Why should I listen to people who disagree with me?
Let's say that you’re a huge rap fan and that you and a few other fans are in the midst of a passionate discussion about Snoop Dogg. When talking about Snoop, you applaud his immense success and your fellow rap fans (who also adore Snoop) mention other positive traits: his unique style, his affiliation with rap icon Dr. Dre, his acting ability, and his volunteer work as a little league baseball coach. By the end of the conversation, the group agrees that Snoop is a wonderful citizen and an admirable rapper.
However, since the group is exclusively composed of Snoop fans, no one presents any of the relevant counterarguments: the murder accusation, the felony drug charge, his reputation as a pothead, or his violent lyrics.
In fact, research on group processes shows that the more your fellow group members agree with you, the stronger your attitudes become. So, by the end, you are convinced that Snoop is the best rapper ever! Plus, now that you are armed with your newly-strengthened attitudes about Snoop, you’re unwilling to listen to and value subsequent counterarguments. Anyone who disagrees with you is dismissed as a "playa-hata." Even though it would have been helpful for you to consider all aspects of Snoop’s persona, your isolation from dissenting voices led you to make an inaccurate judgment that was closed to outside influence and virtually impossible to alter.
What I just described is an example of group polarization - a process that occurs when we distance ourselves from people who hold different viewpoints, and in doing so, limit our exposure to valuable perspectives that differ from our own. When we need to formulate an idea or make a decision, we no longer have access to perspectives, insight and experiences that might help us make a more informed decision.
As pastors and church leaders, we often think that isolating ourselves and our followers from other theological viewpoints is a good idea. As shepherds, we want to protect our sheep from wolves in sheep’s clothing. (Not coincidentally, we are always the shepherd and they are always the wolves.) However, group polarization leads us to adopt more extreme beliefs that are decreasingly open to outside influence. Before we know it, we are interacting with other church groups in ways that deny our identity as the interdependent body of Christ. We often fail to realize that other groups in the body of Christ are connected to us like a hand is connected to the body and are essential to our health and wholeness in two important ways.
One, they rescue us from our myopia. Their mere existence reminds us that other people who also sincerely love God disagree with us and that our posture towards biblical and theological interpretation should be one of true humility.
Two, other perspectives bring much-needed balance to our group and vice versa. Even though we are loath to admit it, every church group has strengths and weaknesses. To think that we have it all and know it all is simply arrogant. We need the perspectives of others. They force us to think, to grapple with difficult questions, to examine our assumptions, to re-examine our interpretations, to sharpen our iron, and bring balance to what might otherwise be imbalanced views. Indeed, group theorists agree that groups tend to make better decisions when they are composed of diverse people who offer diverse viewpoints. Further, in terms of impacting the larger world, it’s possible that other groups possess resources and expertise that can help make the world a better place.
If we weren’t so busy calling them wolves (or, playa-haters, or heretics), we might notice that we need them.