The Purpose of Arguing

In the day and age of social media, arguing has taken on a new form and is available to us often. It is clear to anyone who has a Facebook page or owns a Youtube account that social media provides an incredible outlet to argue. Although I wasn’t old enough to remember much of the days prior to social media, it seems that arguing happens more often. For now we aren’t limited to those within physical proximity to us. Debating is no longer bound to geographic limitations. Eric Svendsen wrote a small apologetic pamphlet on countering Roman Catholic claims,

and in the dedication portion typically provided at the beginning of a book, Svendsen wrote: 

“To the new breed of Evangelical ‘E-pologists’ who contend for the faith over the Internet- the new battlegrounds of apologetics.”

As one who argues often (both in person and online) I am often attacked by those who do not. Primarily from fellow Christians, but also from non-Christians too. The purpose of this particular blog is not to say that all online debates are fruitful and worth having. That is not the case at all. I have entered into many debates online I wish I wouldn’t have. Picking battles is an important quality mature Christians grow in, whether they are virtual or not. However, I do argue more than most. Thus, I want to provide a brief explanation of why. So often I hear the claim that, 

“These debates never change the other person’s mind, they’re pointless.”

It can be restated as the following argument of two premises and a conclusion: The purpose of a debate is to change the other person’s mind, the other people never change their minds; therefore, debates are purposeless. 

This statement/argument presupposes two important things:

1) The purpose of debating to change the person’s mind

2) The people debating don’t have a change of mind. 

Many people do change their mind. It typically doesn’t happen during the debate itself, but it is the debate which causes them to later change. This is similar to saying taking drugs doesn’t work because the moment I take them I don’t feel better. My response: Just give it time. 

However, many people don’t change their minds. I grant that, this leads to the first issue. Is that the point? An entire book could be written on this (and I mean that), but allow me to simplify my position into 3 foundational reasons for debating for the Christian worldview:

1) To force oneself to understand their own position and know God better.

2) To strengthen and comfort other Christians

3)  To change people’s minds

Let me begin with the latter and work backward:

Changing People’s Minds

It is a mistake to assume this is the only, or even primary, reason for apologetics (debating). However, it is also silly to assume it isn’t a part of it at all. Certainly, intellectual challenges serve the purpose of changing someone’s intellectual position. This is true. 

2nd Timothy 2: 14-17

Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved,c a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. 

 Some will quote the passage above as a proof-text to avoid arguments. This would certainly be very hypocritical of Paul whose ministry was characterized as debating the Jews in the synagogues (Acts 9:29; 18:28).  This text certainly provides a foundation for the picking battles thing mentioned above. There are types of people and types of arguments that are not fruitful and don’t lead to anything good. This is true, but the context of the chapter not only doesn’t yield a command to not argue, but even provides the support for my 3rd foundation for debating.

2nd Timothy 2: 22-26

So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.

I added emphasis. It is true that the Lord’s servant must avoid ignorant controversies and quarrels. But that does not characterize all arguments, for the very next portion commands the Lord’s servant to be able to “teach” and “correct his opponents.” That’s debating. Paul here is concerned with the manner and content of our debates, not debating altogether. 

However, the primary point is this: what does correcting our opponents sometimes lead to? God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth which will mean they have come to their senses. 

Correcting our opponents can be the means God uses to change their senses and give the gift of repentance. He doesn’t have to, implied by the word “may”. He may not, but God can and does use our gentle teaching and correcting of our opponents in the midst of their evil as a means to save them. The Gospel saves; not arguments. But this text teaches us God uses arguments to bring people to their senses about the Gospel that saves them. 

Strengthen and Comfort Fellow Believers

Debates are usually public. Especially now that social media is rampant. The idea then that a debate is only for the ones involved is over-simplistic. People listen to debates. This means that the person I am debating may not be conforming to or enjoying what I have to say, but he isn’t the only one listening. In my experience, this is possibly the primary purpose of debating. When a christian publicly wins a debate, he strengthens, confirms and excites the faith of other Christians who may have been originally discouraged by their own inability to do so. 

In the book of Titus, Paul begins by instructing Titus to appoint elders in new churches. He then gives Titus the qualities to look for in elders, and one of the qualities is the capability of debating.
Titus 1:9 

[An elder] must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.

It is Paul’s understanding that church leaders must be sound in their doctrine and theology. Why is this important? For two reasons, to encourage believers and refute unbelievers. Encouragement and refutation are crucial to Paul. Paul wants the sheep to be encouraged by the wisdom of truth among their leadership, and expects leaders to debate.  

He continues the same line of thought in the following verses (10-14):

For there are many rebellious men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, who must be silenced because they are upsetting whole families, teaching things they should not teach for the sake of sordid gain. One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. For this reason reprove them severely so that they may be sound in the faith, not paying attention to Jewish myths and commandments of men who turn away from the truth.

Emphasis is added. Paul mentioned that in Titus’ context, there would be people who would say and teach untrue things, and these things would upset entire families (I would argue Christian ones specifically). And for that reason, elders are commanded to silence these people severely. Again, Paul’s reasoning is two-fold. He wants unbelievers to be silenced so that they may be sound in the faith (change their minds/foundation 3), and establishing foundation 2, to settle upset families. In other words, to encourage fellow Christians. Silencing our opponents comforts our brethren.

To force oneself to understand their own position and know God better.

God longs for His people to be sound in faith and know Him in truth. God wants us to believe the truth about Him. One of the strongest ways we do that is by engaging in debates. When we hear and deal with opponents, it forces us to know our positions better. I can honestly say I have learned more about the doctrine of the Trinity through studying for and meeting with Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses than I have from the Pulpit. I have learned a lot about the theological doctrine of the Trinity through debates between Christians and Muslims. Apologetics is theology applied. Thus, strong apologetics stems from strong theology. That’s why Paul started with elders being sound in faith first. Soundness in faith leads to the ability to silence opponents severely. 

In the classic verse on apologetics, the verse that nearly everyone goes to, 1 Peter 3:15, Peter says this:

but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,

As a side note, for anyone who uses foundation 2 to say that debating is only for church leaders (of which I am), this verse is written to the laity. This is a command for everyone. Again, the manner of argumentation is mentioned. However, the command here is not just to be gentle and respectful, but to always be prepared to give an apologetic, a defense. We have a hope within us, and Peter says to always be prepared to defend that. Preparation requires studying and learning. Here, God is honored because in our pursuits and preparations to defend the hope within us, we learn about the hope within us. In our debates, when we are challenged, we learn more about the hope within us. We grow in the hope within us. Apologetics glorifies God in that it leads us to a greater understanding of who He is; apologetics breeds God-honoring theology. 

“A dog barks when his master is attacked. I would be a coward if I saw that God’s truth is attacked and yet would remain silent.” – John Calvin

The bottom line is that Facebook and other social media outlets are tools being used often to publicly attack God and his truth. Like Calvin, I want to be loyal. I want to bark, I want to silence. I want to defend the God who gave His life for me. He is worthy of it. This doesn’t mean that every single debate is worth having or that every single topic is worth debating, but it is true that there is a biblical mandate to defend God’s truth and silence unbelievers. When we give answers, silence opposition, and gently teach the truth, we learn more about our faith, we encourage upset Christians, and at times, we save people’s souls. 

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