Should Believers Debate?
A prominent feature of the current evangelical landscape is the popularity of debate as a mode of teaching. Some popular teachers, including Dave Hunt and James White, often engage in debates, sometimes with unbelievers, and at other times with those they would acknowledge to be Christians. The debate format is increasingly common as a means of interchange between believers and Muslims.
A lively debate seems a natural way of engaging people’s attention. The entire sports industry is based on the natural attraction of a good fight between skilled adversaries. Isn’t it wonderful that we can take advantage of this inborn interest to draw attention to the truth of God’s word?
Or is it? Just because something seems natural doesn’t make it right. Our natural state is dead in trespasses and sins, and many of our instincts require revision by the Spirit as we grow in Christ. Some exhortations in Scripture suggest that believers ought to be more cautious about engaging in, or promoting, staged controversies on spiritual subjects.
The most direct instruction about contentious modes of presenting truth comes from Paul at the end of his life, as he is awaiting execution during his second captivity in Rome:
2Ti 2:24-26 And the servant of the Lord must not strive μαχομαι; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, 25 In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; 26 And that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will.
In instructing Timothy concerning his role in spreading the gospel, Paul invokes the image of “the servant of the Lord” from Isaiah 53, who was noted for his patience and meekness in the face of unjust accusation. (Peter draws the same conclusion from Isaiah 53 in 1 Pet 2:21-25; see my exposition of Isa 53:7-9, mp3 or notes.) Following our Lord’s example, we must not be combative. Our presentation of the truth is to be marked by gentleness, patience, and meekness, recognizing that true, redeeming changes in people’s beliefs are the work of God, not the result of our cleverness.
Earlier, before his first captivity, Paul emphasized the non-polemical nature of his ministry in his farewell to the elders at Ephesus:
Act 20:18-19 Ye know, from the first day that I came into Asia, after what manner I have been with you at all seasons, 19 Serving the Lord with all humility of mind, and with many tears, and temptations, which befell me by the lying in wait of the Jews:
And James, in condemning the “envy and strife” of the worldly wisdom, describes the wisdom that God gives thus:
Jam 3:1 17 But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.
James does not excuse error: godly wisdom is “first pure.” But the need for purity does not justify a combative spirit in presenting it.
As one contemplates these exhortations, some objections come to mind. These include Jude’s exhortation to “contend for the faith,” Paul’s “disputings” with the Jews throughout his ministry, and clear cases of confrontation (as when Paul rebukes Elymas the sorcer). I’ll consider these in upcoming posts. When all is said and done, I hope that you will join me in shaping your ministry of God’s word in the light of Paul’s exhortation in 2 Tim 2.