Basic Principles on Argument and Debate

The following are some basic principles on having a discussion with another person with whom you disagree, particularly in political and religious matters.

I would like to give credit where due, and thank Andrew Barbour who posted an article entitled, “How to Argue” on The Art of Manliness website.  His article helped me to formulate much of what I’d been thinking over the past month into a cohesive unit.  I have even stolen verbatim some of what he stated in his article.

First, we need to understand that the words Argument and Debate do not necessarily mean “heated disagreement,” “fight,” or “conflict.”

An Argument is an exchange of diverging or opposite views or a reason or set of reasons given with the aim of persuading others of your position.  Debate is a formal discussion on a particular topic in a public meeting or legislative assembly, in which opposing arguments are put forward.

Contrary to what seems to be the popular understanding it is possible to have a friendly debate.  It is possible for brethren and sisters in Christ to disagree, to discuss their disagreements, to debate points of theology and doctrine without getting all hot and bothered, without losing the bond of peace, and without breaking friendships.  Remember, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17 ESV).

How do we overcome the popular concept of these words and allow yourselves to be sharped?  Here are a few pointers:

  1. What’s Your Purpose: While the dictionary definition of argument includes the aim of persuading others of your position, you ought to assume that you never will.  You can certainly hope for it, but ought not expect it and do not argue like that’s your goal.  Rather, set this as the primary goal of any discussion: the solidification of your own ideas and beliefs.  A maxim of education states that teachers always learn more than their students.  The same principle is true of honest debate.  An honest participant in an argument will find that in being forced to explain why they hold a particular belief, their assumptions will be challenged and weaknesses in their argument exposed.  As in medicine and auto mechanics, it’s always easier to treat the problem once the problem has been diagnosed.  Especially when engaged in debate with a Christian brother, be thankful they have helped you diagnose a weakness in your theology.  Much better them than a pagan who has no love for you or the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
  2. You Are Not Alone: This is really a sub-point to number one:  Keep in mind the others around you.  This goes doubly for “online” discussions.  While you should not assume you will change the opinion of the person with whom you argue, there will likely be others present.  you have a much better chance of winning these observers to your way of thinking.  Consider the debate an opportunity to convince someone else of your case.
  3. Clarify Through Questions: Respond to points you disagree with by asking questions.  Jesus often answered questions with questions and thereby disarmed his opponents (e.g. Jesus and the Sadducees in Matthew 22).  To be sure, this is the mark of a master at debate.  Yet even the beginner can employ the basic question for the purpose of clarification.
  4. Don’t Put Words:  Again, really a sub-point of three above: Don’t put words in people’s mouths.  Never inform the person with whom you debate of their own position or what they think.  Ask questions!  You may clarify their position by asking them, ‘Okay, so what your saying is A, B, and C, is this correct?” You want to point out an inconsistency? Feel free to ask, “Well, given your position that A, B, and C, what if D?”
  5. Know Thyself: or at least the subject in question.  Most people today are woefully ignorant on matters of substance.  If you are unsure of a subject, have the humility to admit this and the maturity to be instructed.
  6. Give Credit Where Due: Acknowledge the strengths of the other persons argument.  Remember that your goal is to strengthen your own belief.  By acknowledging the strengths in other’s arguments you will have the opportunity to strengthen your own understanding of the topic and develop a more detailed and sound position of your own.  You will also appear more reasonable to your opponent (and thus, a person whose opinion may matter).
  7. Watch Your Mouth: Never resort to personal attack (name calling, etc.), hyperbole, interruption, etc.  Remember, this is not a fight.  Do not turn a chess match into a Mixed Martial Arts bout.  When he takes your bishop, you do not put him in a headlock.
  8. They Are Not The Enemy: This harkens back to points one and five.  The FDA and drug companies are not enemies. A football coach and his team are not enemies. A book editor and an author are not enemies. The challenges posed are there to identify weaknesses so that they can be fixed, and drug companies, football players, and authors willingly undergo these trials because they want to make sure they put out the best product possible.  This is particularly true when engaged in theological debate with a brother or sister in Christ. Your opponent is there to help you fix your own argument that you may be better “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15 ESV).

We need practice in these principles and to be challenged in our beliefs.  One event I would like to see implemented in more churches is something we’ve called the “Bull Pen” at WBF.  The idea is the same as in baseball: a place for the pitcher to warm up before taking the mound.  In the church, this becomes the place for men (in our case) to gather and discuss matters theological.  It is a time to debate in safety and “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12 ESV).  Then when we take our faith into the marketplace, we are better equipped to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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