A Review of
Winsome Conviction: Disagreeing Without Dividing the Church
Tim Muehlhoff and Richard Langer
Reviewed by Ryan Johnson
Where do we start when it comes to processing and healing from the last year that we’ve had? As a nation, we have experienced fear and chaos in dealing with a pandemic that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and impacted millions more. We have experienced division between those who would call for social change and those who would have things remain the same. We have dealt with vitriolic social media exchanges between not only strangers but family members attesting to the deep division in the country. In the wake of all that has happened, how do we as Christians bear witness to the reality of God’s Kingdom on Earth?
The authors, Muehlhoff and Langer, offer us Winsome Conviction to help us have deeper and more civil conversations about things that divide us. In their introduction, they point to the division that America has experienced in the last year as part of their impetus for writing, but the book focuses more on dealing with division within the church. It is about understanding what is behind our convictions and more importantly what is behind our opponent’s convictions that form the center of the book.
Winsome Conviction begins by examining the nature of our convictions and why we react the way we do when someone doesn’t share them, particularly someone in our tribe. When this happens, “…we don’t experience it as a mere difference of opinion but rather as a violation of an unspoken agreement. (3)” This is an astute observation and immediately helps us understand the feelings of betrayal one feels when you discover that you do not necessarily share the same ideology as those around you. For the rest of the book, the authors seek to help us overcome those feelings of betrayal and move toward having healthier dialogues.
The first section seeks to explain the biblical foundations for convictions. They employ what they call the conviction spectrum that ranges from confessional beliefs to guidelines for conduct. Essentially, the confessional beliefs make up the core of a group’s shared beliefs and the further you depart from those, the more wiggle room is allowed. This is important because it reminds us that while there are essential tenets of the Christian faith, there are matters that are up for debate within the church. It is important to note that we are still encouraged to have personal convictions all throughout the spectrum, but to understand when your convictions enter the realm of a disputable matter and therefore giving grace to those who differ from us.
For someone who has always been interested to see why a person thinks the way they do, the next section was immensely interesting to me. The authors advocate here to cultivate a greater understanding of the things that undergird convictions. They deliver a wonderful cultural interlude that demonstrates how our cultural understandings blend with the way our beliefs manifest. By examining the beliefs that lie at the heart of our actions we are better able to see why we have the convictions we do. Indeed, this process is both an investigative and reflective task. It requires us to investigate the convictions of others, but it also requires us to reflect on our own convictions. As the authors note in the very beginning, “…poorly formed convictions cause incivility (5).” Too often, we hold convictions without examining them which can cause us to become defensive when we discover the loose foundation they are built upon.
The last section is an attempt to bring it all together and create an action plan for civil conversations about our divisions. This presents a case for civility in dialogue and creates a goal-oriented process in dealing with differing convictions. The goal, however, is not to get to an agreement about the “right” answer, but rather to come to a place of understanding and respect. Indeed, they make the point that the church should be a place where differing convictions should be welcomed. Afterall, the body of Christ is called to be diverse.
Winsome Conviction does a fairly good job of demonstrating the importance of listening to understand. Our churches are all too often places where people shout over others to prove their way is best. I think as a corrective for the church, there is much to commend in the book. It pushes us to examine our convictions and often demonstrates how people of varying backgrounds will often give value to different beliefs resulting in stronger convictions regarding certain topics.
The book is not without its flaws. Oddly enough, the place I find myself pushing back on is where I would have originally agreed wholeheartedly: Their call for civility in all arenas of life. The bulk of this conversation happens in chapter 9 and begins with arguments against civility. Once the argument has been laid out, they create their defense. In presenting the argument against civility they make the statement, “…the disenfranchised should not be bound by definitions and structures of civility created by the powerful…(130).” Upon reading this, I couldn’t help but see how that statement plays out in our current culture and how calls for civility often seek to drown out the voices for social justice. The problem with civility in public discourse is that a shared value system is not always present and manipulation for one’s own interests is a tactic that is frequently used. I believe that civility is important, but I also believe that ignoring the public rhetoric that silences voices is misguided. Their system works well in a church context, but in the public domain where competing interests and power gaps reign, it is hard to implement effectively.
I commend any author who seeks to create conversations around divisive issues. The church should be a place of unity and the celebration of differences, but they continue to be places where strong opinions create hostile disagreements. The authors here provide a great resource for the church while also offering something to contemplate in developing conversations for the country. I would certainly recommend Winsome Conviction to any church dealing with disagreements regarding changes that seem to be dividing people from one another.