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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Top 10 Ways To Argue Like A Christian

The internet is full of people arguing.

Yes, I know, the sun also rises in the east. Humans breathe air. Tell me something slightly less obvious.

Okay. The internet is full of Christians arguing. Some of us do it well. Some do it really, really badly. And the thing is, Christians shouldn’t argue like unbelievers. When you know the Lord Jesus, you have access to a weapon nobody but a believer can wield: the word of God, which is:
“… living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)
There isn’t a more effective weapon forged, assembled or built in a lab in the history of the human race.

But if you don’t use it and opt for another weapon instead (and some weapons, for believers, are no longer options), or worse, use it against yourself (the sword is, after all, double-edged), well, at very least you’ll be much less effective than you might have been.

Actually, I really wish I could have written a post called “How To Argue Like Christ”. In some respects that may have been a better way to approach the subject.

In theory, arguing like a Christian and arguing like Christ should be exactly the same thing. But arguing like the Lord would require the intelligence of the Lord, the motives of the Lord, the perception of the Lord, the knowledge of Scripture the Lord possessed …

Uh, you see the same problem I do, right?

So let’s settle for what might be remotely attainable. Sometimes.

Without further ado, here is my totally arbitrary, personal take on how I’d like to see believers argue more effectively. It should go without saying that when I say “argue”, I mean “discuss”, not “harangue”, “harass” or “abuse”.

Feel free to add the dozens of points I will have forgotten.

1.    Pray first. Duh. No kidding. This one is so obvious I wouldn’t even include it except that I have, so many times, gone to spiritual war myself without doing so. But I believe that having our own heart in tune with the heart of God is more important than any single clever thing you or I might say in a discussion or argument. “Pray without ceasing”, Paul says. It doesn’t need to be a long prayer — the Lord knows what we’re up to, so it may be nothing more than a two-second mental look upward — but it needs to happen. Every time.

2.    Listen before you speak. People like to talk more than they like to listen, so this may effectively prolong the discussion. With a polite opponent it also creates an obligation for them to let you present your case once they are done. It’s good strategy, because you are then attacking something the other person is willing to defend, rather than what you only think he or she believes. It gives you the opportunity to examine his or her case for logical flaws or disingenuousness, which will surely come out if you let them make their case. You want to know what the person is REALLY thinking, which may be quite different from the first thing they are prepared to argue. This is an approach the Lord often took: he let his opponent lay out his case first. When a lawyer asked about eternal life, the Lord first asked him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” The answer to this question brought out what was really on the man’s heart: He was seeking to justify himself. So the Lord exposed the lawyer’s attempt at self-righteousness with the story of the Good Samaritan.

3.    Argue with the person in front of you. Stay on the actual point. Don’t try to make the argument about what other Calvinists teach or what other Catholics or Amillennialists believe. What matters is what the person in front of you believes. Don’t invent straw men. Don’t fall back on prepared arguments against some position that has not actually been introduced by your opponent. The Lord did this when he took on the scribes and Pharisees. He said, “YOU build the tombs of the prophets”, “YOU tithe mint and dill”, “YOU strain out a gnat and swallow a camel”. He attacked their own current practices, teaching and behavior, not what “their type” allegedly did 200 years ago. And while there was a great deal of huffing and puffing and formulating of plots in response, as far as I know, no defence was mounted by the Pharisees and scribes along the lines of “That’s a lie: We don’t actually do that. He’s making it all up”. The Lord’s audience knew it was all true, and so did the Pharisees.

4.    Give the benefit of the doubt. Unless given really compelling reasons to believe your opponent is arguing from truly horrible motives, affirm the good bits of the person’s argument and argue with them as if they are arguing in good faith until they prove otherwise. And if they are not, it will quickly reveal itself. The Lord did this with the young lawyer, saying “You have answered correctly” even though he certainly knew the lawyer had a hidden agenda. He waited for the lawyer to expose his own motive rather than accusing him pre-emptively.

5.    Avoid disingenuous hypotheticals and generalizations. Which would be nearly all of them, in my experience. There’s something dodgy about an argument that can’t be made from an actual real-world case. Does the Supreme Court consider anything without an actual human plaintiff and defendant in front of them with filed claims? When the Sadducees presented the Lord with a silly hypothetical scenario designed to prove there was no resurrection, the Lord declined to address it at all, simply replying “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God”. When the Pharisees asked “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”, Jesus saw right through them and brought the general right back to the specific. He replied, “Show me the coin for the tax”. Aha! Now we’re dealing with an actual situation rather than a contrived trap. Get the discussion back to subjects that the word of God can address, rather than those that require you to speculate fruitlessly.

6.    Keep your replies as brief as possible. “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” That’s very old advice and very good advice. It gets you back to listening quicker. It will keep your opponent interested. It will give him less time to gather his thoughts, not that that is significant if you’re actually right. But the longer I blather on during one of these discussions, the more I hate the sound of my own voice. Make your point and shut up. If it raises questions, let them ask.

7.    Don’t argue emotionally. The Lord’s servant “… must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness”. There are certainly occasions in Scripture in which the Lord or the apostles responded very strongly, but the number of Christians who can reply the same way without sinning is, I fear, quite small. If you can’t argue without losing your temper, go home.

8.    The word is better than logic. The power’s in the word. It is the Spirit’s sword, and it is the Spirit, not logic, that will “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment”. That doesn’t mean we are free to be illogical, or wrongly apply the word. But that’s where the power is, and when we forget it, we’re in danger of losing both the argument and, more importantly, our opponent.

9.    Name-calling should be off the table. When the Lord called someone a hypocrite, ignorant or slow, he had more evidence for it than we can reasonably gather in the course of a brief argument or discussion. Also, he was the Lord. His followers were less successful when they opted to lash out at opponents: “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall!” Paul said to Ananias, then was forced to eat his words. He spoke without knowing all the facts and he was holding a sword that cut both ways.

10. Remember the audience. Whether it’s the internet, a debate, a discussion in a public place or even what may seem like a private conversion, remember the audience. Even what is said in private may well be repeated, and you are speaking not just to the person you are arguing with, but to everyone else who ever hears the argument, or about the argument, as well. The truth Paul writes to the Corinthians, that “these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction” has its application far beyond stories about Israel. Every word that comes out of our mouths in defence of the truth may be repeated triumphantly by those who agree — or else it may be retold as a cautionary tale. If it is God’s word, accurately used, it may sit dormant in the minds and hearts of the audience and resurface years later to do its work.

The word of God is both living and active. I am slowly learning to let it say its piece and keep my involvement to a minimum.

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