Christians should be well-practised at debate, if for no reason than our responsibility to mutually help, support and correct each other.
A disciple is a person who is ‘a learner’ or a student. Jesus’ disciples learn from His teaching. Jewish officialdom called themselves ‘Moses’ disciples’ and John the Baptist had his disciples Jn 3:25.
Discipline is from the same root word and self-discipline should be a daily activity among Christians.
However, we cannot always see our own faults and therefore we need others to help us. I am told that there is an old Scottish Gaelic saying that “a friend is a good mirror”. Enemies give people enough rope to hang themselves, but this is not a Christian attitude. Rather we are to help each other and ‘not to suffer sin upon our neighbour’ Lev 19:17. This is easier said than done.
This involves Christian discussion and debate.
In the Bible we read of Jesus engaging in Christian debate with His opponents as well as with His disciples, but the subject of debate begins much earlier than this – in the very first book of the Bible – the Book of Job. There is no excuse for the poor quality of modern debate. The Book of Job, is about the misunderstanding, prejudicial judgments and accusations that are wide of the mark in a five-way conversation that should have taught Bible-readers the importance of accurate speech and debate.
People will draw different lessons from the Book of Job but I have never come across anyone mention the topic of debate. It is very evident that the debate in the Book of Job turns personal very quickly. Mankind has been told from the very beginning through this book – the oldest, extant, continuously published book in world history – that we should be very careful about prejudicial opinions and improve our debating skills.
Scripture tells us not to suffer sin upon our neighbour so the question arises how we are going to help other people. Most people have discovered the difficulty of giving positive feedback to such an extent that there is little useful feedback or plain teaching in ordinary debate. We have all experienced negative criticism, but this does not negate the responsibility upon Christians to love their neighbour and to do what they can to help them.
One needs the wisdom of Solomon, but in the absence of this, Christian debate should help everyone to improve. Does it?
Going off topic
Is a common feature of debate. Sometimes it is deliberate, to change the subject. Some people cannot follow a debate and do not notice when it is changing.
Framing the debate
This refers to drawing the borders or framework within which the debate will take place, and many do not notice that a debate has been ‘re-framed’ to change the parameters of the discussion. This is common when a perons is losing the argument.
When a person is losing an argument it is easy for them to reframe the debate by saying: “It’s not what you say, but the way you say it.” This draws attention to the spirit and manner of debate. Paul told Timothy: “the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing antagonists, if perhaps God will give them a change of mind to acknowledge the truth” 2Tim 2:23-25.
Christians should learn to be profitable in a biblical manner and then everyone would be the better informed.
Release from Christian obligation
Although Christians are to be salt and light in the world Mat 5:13-14, and to let their light shine in such a manner as people seeing their good works will glorify the Father in heaven Mat 5:16, yet there are circumstances when the Lord releases us from the responsibility to help others Mat 7:6 and Mat 15:14 and Paul expands it in 2Tim 4:2.
Mat 7:6 shows that one does not need to interact with those who demean the Gospel and abuse you. Such people exclude themselves from opportunities to hear your Christian input. Jesus releases you from your obligation towards them.
Mat 15:14 Jesus said of some people: “Leave them alone: they are blind leaders of the blind, and if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.” One might feel the obligation to contradict blind leaders who are doing so much damage, but they are so prejudicised that Jesus says: “Leave them alone” as far as trying to change them is concerned. What about their blind followers? One could expose the folly of their blind leaders by correct teaching, but sometimes this might simply infuriate them and they may turn and attack you. Mat 7:6, above, applies in such circumstances.
2Tim 4:2 shows that rebuke must be in the correct spirit, with patience and not in a hot-headed temper. It must also involve teaching – so if you do not have the opportunity to teach and explain the error, then keep quiet.
We must resist the temptation to be judge and jury in other people’s affairs, if for no other reason than a judge must hear both sides of a story and gossip does not do so. Jesus said: “Man, who made Me a judge or a divider over you?” Luke 12:14. Interfering in other people’s business is like grabbing a dog by the ears Pro 26:17 – you are liable to make him angry and how do you let go of the ears of an angry dog?
One is not obliged to answer all questions put to you. Jewish officialdom tried to catch out Jesus by asking Him questions and He handled them in different ways.
Sometimes He replied with another question, and sometimes He simply did not answer them, especially if they would not answer His question Mk 11:33. He did not answer at His unjust trial before the chief priests, but when challenged by oath to confess to being the Christ, He responded to this. He was silent before Pilate but answered some questions. Study of these differences will prove profitable.
If a person is asked awkward questions, one can always respond with: “Why are you asking?” You are entitled to know, and from this to assess whether and how to answer.
If someone does not understand your answer, consider first that you have not understood their level of comprehension and so you are entitled to find this out before giving additional, more detailed information.
31 Mar 2014: the poverty of Christian debate.
12 Feb 2020: the poverty of modern debate.
16 Apr 2022: debate and discussion.