Debates. We say we hate them, but we all get into them . . . all the time.
Every disagreement that presents two conflicting viewpoints is a debate of one form or another. It may simply be a friendly squabble, a formal argument, or a kick-to-the-head Facebook brawl.
And just because people use them the wrong way or participate in them sinfully does not automatically mean all debates are sinful. Jesus Himself frequently entered conversations where differing opinions struggled and where people walked away still in disagreement. This observation teaches us two things: 1. There are righteous ways to debate, and 2. Just because the other person isn’t swayed to our side after the final rebuttal, doesn’t make the process invaluable.
Because if you believe all debates are wrong or pointless . . . God disagrees with you.
So, how does a Christian debate in a way that pleases the Lord?
I don’t think this is a question about whether to debate or not. And for many of us, it’s not that we don’t debate in the first place, it’s that we don’t debate the right way. If more Christians knew how to discuss controversial matters in a biblical way, I believe we would see a huge topographical shift in the debating landscape – more Truth would be disseminated, fewer misunderstandings would arise, and more people would have the opportunity to respond correctly to Truth.
If that doesn’t excite you, you need to grasp the Great Commission. No one ever promised that the preacher of the Gospel wouldn’t meet confrontation or that people wouldn’t argue with him.
So, we must know how to handle the detractors.
Principally speaking, the Bible has much to say about the makeup of our discourse (Truth), the method of our discourse (communication), and the motivation of our discourse (philosophy). Simply put, we’re to share God’s Truth (makeup) with God’s love (method) for God’s reasons (motivation).
- Makeup – I’m never allowed to debate using lies, fallacious reasoning, or sinful philosophy. Therefore, trying to persuade people that homosexuality isn’t a sin is right off the table.
- Method – I’m never allowed to speak God’s Truth in an unloving way. Angry, unkind words undermine the power of the Bible.
- Motivation – I’m never allowed to baptize my arguments in “love” in order to manipulate people. If I’m not genuinely speaking biblical Truth to accomplish God’s purposes, then it doesn’t matter how syrupy sweet I sound . . . I’m not really being loving. I need to want God best interest for my opponents.
This article could easily be over at this point, because God always has the final word. However, I was recently doing some study on a particularly enjoyable piece of literature called The Art of War when I tripped upon a wonderful discovery.
Traditionally we accept that a great general named Sun Tzu wrote his thirteen chapters as a treatise on war and then spent the rest of his life proving just how right he was in his conclusions. If you’ve never read it, there’s some fantastic information with a quiver-full of application to a variety of fields.
But recently one particular passage struck me with the realization that if Christians debated like Sun Tzu approached a vicious army of invading ruffians . . . it would afford us a greater opportunity to make sure the makeup of our debates, method of our debates, and motivation for our debates were Christ-honoring.
Here’s the passage I referenced above:
“It is the rule in war, if our forces are ten to the enemy’s one, to surround him; if five to one, to attack him; if twice as numerous, to divide our army into two. If equally matched, we can offer battle; if slightly inferior in numbers, we can avoid the enemy; if quite unequal in every way, we can flee from him. Hence, though an obstinate fight may be made by a small force, in the end it must be captured by the larger force.”
This is a gold mine of wisdom! But before I get sidetracked discussing the application this has to parenting and dating, let me illustrate how these truths should guide our debates by working backward through them.
1. If the individual is incredibly inferior to his opponent in that A. he is not prepared to argue using God’s Truth, B. cannot open his mouth without being caustic and unkind, C. becomes defensive at the hint of a disagreement, or D. manifests any number of other sinful character traits (impatience, arrogance, etc), he must not only avoid the debate, but refuse to engage lest he hurt the cause of Christ.
Military Illustration: A soldier who turns his gun on fellow soldiers is to be immediately pulled from the front and thrown into prison.
Real-World Illustration: A mean-spirited individual who possesses nothing but proof-texts, a slew of boiler-plate clichés, and slanderous jabs should never engage in any discussion ever – let alone claim to be an ambassador for Christ. Sinful, manipulative, emotional, illogical propaganda techniques are their only line of defense. Westboro Church’s handling of the homosexuality debate is a perfectly horrible example of this. Their entire arsenal is emotionally charged, Truth-devoid propaganda.
Application: This person likely needs to embrace the love of Christ in salvation, and until then should cease pretending to be a representative of God. I John tells us “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.”
Debaters like this are also only going to hurt themselves and others. II Peter makes it clear that some things in the Bible are “hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.” Born again Christians don’t deliberately distort God’s Word.
2. If the Christian is inferior in his ability to rightly divide the Word of Truth and/or inferior to his opponent’s ability to logically and respectfully prove his arguments, he should either rally more help to his side, or avoid getting into such debates period.
Military Illustration: A soldier who can’t fire a gun at all will be no help in a battle and should be put on kitchen patrol.
Real-World Illustration: This is the luke-warm, pew-sitting contingent of Christianity. When called on to discuss their views on homosexuality, they know they’ve heard that “being gay’s a sin,” but their not sure who said it, and – to be honest – the only arguing they do is often motivated by selfishness and annoyance. They’d have as much success debating homosexuality as they would trying to persuade you that they should hold the remote. Propaganda techniques are occasionally used because they lack substantial evidence and practice presenting it.
Application: Pride is the great blinder of men. It persuades the unskilled to create and the unlearned to teach. But they do so to their and their students’ detriment. This individual should take seriously the command to “be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (II Timothy 2:15). This is not an option, it’s a calling.
3. If the Christian is equally matched with his opponent, he must first reconsider his thesis. Assuming his motivation is the glory of God and his thesis is in line with the Bible, and assuming his rhetorical abilities are on par with his opponent, he should “offer” a debate, but never just plunge forward assuming the victory is his. And if he should meet an argument he cannot answer, he must graciously admit he doesn’t know and politely request the opportunity to do more research.
Military Illustration: A soldier who has just as much potential of shooting an enemy as the enemy has of shooting him has value in a fight . . . but not much. We don’t want to lose one soldier for every soldier the enemy loses.
Real-World Illustration: I thank God, though, for the segment of the church who’s current enough with the issue that it can speak with equal and opposite professionalism. These folks represent Truth well when fiction is present. They respond graciously when attacked with vitriol. And overall they handle logical argumentation well enough that they don’t ever reach for the weapon of propaganda.
Application: It takes much wisdom to know the difference between “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will also be like him. Answer a fool as his folly deserves, that he not be wise in his own eyes” (Proverbs 26:4-5). This intelligent, God-loving Christian may still easily stoop to using dishonorable propaganda if he’s not wise enough to not answer the fool according to his folly. In such a case, “in abundance of counselors there is victory” (Proverbs 11:14). Learn from those who are highly skilled in counsel and debate.
4. If the Christian is twice as skilled as his opponent in validity of content and mastery of language, he should exercise his rhetorical devices to “divide” the opponent’s arguments with Truth. These scenarios often occur when the opponent is debating a lie veiled in “truth.” To show the error of truth/lies, the debater must be at least twice as skilled as his opponent.
Military Illustration: This illustrates the difference between a sniper and the common soldier – the sniper has tremendous value in a conflict.
Real-World Illustration: In the matter of homosexuality, this debater will immediately realize, understand, and be able to answer proponents of homosexuality who say God loves people just as they are. Yes, God says we should love people as they are, but the entirety of Scripture is designed to show us that God changes those who believe on Him. If we don’t change from blinded, sin-addicted, dead people to regenerated, righteous, light-walking servants of the only Holy God . . . then it doesn’t matter how much God loves us. Our refusal to believe and submit will condemn us.
Application: Abiding on this plateau of debate requires continued study and humility. This Christian must never falter in his attention to God’s Word. Though it helps to be aware of the world’s arguments, all it takes to refute them is apt knowledge of Christ. Humility is the character trait that will keep the Christian immersed in God’s Word and protect him from being overconfident or arrogant in light of his ability to “divide” his opponent’s arguments.
5. If the Christian is five times more skilled, his argument should make short order of his opponent’s simply by sharing God’s irrefutable Truth in a logical way.
Military Illustration: At this point, our military metaphor must change. We’re no longer comparing average foot soldiers. Here we see the difference between a squadron of tanks against a single insurgent.
Real-World Illustration: Well-studied homosexuals will have found and consumed all the information they can about how the original Greek is mistranslated in our modern English Bibles. They’ll also be able to work around every Old Testament condemnation of homosexuality because those who reject the LGTB lifestyle do so wearing mixed fabrics while eating ham sandwiches. But the seasoned debater will never stumble when presented with such “arguments” because he’s studied to show himself approved of God, and he need not be ashamed because he knows how to rightly divide the word of Truth. And in the end, though he may disagree, the opponent will know he’s conversed with a man who loves his God and other people – just like the Bible says.
Application: The ability to quickly dispense with a foolish argument often leads to a dominating, unloving spirit. This child of God must always temper his knowledge with love because “knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies” (I Corinthians 8:1).
6. If the Christian is ten times more skilled in Truth and communication, he possesses a greater knowledge and handling of God’s Word that only comes through intense study and devotion to God – he will be able to cogently debate the topic with sincerity and depth that not only proves difficult to counter, but also shows deep respect for his opponent.
Military Illustration: He’s the proverbial atomic bomb. But don’t forget that this military illustrations are given to demonstrate the incongruity of ability, not the devastation of relationships.
Real-World Illustration: The Bible is prodigiously clear that homosexuality is a sin, but that God is not willing that anyone should perish but that all should come to repentance. In a debate with the average individual, a well-studied, approved Christian will arm himself with Truth, use logic and reasoning with abandon, be apt to teach, make his arguments with a goal that the Lord may be glorified . . . but he will also care for his opponent with the love of Christ. His entire debate will be grounded on the premise that the person standing before Him is either lost or out of fellowship with his God. His opponent will represent a broken human fighting a losing and devastating battle with the God of the universe. His compassion and love will guide his presentation of Truth so that the opponent will never once feel hated or disrespected. Instead, he will see a human representative of Jesus Christ.
Application: This ambassador of God must continually return to Ephesians 3:14-19 to remember why we’re here: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.”
Understanding the Truth therein is to understand your calling – this ambassador of the Most High will live a consistent life of love and Truth which will be fleshed out at work, on Facebook, in church, at school, in the house, at the movies, and in all the world.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 27:19).
Debating is an art. But it’s also a command. We must present Christ and be able to give an answer to everyone who asks.
Just do it the right way.