Winsome Conviction: Drs. Tim Muehlhoff and Rick Langer
Feeling alienated by the convictions in your own church or family? Professors Tim Muehlhoff and Rick Langer, codirectors of the Winsome Conviction Project, help you navigate conversations on sensitive topics that often separate us— like politics and religion. Find practical strategies for healthy, productive dialogue, and learn how to disagree without dividing.
About the Guest
- Connect with Tim Muehlhoff and Rick Langer and catch more of their thoughts on the Winsome Conviction podcast.
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- 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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Alienated by convictions in your church or family? Professors Tim Muehlhoff & Rick Langer help navigate sensitive discussions and disagree without dividing.
Winsome Conviction: Drs. Tim Muehlhoff and Rick Langer
Winsome Conviction: Drs. Tim Muehlhoff and Rick Langer
Dave: Okay; we’ve found—especially in this last year—that in our family, at our dinner table, the old adage: “You cannot talk about politics or religion,” has really risen to be true.
Ann: Yes, which is interesting, because growing up, in our homes, we thought, “Oh, this—we cannot talk about religion; we cannot talk about politics.” I had this prideful arrogance like, “But that will never happen in our family.”
Dave: “In the Wilson home, it’ll be perfect! We’ll be able to go there.”
Ann: Yes, and it has happened.
Dave: But we got to the point, where [it’s], “Don’t bring it up.”
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 our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife—
So, we need help.
Ann: Yes, we do need help.
Dave: We need some really smart people to come—oh, here they are! [Laughter] They’re in the studio!
Rick: Who knew?
Dave: Yes, who knew that Tim Muehlhoff and Rick Langer would come from California? Both [are] professors at Biola, which means you’re really smart.
Ann: Guys, welcome to FamilyLife Today.
Tim: Oh, we love it! Thank you.
Rick: Thank you!
Ann: We’re excited to have you back, because we’ve already had a great discussion. You’ve written a book called Winsome Conviction.
Dave: Yes, and I love the subtitle, Disagreeing Without Dividing the Church. What a book for these times!
Tim: These are tense times. What’s making it more tense is we honestly feel like Americans have lost the ability to talk to each other—
Tim: —and [there are] things we need to talk about. We always felt the church was immune; but as we began to write this book, we realized, “Oh, no; the church is in bad shape,” and we just don’t even talk to each other, or we leave a church, or we demonize each other. We call it “weaponizing a belief.” I’m now using my belief against you. Rick was a pastor for 20 years; I was an interim teaching pastor.
Ann: And you guys are both married.
Tim: And we’re both married, yes.
Rick: Grandkids, in my case.
Tim: What ticks me off about—we have adult kids—what really ticks me off is, they disagree with me!
Ann: What!? Tim! [Laughter]
Tim: Excuse me!
Ann: But you are a genius! How could this happen?!
Tim: One is graduating from law school. I’ll literally say something—this is my son; he goes [makes dismissive sound]. [Laughter]
Dave: That’s what he does?
Tim: “Excuse me?! You just went [dismissive sound]!”
Ann: Does it light you up?
Tim: Oh, it lights me up. [Laughter]
Ann: Rick, have you found that in your family, or do they all bow to what you believe? [Laughter]
Rick: I’m writing a book called Successful Parenting. [Laughter] Yes, absolutely! We have differences in opinions with our kids, politically, and all this.
I think the bottom is the church is very analogous to the family on this point, and with my kids as well. We have huge areas of agreement.
Rick: It’s not like everything you talk about is this area of disagreement; but that’s part of the rub: you’re hoping that you get your momentum up, and you’ll agree on everything.
Rick: And then they have the audacity to think for themselves!
Ann: “What in the world?” [Laughter]
Rick: “Who parented this kid?” [Laughter] So, these are the challenges that you end up facing.
Dave: It sounds like you’ve had some of the same things happen in your family room, kitchen, dinner table that we have. But you’re the experts; you wrote a book on Winsome Conviction, and obviously, this involves convictions. Your sons and daughters have them; we have them; and there’s a conversation going on.
You helped us last time with the speed bump, which was awesome! I don’t want to go through all that again. State it really quick.
Tim: Oh, very quickly. When a person says something, and you just feel your temperature rising, this is when the speed bump really comes in. The first thing is simply paraphrase: “Here’s what I heard you say...” Ann, you made the point: “Tone is everything.”
Tim: If I go [condescending voice], “Here’s what I heard you say…”
Ann: —or rolling the eyes.
Tim: There you go! That’s not a speed bump. And then, second, simply, “Where do I agree with this?” Even if it’s very broad. And then, the third one we thought is, “Here’s where it emotionally resonated with me.” This is where empathy comes in, sympathy. Then, we like to add this phrase, “Here’s what I think I think about the issue.”
Dave: “I think I think…’”
Tim: I have a little bit of freedom to be in process. “I don’t have this all nailed down.”
Ann: But you’re still careful.
Tim: I’m still very careful. That’s why the book of Proverbs says, “Life and death is in the power of the tongue.” I need to be very careful. James says one little spark from your tongue can set a forest fire ablaze, and in California, we don’t take that lightly.
Tim: We have wildfires all over the place.
Tim: So, I know about the four steps—okay?—that we just talked about; but in my mind, I absolutely just go to town on you.
Ann: Yes! I do this, too!
Tim: My kids—
Dave: Yes, she does.
Tim: Here’s what we know from psychology: this is called emotional contagion. The negative feelings I cultivate and allow to germinate absolutely bleed out into the relationship. We call it getting a good or bad vibe from a person.
Tim: We need to, as Paul says, take captive these thoughts. We want to police our internal communication as much as we police the external, because the internal is going to bleed right in and poison the atmosphere before you even have the conversation.
Ann: This is what poisons marriages.
Tim: Oh, totally.
Ann: I’ve been thinking, all day, how my spouse hasn’t met my needs; how he’s failing; and then he comes home, and I don’t say it, but I’m saying it [through attitude and actions].
Dave: Hey, I’m sitting right here. [Laughter] You’re just telling the world about your spouse!
Ann: Of course, I don’t do it anymore. [Laughter]
Tim: “Early in our marriage…”
Ann: That’s just really wise for us, even as we’re talking about these volatile issues.
Dave: I just have to say, “That’s really hard to do.”
Rick: Yes, it is.
Dave: You quoted 2 Corinthians 10:5: “Take every thought captive.” I know that, and I’ve memorized that, and I’m a preacher, so I’ve preached that. Yet, I’m in a disagreement, and all that negativity—and “I’m sort of mad at you, and I don’t even like you right now”—is in there. How do you do it?
Rick: One of the things that I think is huge with the internal battle is just acknowledging that this is going to be an ongoing battle. Welcome to a fallen world. Welcome to total depravity. The reason Paul gives these things, these certain metaphors—you know, taking someone captive—it’s a war metaphor, right?
Rick: So, you have the sense—your mind is like Tim was describing the tongue—it’s raging around. I find this—I’ll be driving, working in the yard—a bunch of things that are kind of low-grade in terms of the mental effort required, and my mind just drifts. I will replay conversations I’ve had.
Ann: Oh, yes.
Rick: I have never figured out how to keep my mind from doing that. I can, once I have that moment of realization, [think], “Rick, do you realize what just went through your mind?” I realize I can do something simple. I can stop and go, “Okay, what is this person actually thinking and feeling about the issue?” and take that step to empathize or try and project.
One of the things I talk about sometimes is, “Be a speaker for the absent.” “If my friend John—if he were here—what might he say?” You can do that in your own mind, and you can also do that in conversations. It’s a very durable tool, in that sense. Just stop and say, “Wait a minute. What does this person actually think?” and “What am I attributing to them, even as I play these thoughts in my mind?”
It’s a spiritual discipline; a constant battle kind of a thing. In the book, we talk a little bit about problems that have to be managed and problems that have to be solved. I’m a guy who loves solving problems. Solving problems gets me up in the morning; managing problems does not.
Ann: Are you guys monitoring your social media feeds, or are you just reading everything? Does that matter?
Tim: I think you have to watch what you open your soul to. I think we have to be careful. We have a whole chapter on something called “group-think,” which means the groups that you belong to—and that could be online or in person—it could be a church adult fellowship group, where all we do is talk negatively about the other side, because the other side is never present; they’re not welcome here. Or you don’t feel the freedom to give voice to the other side, because the hallmark of group-think is fidelity to the group: “I need to be a group supporter and not give a contrary perspective.”
Tim: So, I think we have to be careful, Ann, of opening ourselves up and feeding the beast: “Of course, those people are idiots!” and “I can’t think of one reason you’d vote for this person!” “I can’t believe my spouse is falling for this!” “I can’t believe my kids are…” and you’re all wrapped up.
Rick, what I liked about rehearsing the conversation—that can be dangerous, because it’s like, “Oh, if we ever have this conversation again…”
Rick: Oh, you are loaded, full bear!
Tim: “I’m going to say this…
Rick: “Oh, I got that one!”
Tim: “I’ve created an acronym. [Laughter] I went to Kinko’s® and got colored charts; [Laughter] I am ready.” “That can be dangerous!
John Gottman, one of the top relational experts, said there are soft startups and hard startups. If you don’t monitor internal communications, it’s always a hard startup, a harsh startup. Rick brings something up—and I’ve been waiting—“Oh, please bring this up again! [Laughter] Please, because I missed an opportunity to say this!” So, he brings it up again—he’s not even done with his sentence—I’m like [harshly spoken], “Yes, well, you know what, Mr. PhD in philosophy?! What would you say about this?” Just the tone, the attitude is like—
Ann: You really haven’t listened to anything he said, because you’ve already geared up for this way long ago.
Tim: No; I listened to it the first time.
Rick: Oh, yes!
Tim: And now, I’ve rehearsed that so many times, I don’t listen the second time, because I already know what you’re going to say. That’s what’s dangerous about just reading about the other side rather than actually talking to a person from the other side.
Dave: Let me do one little digression. Tim, you’re an expert on this, because you wrote a book about spiritual warfare in your marriage.
Dave: How much of the enemy—and I mean the devil, Lucifer, the enemy of our soul, who wants to steal, kill, and destroy—is there some spiritual aspect to this in your family, in your church, in the world?
Tim: Twenty-five percent of everything Jesus had to say had to do with spiritual battle. John goes so far as to say the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.
Tim: I think we’d be naïve to think that these disagreements that are bleeding into our family, our workspaces, and our churches—not just naïve—we’d be supremely unbiblical not to step back and pray warfare prayers.
Here’s the difference between the modern and the ancient church. The ancient church would have assumed spiritual battles are happening.
Tim: The modern church says, “You have to prove it to me.”
Ann: So true.
Tim: Grab a group that’s having conflict—a Christian group—sit them down, and ask this one question—you don’t want to sound judgmental, but say—“Okay, have you, at any time, prayed a spiritual warfare prayer over this conflict?” Guys, the answer is zero.
Ann: I bet.
Tim: It is not even a blip on our screen. [They won’t even get to Ephesians, Chapter 6: we believe, before you get into conflict, you need to get dressed in armor, the spiritual armor that Paul talks about.]
Dave: Can you imagine if a couple, before they had a conversation about something they know they’re going to have a tough time agreeing on, said, “Hey, before we talk, let’s pray. ‘God, we’re going to talk about something really hard; lead us, help us’.”
Ann: I feel like we’ve done that—
Dave: We have—
Ann: —it’s a speed bump; it’s another speed bump.
Dave: —because we’re perfect!
Rick: It is another speed bump, yes.
Dave: Yes, it is a speed bump.
Ann: But there are times I don’t want to pray, because I don’t want Jesus to guard my tongue. I want to use it as a weapon, and I want to hurt.
Ann: But to bring this into political or cultural areas that are so explosive—man, I’ve never thought of doing that, you know? “Lord, will You just put a hedge of protection on this, that the enemy can have nothing to do with this conversation?”
Tim: Let’s approach each other with gentleness. What does Peter say? “When insulted, I want you to bless instead.” Well, that goes out the window pretty quickly when we hit certain hot topics.
Dave: What’s sad is, and we already started there—we just don’t talk—because we’ve learned it’s explosive; we walk away angry. Maybe our relationship with our son, or daughter, or spouse has been broken.
I think we even use the Bible in this way. You go to Romans 12:18—I know you expert PhDs are familiar with this verse [Laughter]: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” I think we use something like that to say, “If I’m going to be at peace with Rick, we can’t talk about this; so, we’re never going to talk about it.” That’s a cop-out way of saying, “We can’t have real conversations in our home about race, about the election, about wearing masks,”—whatever it is—“or about theology. I’m going to live at peace, so I’m not ever going to bring it up again.”
Ann: We just avoid it.
Dave: Which is not what God wants us to do. We have to have these conversations, but how do we do it peacefully? Again, I’m bringing you back to winsome conviction.
Rick: Conviction, yes.
Dave: It’s not winning conviction—it’s winsome; but it also has this conviction thing. Help us understand conviction, because that’s where we get in trouble, but we shouldn’t. Convictions are wonderful! We should all have them. How do we have them and not lose?
Rick: We tend to think of there being two kinds of issues out there: matters of conviction and matters of mere taste. You like chocolate; I like vanilla. It’s a matter of mere taste. It’s kind of hard—some people can manage to fight about that if their whole communication climate is bad; but by and large, it’s like, “Yes, whatever.” [Laughter]
Then there are these matters of conviction: these are moral issues. These are the important things. About those things, we form convictions; so, that’s what’s in our head. The interesting thing is: “If important, then conviction,” and “If conviction, then absolute conviction.”
Here’s the interesting thing that Paul does in Romans 14. He takes those two categories—of taste and conviction—and he pushes them apart, and he sticks in between them a third category. We end up with a little mini-spectrum of three things: you have absolute convictions; you have personal convictions; and then, you have matters of taste. What we’ve lost is any kind of a vision for a personal conviction.
Let me just say, with Romans 14, if you read that passage, you’ll find Paul talking about it in the framework of (to put it simply) days and diets: “How do you respond to Sabbath days?—festival days?” Some people regard all days alike, but others think there are special days. You’re like, “Oh, yes, right. I think I read the Gospels, and as I recall, Jesus bumped into a few of those folks, who really tested Him about what He did on the Sabbath day,” right?
Rick: Likewise with diet: “Who are you eating with? You’re eating with a tax collector?” “What kind of food?” These are huge issues in terms of a Jewish believer, right?
Rick: These are not matters of triviality. Paul’s writing to Rome in this context. The Romans have just kicked the Jews out of their city. One of the most pluralistic cities in the history of the world was ancient Rome, and they just bounced the Jews.
Okay. Now, you’re living in a Jewish-Gentile mixed church. Paul floats this little letter by you that says, “Well, some people view all days alike. Some people view them differently.” You can just see the steam rising off a bunch of people. “Oh, yes; right. I know where this one’s going.”
Well, here’s the really interesting thing: when Paul lays that out, he says, “Look, I don’t want you to judge each other on this matter, but I do want you to understand that Jesus will judge you on this matter. It’s before your Master that you will stand or fall, and He will judge you.” He says he’s confident He’ll actually approve you. But the point is, “No one’s getting away with anything in this area.” He says, “I want you to be fully convinced in your own mind.”
It doesn’t take a genius to do a little etymological work there and say, “Oh, I want you to be convinced.” This is like a conviction, right? He’s literally telling the people, “Form personal convictions about days and diets.” He’s not saying, “Who cares about days and diets?” He’s saying, “You should care, because you’ll answer to Jesus.” But you know who you won’t answer to? Tim, even if he has a PhD! [Laughter] It just doesn’t matter what Tim thinks about it, but it does matter what you think about it; and “It matters what I, Jesus, think about it, because you will give an account to Me.”
This is a personal conviction matter, and that’s what we’re missing. We think: “If it’s a moral matter”; we think: “If it’s an important matter”; we think: “If it’s a spiritual matter, then we should have an absolute conviction shared by all people.”
Well, if you want a hint at your absolute convictions, pick up the Apostles’ Creed. These are confessional beliefs, and you know everyone should share it because, when you walk into church, the pastor says, “Let’s all stand,” and you recite the Apostles’ Creed. “We believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of the heavens and the earth…”
You don’t really have an option to say, “You know, this whole Creator thing, I’m not really into that.” [Laughter] You can’t opt out, right? But these areas of personal conviction—and obviously, the days and diets issue—I’ve tried to underscore how important that was then—
Ann: —in that culture.
Rick: —in that culture. You can imagine it being very similar to issues about politics, or immigration, or things like that. Surely, we should be agreeing about an absolute about all human beings being created in the image of God, but what does that mean about current policies regarding hiring in large corporations or training people about racial sensitivity? “Wow! I don’t know.” I’m happy to say you should form a conviction about that, but it would be really nice if it was a personal conviction that you held with all integrity for Jesus and with 110 percent of vision for it; but you gave the grace for the person beside you to say, “I see that issue differently, and I’m going to prefer a different course.”
That’s our challenge. We’ve lost that middle area. We have to recover that in order to be people who actually express our discipleship from authentic conviction, but don’t divide the church.
Tim: And nobody’s happy with this.
Ann: Oh, of course not!
Tim: Nobody’s happy with this approach. “I want my personal conviction to be the conviction of this family,” “… to be the conviction of our marriage,” and “… be the conviction of our church.” “My personal take on this—because it’s absolute! This is what God’s saying in the Bible! And I want this to be for everybody.”
Tim: At a Christian university, where there are a ton of really, really smart people, this does not work well sometimes, because everybody’s like, “Dude, you are not reading Paul.
Rick: “He’s as clear— We have to do this!”
Ann: “This is an absolute; this is not a conviction; this is an absolute.”
Tim: “It’s not a personal conviction. This is, ‘Thus sayeth the Lord!”
Tim: “And you are ignoring that,” and “I’d rather shut this place down than have us not follow what the Bible has to say.” That’s how it gets—you know, talk about a harsh startup, right? “I’m doing what the Bible says! And if you’re not going to do what the Bible says, I can’t be at this church.”
Dave, you know what that’s like. You’ve probably heard 50 million conversations like that.
Dave: Oh, yes. I posted something on social media—I won’t even get into it—not even a comment. I just posted a simple thing, saying, “I love all people,” basically was my point. I was like, “I think everyone’s made in the image of God.” Boom! The first comment, like within 18 seconds, was, “I guess I have to find a new church.”
Tim: Think about the 18 seconds; there was no speed bump.
Tim: There was no speed bump.
Ann: Yes, and he also got an email from a woman, saying, “I’m leaving the church because of how you voted.” And Dave never voted a certain way. He didn’t say who he voted for—
Dave: I never said a word!
Ann: —but he prayed for our President.
Dave: I prayed for our President, and she was like,—
Ann: She made assumptions.
Dave: —“You didn’t pray for our former President.” I’m like, “Oh, yes, I did. I always pray on Election Sunday after the thing. We are commanded in Scripture, ‘Pray for your leaders.’ I did that last time. I did it this time.”
Ann: She was great. She apologized.
Dave: She came up later and said, “I apologize.” Because I responded and said, “I don’t know how long you’ve been here, but four years ago, I prayed for Trump, and this time, I prayed for Biden.” She came up later—like a month later—“Hey, I’m the girl—” I’m like, “What girl?” [Laughter] She’s like, “I sent that email. I’m so sorry. I judged you, and I didn’t know your heart.”
Ann: “I didn’t have a speed bump!”
Rick: Kudos to her for owning up to that.
Ann: I know.
Rick: That’s another great move—the idea that you can navigate these waters perfectly—I’m like, “Yes, that’s not reality.”
Dave: When we can bring that—obviously, into our churches and into our homes—you’ve really helped us.
Dave: Because I think we can see parents and kids and spouses having different conversations now, just from this. Could it be possible that they could have convictions—personal and winsome—together?
Shelby: I’m Shelby Abbott, and you’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Tim Muehlhoff and Rick Langer on FamilyLife Today. You know, by the power of the Holy Spirit, yes! We can have conversations with other people; conversations that are personal and hold convictions, but don’t have to be intentionally argumentative, belittling, or prejudiced in how we approach them. This is super-important to learn, to know, and to take into the center of our hearts.
You know, the President of FamilyLife, David Robbins, wanted to chime in on this important topic of conversation, too.
David: Yes, this is what we seek to do at FamilyLife. We want to be winsome in our presentation of biblical truth in a very polarized culture. And we want you to be able to recommend to your friends to listen to a show or to get a resource. They may be offended by Jesus and what the Scripture says, but they’re not going to be offended by the tone of how we’re talking and how we’re sharing the flourishing that can happen in a home, and amongst a family, because of Jesus and the ways of Jesus.
Shelby: Thanks, David. You know, what a timely conversation with Tim Muehlhoff and Rick Langer. And what an important book that they’ve written, too. It’s called Winsome Conviction: Disagreeing without Dividing the Church. You can pick up a copy at FamilyLifeToday.com, and while you’re there, we’d love it if you’d partner with us financially here at FamilyLife. When you do, we want to send you a copy of Jordan Raynor’s book, The Word before Work. Jordan was a guest with us earlier this week, and his book is our gift to you when you partner with us financially.
You can go online to FamilyLifeToday.com, as I said, or you can give us a call with your donation at 800-358=6329. Again, that number is 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.” Or you can feel free to drop us something in the mail. Our address is FamilyLife, 100 Lake Hart Drive, Orlando, FL 32832.
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Now, coming up next week, Mary DeMuth is going to be here to talk about a tough childhood and how it can unfold into something absolutely beautiful, despite the trauma she experienced as a child. That’s coming up next week. 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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