Debate As a Christian Duty
by Douglas Wilson
For many Christians, it seems a reasonable question to ask whether it is profitable for us to engage in public debates at all. Whoever changed his mind because of some public argument? Why wrangle about words? Logomachies just make my head hurt.
In contrast to this, I want to argue that such a quietist position is not only inconsistent with the teaching of Scriptures, but runs directly contrary to it. We are called to speak with unbelievers in the public square, and we are to do so in a way that includes answering their objections. We are called to prevail in such discussions (in a particular way). When we do this right, what is happening is public debate, the kind that can be very helpful.
But before making the case for this, it should be said at the outset that those who want to avoid "unseemly spectacles for Jesus" do have a point. There are some debates that are no good at all, and the Bible tells us expressly to avoid them. But when the Scriptures tell us not to lose our battles in a particular way, we should not infer from this an imaginary duty to avoid fighting those battles at all.
That said, let me begin by noting a few places where Christians are told not to engage in verbal free-for-alls. While we are not to avoid all debates, we are to avoid some debates.
"To speak evil of no man, to be no brawlers, but gentle, shewing all meekness unto all men. For we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another"
We are not to be "brawlers."
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"But foolish and unlearned questions avoid, knowing that they do gender strifes. And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; And that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will" (2 TIm. 2:23-26).
We are told here to stay out of stupid and fruitless debates, where the topic being discussed is guaranteed to spiral down into meaningless yelling. The servant of the Lord must not strive. But even here, note that the servant of the Lord must "instruct those who oppose themselves." In other words, Paul's rule here is "not this kind of debate," not "no debate."
You have to gauge the situation, and read the crowd. There are times when we must not descend to their level (Prov. 26:4). But, since wisdom is not optional, there are times when we must step into their world in order to run the reductio (Prov. 26:5).
So with that caution out of the way, why should we debate? Well, to begin where all Christians should always begin, let's look at the life of Jesus. Asking whether it is lawful to debate is like asking if it is lawful to speak in parables. Jesus spoke in parables constantly, and He also was engaged in public point and counterpoint constantly…
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