I’m locked into two parties. I have to vote.” “No, you don’t have to vote; you have to steward your vote.”
Believe it or not, there are a bazillion people who disagree with that and actually have gotten mad at me. So, Rick—
Rick: So, if Tim were to say that; let me just give my flame response.
Tim: Oh, great!
Rick: If, random-shot, Tim floats this by me, I’d say, “Tim, if you don’t vote, no one knows! Your vote just simply vanishes! It’s great to say, ‘Hey, my rhetorical strategy is to withhold my vote,’ but no one knows that you withheld it! It’s like saying, ‘I’m not going to say this on Twitter,’ and you don’t even have a Twitter account! No one knows that you’re not saying anything!! You’ve conveyed nothing.”
Tim: That would tick me off!
Dave: Here we go.
Tim: Because, one, the tone!
Tim: Did you notice that? [It was like] “Blah, blah, blah.” And Rick and I are friends, but if I got hit with that right out of the gates, that just won’t work.
Rick: So, let me wind it back.
Rick: Option two is to say, “Okay, Tim. I think I hear what you’re saying on this thing. Partly, you’re frustrated; because you feel like you can’t vote for either of the two viable candidates we have. And presumably, if you voted for a third-party, that’s as good as wasting something, or you’re actually endorsing something you actually disagree with, because you don’t favor the third party either. So, you’re feeling trapped with this thing. I kind of agree with you on that point. I don’t feel really comfortable with either of these candidates either, so I’m feeling that.”
Ann: There’s your resonating; you’re resonating with him.
Rick: The other thing I was going to say is—
Tim: That’s the agreeing part. He’s agreeing.
Rick: I’m agreeing right now.
Rick: And here’s the thing. I said, “And, honnestly, Tim, I have lost sleep over this matter, so, I hear you. But let me say what I’d like to add on this topic. I understand that you just don’t want to vote, but the bottom line is you know ahead of time [that] one person or the other is going to become President. Why not, at least, make the effort to tip it in the direction of whomever you feel is best? Your silence just doesn’t end up counting. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to go ahead and vote for a candidate that I find less objectionable.”
Now, quick point on that: notice, we have a vivid disagreement at the end. This is why we don’t just say Winsome Kumbaya as a name [Laughter], but rather Winsome Conviction, because we do not want to do anything to dismantle conviction!
Rick: If anything, I worry that we live in the “whatever” generation.
Dave: Yes, yes.
Ann: And what you have done, by creating a speed bump, is you’ve taken the fists down, because you’re ready for a fight, but you’ve come at it as a person of peace. The fists go down, and you’re willing to hear.
Tim: But it won’t work if I ignore it. Now, we’re going to respond.
Tim: Now, this is a conversation, not a debate, where it’s timed and my response; your response. I’m going to respond to what Rick just said. But if I toss out the method and just say, “No! I totally disagree that my vote disappeared. Are you kidding me?!” Now, we’re back—
Ann: —you’re back—
Tim: —to the argument culture. I have to force myself to think, “Speed bump! Speed bump!”
Tim: [In response to Rick] “Okay, here’s what I’m hearing you say…,” right? Then I do it, and he throws the ball back to me; I throw it back to him, and you just keep at this.
Now, we feel like it’s learning how to play scales on a piano. But a good jazz musician, at the end - he just plays. So, after a while, we hope that this becomes—in a marriage and with your kids—this becomes just the normal part. Now, we can kind of mentally go through instead of, “One, I’ve got to say what he said,” “Two: resonate,” right? [Laughter]
Dave: Yes, yes.
Tim: Hopefully, it becomes like jazz.
Ann: Well, and as I’m listening to you, I’m thinking, “Oh, it’s the fruit of the Spirit. It’s Galatians! It’s love; it’s joy; it’s peace, patience, kindness—like if we would apply these—goodness, faithfulness, and self-control.”
Dave: And I would just end with this: “I can picture homes, all around the country, listening to this broadcast and having different conversations tonight in their family room, as parents say, ‘Here, let me teach my kids how to do a speed bump,’—modeling—‘Let’s have a winsome conversation.” Not throw our convictions away and our really strong, passionate beliefs, but “hold onto those and let’s dialogue.”
I mean, that can change a marriage! I mean, you just modeled, obviously, what the Bible would teach about how to resolve a conflict. It’s like this! And it can be winsome. It doesn’t mean it’s not hard!
Dave: It doesn’t mean it might not get really ugly! You might have to walk out of the room and, you know, bring that speed bump back in and start over. [Laughter] Right?
Dave: I mean, that’s where it’s got to be. We’ve got to be honest. But man, if couples are doing that, families are doing that, then I have hope!
Ann: Me, too.
Dave: You know, you’ve brought hope into this room. Way to go, seriously!
Ann: Thanks, you guys, for being with us today.
Tim: Our pleasure!
Shelby: You know, when I disagree with someone, I don’t know about you, but I can literally feel my heart rate go up. Something just bubbles inside me, and I want to verbally attack and/or actively defend myself. What I really need to do is just take a breath and, like they were talking about, maybe grab a speed bump, and know that there are legitimate ways to disagree without division.
I’m Shelby Abbot, and you’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Tim Muehlhoff and Rick Langer on FamillyLife Today. Tim and Rick have written a book called Winsome Conviction. The subtitle is Disagreeing Without Dividing the Church. This book talks about how we can cultivate better understanding and compassion with people whom we disagree with. Do you really think that Christian unity is possible? Well, they do, and this book helps you to discover how we can navigate differences by speaking in both truth and love.
You can pick up a copy of Winsome Conviction at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can give us a call at 800-358-6329. And while you’re at FamilyLifeToday.com, we’d love it if you’d partner with us and become part of the FamilyLife family. When you do, we want to send you a copy of Jordan Raynor’s book, The Word before Work. This 52-week, Monday through Friday devotional is our gift to you when you give a gift of any amount to FamilyLife.
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Because we are such an informed society, we can mistakenly think we already know what another person is thinking. Well, tomorrow, Tim Muehlhoff and Rick Langer are going to show us effective ways to really listen and hear what other people are saying. That’s tomorrow. We hope you’ll join us!
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We’ll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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