Throughout the ages, debate has always been considered an art. The art of “rhetoric” is what it has been called. Some of the most famous characters of church history were trained in this art and their abilities of debate emanate from their writings. The apostle Paul, Augustine, Justin Martyr, Athanasius, Martin Luther, and John Calvin are all examples of men who were trained in the art of rhetoric and their imprint on the world of ideas has left ripple effects across the church and even the secular world. If you were to look up the term “rhetoric,” the most common definition you will find is as follows,
“Rhetoric: the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing.”
Unfortunately, many people engage in debate not as an art but as a means of self-vindication. Debate used to be the means in which individuals who valued truth could learn from one another and sharpen one another into greater understanding. For someone to win a debate and for the other party to lose a debate wasn’t a source of pride or humiliation. Rather, it was a source of encouragement for both parties as the losing party valued truth more than being right, and the winning party valued seeing the other walk in greater truth than simply being proven right!
Think about it: The idea of art immediately brings to our minds something that is aesthetically pleasing and delightful. If good debate or rhetoric is something that is considered an art form, why is it that debate can more often than not leave more of a sour taste in or mouths than a sweet one? The answer is because too many people debate with poor motives. Everyone is generally more concerned about elevating themselves as a “winner” than they are about elevating truth itself as the ultimate “winner.” Christians cannot afford to fall into this trap. Christians are those who value truth so much that they are willing to die for it. The Christian so desires for truth to be known that they are willing to deny themselves for the sake of that truth being known.
Do you debate like that? Up to about fifty years ago, great debaters sold out tickets like comedy acts. Now they are considered manipulators and harsh, arrogant people. Is not debate an area that Christian’s should seek to redeem?
Christians must strive to re-claim the integrity and beauty of rhetoric/debate. One of the most common things that happen in a debate that sucks the beauty out of it is people get angry. It is important to ask a fundamental question in such encounters. Why are you angry?
If you get offended or angry when you receive a firm pushback on your beliefs or convictions from someone, the real problem is that you are not very confident in your own beliefs and convictions. The response is to not get angry but to stop publicly debating. Instead of participating in a debate, you should go and settle your convictions! Wrestle with them throughout the night if you must. Do not quit until you have them in you deep. Only then will you speak with a humble confidence that compels others to listen. Granted, there are few things worse than being confident in falsehood. The two biggest issues in our world today are related to this fact. Few people still believe it is okay to even have convictions. Convictions are considered politically incorrect today. Second, many who do have convictions have settled on truths that aren’t sturdy and compelling and are, therefore, not worth following.
The truth still remains. Have you ever debated Jehovah Witnesses or Mormons? Have you ever tried to debate someone who has bad or even heretical theology? What you will almost always notice is that they are the quickest to get angry. The reason for this is because they recognize, in their heart that they are on shaky ground. What surprises me the most however is how often people who have sturdier foundations lose their cool in these debates as well! Why? If you have the truth and your understanding can be supported by faithful men who makeup thousands of years of history, why get upset? Notice that Jesus, even when he turned over tables, never lost his composure. He had no reason to.
Of course, there is a righteous anger in discussion but it is always an anger at the perversion of truth, not anger that results in the other person disagreeing with you. A spiritually mature debater is one that can be angry of the perversion of truth while at the same time demonstrate compassion towards the person who is perverting it. What does this look like? It looks like spending more time praying for a false teacher than you do criticizing them. It looks like seeking to truly understand why someone believes what they do rather than simply cutting them off because they believe differently. If someone is truly settled in their convictions, then they should not have any problem truly hearing out an opposing perspective.
What kind of debater do you desire to be? If you desire to debate like Christ then don’t ever think that hard disagreement means lovelessness. The best debaters are those who can sharply disagree with another person and yet at the same time, prove that Christ’s love reigns most supreme in the battle for truth. Sin has left truth in this world covered in a grimy ash. Christian debate should be seen as a purifying water that washes away that soot and reveals beautiful roses of truth covered beneath. Join me in pursuing this kind of beauty in Christian Discourse.
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For further studies on Christian communication, consider reading the following.
- Jeremiah Burroughs, Gospel Conversation: Conduct Worthy of The Gospel
- Hugh Binning, Christian Love (Puritan Paperback)
- Charles Leiter, The Law of Christ
All book recommendations are available through Amazon.com