Saturday, December 9, 2006

Why Christian Debate is Vitally Important

Some claim that a good Christian should never engage in a debate with anotherChristian. Warnings are given: Let's all just get along! Let sleeping dogs lay! Don't rock the boat! Don't rattle the cage! Don't open a can of worms! Don'tstir-up a hornet's nest! After all, aren't Christians called to unity? Doesn'tthe Bible denounce all divisions and quarrelling?The truth is, many sincere and well-meaning Christians do have seriousdisagreements on a wide range of complex theological issues. Therefore, it onlyseems appropriate to consider why good Christians sometimes disagree and whatshould be done to resolve their differences. There are three main categories of theological disagreement:1. Disagreement between Christians and non-Christians on such age-old questionsas: Does God exist? How do we know the Bible is reliable? Is Christianity theonly true religion?2. Disagreement between Christians within the pale of orthodoxy and thoseoutside the pale of orthodoxy over essential doctrines of the Christian faith,such as the Trinity and the deity of Christ.3. Disagreement among sincere Christians within the pale of orthodoxy oversecondary issues, such as the mode and means of baptism and the timing of TheSecond Coming. The continuing dialogue over secondary issues is often referredto as an in-house debate.The focus of this site is to provide a forum which encourages a respectfulin-house debate among sincere Christians within the pale of orthodoxy onsecondary issues. That is not to say that these secondary issues are asimportant as the essentials. They are not. But the essentials have been firmlyestablished for centuries, regardless of protests by cults to the contrary.Meanwhile, the non-essentials have divided even the best of theologians for justas long or longer. Since many outstanding Christians hold conflicting views onsecondary issues, and since these issues are not considered essential forsalvation, disagreement over these secondary issues should not cause us towithhold the right hand of fellowship to Christians on the other side. Nevertheless, these secondary issues do divide Christians. Baptists believebabies should not be baptized and immersion is either the only way or at leastthe best way to be baptized. Others believe infants should be baptized andsprinkling and pouring are equally valid, if not superior.Eschatology has also divided the body of Christ. Will Christ return before orafter the millennium? Will there even be a millennium? Is the rapture pre-trib,mid-trib, or post-trib? Or will there even be a rapture? And what about thepreterist position that the great tribulation took place clear back in 70 AD?There's also disagreement between dispensationalists and covenant theologiansover the relationship of the church to the nation of Israel. And let's notforget the debate over God's sovereignty between Calvinists and Arminians.In the Old Testament, the people of God are encouraged to live in unity. Psalm133 says, "How good it is when brothers live together in unity!"In the New Testament, Jesus prays that his disciples "may be one as we are one"(John 17:11, 21).These texts and others have often been used to promote ecumenism. Biblicalunity, however, involves unification through Christ of those divided by race,class and sex (Galatians 3:27). According to Paul, being male or female, Jew orGentile, bond or free should not be a source of division because God acceptspeople from all of these categories. The word "unity" usually does not refer to agreeing in the New Testament. Andwhen Paul does insist on agreeing, it is specific. In 1 Corinthians 1:10, Paulwrites: "I appeal to you, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of youagree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that youmay be perfectly united in mind and thought."Paul's point is that quarrelling and squabbling are wrong because they underminethe common faith that binds God's people together. The important thing is, unityneeds to be based upon truth, which includes "the sound instruction of our LordJesus Christ and godly teaching" (1 Timothy 6:2-4). Therefore, truth should beenhanced by ecumenism, not diminished. Contrary to popular opinion, disagreementis not necessarily negative. It can also be positive.Christians sometimes should disagree because truth is importantCertainly some truths are more important than other truths. Nothing is moreimportant than the reliability and authority of Scripture, the deity of Christ,and the doctrine of the Trinity. Nevertheless, all truth is important. Debatecan and should reveal a healthy desire to establish truth. This interactionoften leads to the right interpretation of a doctrine or the best solution to aparticular problem. Essential doctrines of the Christian faith, like the Trinityand the deity of Christ, were the result of vigorous debate by men whom Ibelieve were both godly and sincere.Our motivation to debate should always be to discern what is true and what isfalse. The purpose of a debate is not to win an argument but to discern God'sperfect will. Therefore, debate should always be unselfish, seeking to honor andglorify God and His truth, not to toot the trumpet by idolizing the oratoryskills of the debater. Only in a relativistic culture is debate unproductive and pointless. It would bewrong for a Christian to complacently settle for error simply to avoid conflict.Jesus said, "The truth will set you free" (John 8:32). Debate can helpChristians discern truth. It helps us clarify our thinking. It puts the opinionsof all sides under a microscope and opens those opinions to rigid scrutiny andpossibly revision.Debate has played an essential role in shaping Christian history. Paul opposedPeter face to face in Galatians 2. Athanasius debated the Arians in the fourthcentury regarding Christ's divinity. Unity is not necessarily the same as uniformityThe Bible commands "unity," but not necessarily "uniformity." This distinctionis important. Unity refers to maintaining good relationships. It does notnecessarily refer to an absence of disagreement or conflict. To agree withsomeone just to maintain unity would not only be disingenuous, it could also beinterpreted as having a disregard for truth. Christians, above all others, mustnot allow themselves to be indifferent to truth. Such an indifference would mostcertainly catapult us head-long down a slippery slope of secular relativism. God's Word is always true, but it's not always clearRegarding Scripture, someone once stated, "The main things are the plainthings." True. Conversely, many things in the Bible are complex and difficult tounderstand. Some of the greatest Christian minds in history have taken variouspositions on everything from baptism and tithing to eschatology and election.One might wonder, "If giants of the faith can't agree, what hope is there forthe rest of us?" My answer is, most if not all of the best arguments on allsides of most issues of dispute have already been laid out for us on a silverplatter. All we need to do now is to educate ourselves by examining the prosand cons of all credible sides. Then we should carefully and prayerfully come tothe best conclusions we can. Of course, it would be shear folly to engage in adebate without first doing our homework. But once we've done our preparation,respectfully debating important issues with someone who has done the same thingcan accelerate our understanding. This allows iron to sharpen iron. I believe itis every Christian's responsibility and duty to "always be prepared to give ananswer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have"(1 Peter 3:15). One person said, "If you're unable to defend what you believe inpublic debate, you have no right to believe it."The problem is, most Christians haven't got a clue why they believe the thingsthey believe. Most people believe what they believe because that's what theywere taught by someone else. Most people have not subjected their beliefs torigid scrutiny. Yet the Bible admonishes us to "bring into captivity everythought to the obedience of Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5). Yet most Christians haveprobably not carefully examined and considered the arguments of those whodisagree with them. Part of the problem seems to be that we live in a relativistic world where, ifthere is a such thing as truth, either it's not all that important or it'simpossible to know. Plus it's a whole lot easier to leave the tough thinking toseminary graduates.Another reason why debate is important is because widespread illiteracy isrampant in the church. Consider these disturbing statistics:1. According to a survey by the Barna Research Group, three-fourths of Americanserroneously believe that the Bible teaches "God helps those who helpthemselves." Even worse, more than two-thirds of born-again adults believe the same thing.These born-again adults were people who said they have made a personalcommitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today. Theyindicated they believe that when they die they will go to heaven because theyhad confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as Savior.These responses of large numbers of born-again Americans should alarm Christianswho are concerned about the spiritual welfare and biblical literacy of ourchurches, much less our nation.Furthermore, disturbing proportions of these born-again adults said they believe the following: 1. The Holy Spirit does not exist (53%)2. Satan does not exist (47%)3. A good person can earn his/her way into heaven (31%)4. Jesus Christ died but never had a physical resurrection (30%) 5. Jesus committed sins (24%)Some people simply avoid debate because it's difficult for them to cope withany kind of disagreement. This is especially true when God's will seems perfectly clear to them but someone else challenges their understanding.

xxxPart 2xxxDebate is beneficial because it forces us to think, not just memorize. Itexposes the strengths and weaknesses of all positions to the clear light ofScripture. One of the main purposes of Scripture is to correct erroneousthinking. II Timothy 3:16-17 says: "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine,for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man ofGod may be perfect, thoroughly equipped for every good work."Nevertheless, our concern to establish truth should never degenerate intochildish squabbling. So in an effort to safeguard against this, ten guidelinesfor Christian debate are now presented for your consideration.Ten guidelines for Christian debateHow Christians can disagree agreeably1. Relationships are more important than agendas. Jesus did not avoid debate. In fact, he often provoked it. However, he did sowithin a relational context. During his earthly ministry, Jesus' relationshipwith his disciples influenced everything he did, including his criticisms ofthem. Even his condemnation of the Scribes and Pharisees was set in the contextof God's covenant relationship with the Jews. It was precisely because of theirfailure to keep the old covenant that Christ attacked them.Likewise, we need to begin by getting our priorities in order - God first,people second, winning a debate a distant third. In our conversations it isessential that we relate to others first and foremost as fellow human beings,not primarily as opponents who subscribe to opinions that differ from ours. Itis easy in the heat of a debate to reduce others to the status of opponentswithout acknowledging that every person is special and unique. But again, thatdoesn't mean debate is irrelevant because God's truth is at stake.Our unity in Christ should be foundational - the premise and the conclusion toall debate. Our duty is to "keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond ofpeace" (Ephesians 4:3-6) and "speak the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15). Putting relationships before agendas can be difficult, particularly whendebating someone we don't know personally. In such a situation, the challenge isto respect the individual while genuinely engaging with his or her arguments.2. Honestly admit your disagreement It is important to be honest whenever we have a disagreement. Pretending that nodisagreement exists doesn't advance the cause of truth or unity. Our task is tobe honest about what we believe and why we believe it.3. Be willing to engage in debateUnless we are prepared to discuss our disagreements, there can be no opportunityto have our beliefs scrutinized and critiqued. Debate should be seen as anopportunity to aid understanding, challenge personal thinking and encourageresolution. Debating should never be seen as an end in itself.Rather, our chief aim should always be to establish the facts. 4. Refuse to belittleIt's sometimes tempting to dismiss the opinions of others simply based upontheir race, age, social-economic status, education-level, denomination orpolitical affiliation. This runs counter to Jesus' example. Jesus associatedwith both the marginalized and the upper-crust.5. Establish common ground Unless the contestants in a debate agree upon some basic ground rules, argumentwill be difficult if not impossible. For example, unless we agree that the Bibleis true or that truth is important, debating what the Bible teaches is probablyan exercise in futility - unless, of course, the goal of the debate is toestablish the reliability of the Bible or to establish that truth is important.When debating theology, it is usually essential to establish boundaries andcommon ground.6. Define your terms accurately Disagreement often arises based upon misunderstanding the terms being used.Different people from different denominations may interpret a particular passageof Scripture differently, not because they do not have a high regard for theBible, but simply because they pour different meanings into words. (Examples:faith, justification, sanctification, etc.) Also, a person's religiousbackground can and oftentimes does color one's understanding. The word"justification", for example, does not mean exactly the same thing to aProtestant that it does to a Catholic.7. Listen to your opponent Someone once said that God gave us two ears and one mouth because He wanted usto listen twice as much as we speak. It is important to listen intently to theperspectives of others. Seek to understand the views of others as perfectly aspossible before interjecting your own opinions. Lincoln was a master of thisprinciple. It has been noted by historians that whenever Lincoln debated, heoften knew his opponent's position better than his opponent did. The late John H. Gerstner was one of the greatest debaters to ever live. I'llnever forget a mock debate between Gerstner and R.C. Sproul. Sproul argued asthe Devil's Advocate from a position he did not hold. In fact, they even flippeda coin to determine who would take which position. Both argued quite eloquently,though Gerstner probably won the debate. But my point is, Christians need tounderstand the best arguments of their adversaries so well that they could, ifnecessary, argue their opponent's position as well as or better than theiropponent. Besides, if you don't respect and understand the arguments of theother side, why should those on the other side respect or value your opinions? There is, however, a big difference between being respectful and being inagreement. Just because I respect someone's opinion does not necessarily mean Iagree with it. As an avid chess player, I know it is always tempting to be so engrossed inplanning my own strategy of attack that I neglect to analyze the strengths andweaknesses of my opponent's position. A smart chess player tries to understandwhat his adversary is up to and prepares accordingly. Debating is like chess -defense first, offence second.Debate also needs to be a dialogue. It should never spiral into a shoutingmatch. The Jerry Springer Show may be entertaining, but it does little ifanything to promote truth and understanding. Depending on our personality, itcan be tempting to speak without listening. In doing so, we pass judgement on anindividual's view-point before attempting to understand it.8. Be humble Remember, "Pride goes before a fall" (Proverbs 16: 18). Only God knowseverything. Sometimes our opponents may be right, but they're unable to persuade us becauseof our bias. Sometimes our opponents are wrong and we're right, but we're notable to persuade them because of their bias. Unwarranted bias is probably aresult of our fallen sinful nature. It is easy to absorb the doctrinal positionof one's denomination or favorite teacher without even thinking, especially ifour teacher has a likeable personality and is an eloquent speaker. It is alsotempting to call attention to the small weaknesses in someone else's position(the small "speck" in someone else's eye) without noticing the glaringinadequacies of our own (the plank in our own eye) (Luke 6:41-42). Ourlimitations as fallen humans almost guarantees that we will not see things asclearly as we should. A good debater needs to recognize this proclivity.9. Seek understanding, not mud-slingingSomeone once said, "Whenever you're slinging mud, you're losing ground." Notonly is it a sin to lie, misrepresenting the position of your opponent is justas unethical. We often see this during election time. In an attempt todemonstrate the weaknesses of one's opponent, politicians sometimes misrepresentthe policies of the other side. This is known as "setting up a strawman."Stereotyping the views of our opponents not only demonstrates a lack ofintegrity on our part, but it is also unappealing and childish.10. Agree to disagreeFinally, after all the aforementioned principles have been aptly applied, it'snow time to "agree to disagree". Go back to square one and restore goodrelationships with your opponent. You may win the debate, but in most cases, youprobably won't change everyone's mind. That's okay. Sometimes people need timeto come to a full understanding of the truth. Different people thinkdifferently. And regardless of whether you agree with them or not, theiropinions should be respected (1 Corinthians 8:13). Only in exceptionalcircumstances should disagreement result in the breakdown of a relationship.ConclusionThe difficulty of agreeing is not a good excuse for avoiding forums whereimportant issues need to be resolved. Establishing truth is too important forthat. The Bereans are commended in Acts 17:10-11 because they searched theScriptures to make sure that the things the Apostle Paul taught them were true.If it was important for the Bereans to test the teachings of Paul in the lightof Scripture, then how much more important it is for us to verify the doctrinespromoted by our favorite teachers.The best way to make a decision is to base that decision on as much pertinentinformation as possible. A good decision is an informed decision. If thatprinciple holds true when deciding which car to buy or which home to live in,how much more important when making an ethical or theological decision thatcould influence our eternal destiny. Although many such decisions are enormouslycomplex and are often approached with built-in biases that have been influencedby our diverse backgrounds, this does not mean we cannot resolve matters thatdivide us with both eyes wide open. Such matters can and should be resolved. Andone of the best ways to resolve our differences is through healthy andconstructive debate.Some will probably object that this approach is overly optimistic and naive.Nevertheless, Christians are called to set the standard for unity. And we cannever be fully united until we hash out our differences. The Christian approach to resolving differences should be radically differentfrom the mud-slinging adopted in today's political circles. Christians need tobe united in essentials, while allowing liberty in non-essentials and charity inall things, as the old saying goes. Paul put it this way: "If it is possible, asfar as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone" (Romans 12:18). Theprescribed principles mentioned probably won't change the world overnight, butthey're certainly a step in the right direction.Let the Christian Debate begin!