Discussions, Disagreements and Debates

I was recently reading a popular preacher’s blog and found myself working through the 70 replies to one of the posts. All was well until around mid-way when someone decided to drag the conversation into the dark realm of debate. Up to this point there had been disagreement and dialogue and yet conversation proceeded. However once the debate got under way, the gloves of civility came off. The replies became laden with barely veiled jabs and insinuations of the other party’s character and agenda. And rightly so. Because there is one purpose of a debate – to win.

While someone expertly skilled in the art of debate and rhetoric can win without reverting to blatant disregards of Robert’s Rules of Order, they can possibly even do so without reverting to honest dialog or the search for truth. After all, as we have all learned from watching our favorite courtroom/legal drama series, what matters isn’t what you know but what you can prove.

Perhaps I’m speaking from experience that no one else shares but I have seen and even participated in debates where the individual defending a clear truth was handily defeated by an individual with greater skills in rhetoric. I have seen this approach used often in evangelism as well as in disagreements with other Christians.

I just read an article in Christianity Today about a certain preacher that is basically an unapologetic jerk. He believes that if you’ve got truth on your side – which he apparently does – then you are justified in using it to beat random passersby to death (my words, not his).

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t have an opinion, you shouldn’t express your beliefs or you shouldn’t feel compelled to offer a differing perspective – even one that you claim to represent truth more clearly than another. I’m just saying, ask yourself what your endgame is. Is this a debate? Is your goal to win, to defeat your opponent and, if necessary, to humiliate their whole family so that they can never show their face at Luby’s again?

Are you so busy overwhelming your “conversation partner” with lists of Scripture references that you never once take time to actually dialog with them from the Scriptures? Do you walk away satisfied that you overpowered, out-spoke and out-reasoned them? Or that you were so well prepared with your biblical responses that you didn’t even have to let them finish their sentences before shredding their position.

The following text is borrowed from Dr. Hans Rollman’s lists of Restoration texts – you can find the link to this site in the sidebar of this blog under Restoration Movement. It is an extended quote from Barton Stone, one of the early leaders of what would become known as the American Restoration Movement or Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement.

It is a common saying among the preachers of this day, “Old men for counsel, young men for war.” This is often advanced in justification of the public debates with opposers, or the clashing doctrines and opinions which now distract and divide the world. “Old men for counsel.” Do they counsel you to engage in such debates? Do they laud you for victories won? I will fearlessly answer that no old man of piety and intelligence will give such advice, unless in an extraordinary case. For they know by long experience that such debates tend to strife, deaden piety, destroy the spirit of prayer, puff up the vain mind, annihilate the taste for the marrow and fatness of the living world, and destroy the comforts of true, heavenly religion.

Seldom do we see in the same person a warrior and an humble, devoted Christian. Rara avis in terra. Such acquire a controversial habit and temper. They may proselyte many to their opinions, and greatly increase their numbers; but the children are like the parents, lean and pigmy things. I have known, in the course of my days, great and good religious excitements in certain places, quashed by such debates from the pulpit. I have really thought that the most effectual and shortest way to put a stop to such excitements is for two debators to propose a public debating match, /341/ or an ecclesiastical duel, on a certain day, and at a certain place. Generally at the close of the debate, ends the good excitement. I know it is said in justification of such debates that Paul disputed in the synagogue at Athens, and in the school of Tyrannus, with the Jews and others.

Read the verse correctly, and the force of the objection is removed. He reasoned, or dialogued with hem. This should be the constant practice of every faithful minister of Christ. Would to God it were the practice of all our young preachers to reason out of the Scriptures on the important things of the Gospel.

But “young men for war.” What war? Not against flesh and blood, for nothing but carnal weapons can affect them; but against the powers of sin and hell, with spiritual weapons afforded us from above — not against men, but against their sins, as did our Lord and his holy apostle, in order to save them from ruin.

But are we not to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints? Certainly. But can not this be done without set debates, challenges, judges, rules, etc? Did our great head – did his apostles ever act thus? And who will say they did not earnestly contend for the faith? There must be something wrong in this matter, because these zealous duelists do not like to be called the challengers. Now if this be the proper way to contend for the faith, why not fearlessly challenge every opposer, and thus show your holy zeal?

In these public debates but few persons attend them who have not their minds prepossessed in favor of one side or the other. A few unsophisticated persons may be proselyted to your opinions, but one renewed soul is of more value than a score of such proselytes; and /342/ such renewed souls are made by the truth uttered in the spirit, and heartily received and obeyed.


Posted on September 6, 2007, in church of christ, debate, grace, spiritual formation. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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