“Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (I Corinthians 1:20-21).
At times I have run into people who argue against the use of public debates in the defense of the gospel. From their viewpoint, debates cause contentions between people and don’t resolve disputes. Sometimes II Timothy 2:24-26 is cited where Paul said, “a servant of the Lord must not quarrel.” The problem with this viewpoint is that it places Paul against himself. When faced with teachers attempting to bind the Law of Moses on Christians, “Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them” (Acts 15:2). Are we prepared to tell Paul that he was wrong to debate this issue with the Jewish Christians? Was it wrong for the church in Jerusalem to debate the issue as recorded in Acts 15:7?
The word which is translated as “debate” in several translations is the Greek word suzetesis. It, and the related words suzeteo and suzetetes, refer to sharp discussions, disputes, or questioning. When Jesus presented difficult points, it often resulted in debates among his listeners (Mark 1:27; 9:10). The two disciples Jesus met on the road to Emmaus were engaged in a debate (usually translated discussing, reasoning, or questioning) over recent events.
We also find debates occurring between believers and unbelievers. When the disciples were unable to cast out a demon, the scribes used the opportunity to debate them (Mark 9:14-29). Some Jews attempted to debate Stephen, but they could not match his wisdom (Acts 6:9-10). Jews of Greek origin also debated Paul with no better success (Acts 9:29). Apollos became an accomplished debater after his conversion (Acts 18:27-28).
Those who argue against debates fail to distinguish between reasoned arguments and strife. Strife is condemned in the Scriptures, but debates are accepted.
Paul instructs both Timothy and Titus repeatedly to avoid situations which lead to strife. It is an important topic for preachers since they often find themselves at odds with others. Even Christians who are not preachers can learn to be more selective about the things they choose to argue. All people in close relationships eventually have disagreements, but all disagreements are not worth battling over.
Foolish Disputes (I Timothy 6:4; II Timothy 2:23; Titus 3:9)
Controversy based on ignorance and illogic does not benefit anyone, Yet there are many who will engage in arguments without examining their stand. “But avoid foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they generate strife” (II Timothy 2:23). It is useless to engage such people in a debate since there is little with which to work. This is why the next verse tells Christians not to quarrel. You cannot reason with someone who is unreasonable or ignorant. You cannot properly defend a matter about which you know little.
Myths or Fables (I Timothy 1:4; 4:7; Titus 1:14)
In order to void churning in unproductive arguments, we must carefully choose the topics we will address. Make sure you have sufficient Scriptural basis before engaging in an argument. What use is it to argue over whether Jesus was born in April or August? It might be interesting to look at some of the evidence, but to hold that it must be one particular month is demanding more than what God has told us. I have heard people argue that those serving on the Lord’s Table must wear a suit and tie. Another held the view that saying a prayer before the collection was unscriptural. Most of these topics are not worth debating because they are based upon personal opinion. “As I urged you when I went into Macedonia--remain in Ephesus that you may charge some that they teach no other doctrine, nor give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith” (I Timothy 1:3-4). When arguments are not based on a standard, there is no method available to arrive at the truth.
Mosaical Law (Titus 3:9)
Since the Law of Moses has ended (Ephesians 2:14-15; Colossians 2:13-14; Hebrews 8:13), it would be a waste of time to argue about the subtle nuances of the Jewish law. There are things in the law which help our understanding of the law of Christ (Romans 15:4), but to argue about which sacrifice should be offered for a particular sin is not a productive use of time.
Commandments of Men (I Timothy 6:3; Titus 1:14)
Arguments about laws which men create is also a fruitless task. Man-made laws are based on individual standards and not the standards of God. For example, to argue whether priests should wear collars or not is not a practical use of your time. The New Testament does not recognize a special class of Christians called priests; all Christians are priests (I Peter 2:5,9). To argue about clothing requirements for a non-existent class of Christians is unproductive. Most Catholics view the Scriptures as one of several sources of authority. Catholics can prove their beliefs by citing sources outside of the Scriptures, but not necessarily from the Scriptures alone. A debate where each side proves his point by different standards is pointless.
Topics Which Have No Conclusion (I Timothy 1:4; Titus 3:9)
Some topics can never be fully settled because insufficient information is given to reach a final conclusion. Genealogies are a prime example of such topics. There are many genealogies given in the Bible and they serve a useful purpose, but we must remember that none of the genealogies are complete. For example, everyone has both a mother and a father, but most of the lineages in the Bible only follow one parent since they have a specific idea to prove. Some lineages have odd loops because people of different generations intermarry (try mapping out the Herod family sometimes). To spend time arguing over fine points of genealogy is fruitless because it misses the whole point as to why the genealogies are given in the Scriptures. They do not exist for their own sake, but to prove greater points.
Other topics can fall into this same category. Arguing over the number of wings angels have or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin are classic examples. Some of the topics that Christians have argued for years actually revolve around what is not said in the Scriptures. To debate about differences over what is not said is unproductive. For example, one raging debate at the time of this writing revolves around “When does a divorce take place?” Some argue that it is when a person decides to divorce, others say it is when the divorce papers are filed, and still others say it is when the divorce is made final by a judge. The truth of the matter is that the Scriptures do not state what constitutes “putting away” a spouse. Hence, arguing over this detail is an argument that will never end.
Worldly Matters (I Timothy 4:7; 6:20; II Timothy 2:16)
Generally translated as “profane babblings,” the word refers to things of a worldly origin. Many denominations are engaged in debates about whether to accept homosexuals as members of their clergy or whether living together before marriage should be called a sin. Such things are not up for debate because God clearly states His position on sin. The sole reason it is being debated among the denominations is because of the acceptance of some of these sins by worldly people. The denominations believe they will gain more members if they display tolerance for certain practices. Such views are empty-headed nonsense and not worth the effort to debate. Instead, a solid “thus says the Lord” is more than sufficient.
Empty Talk (I Timothy 6:20; II Timothy 2:16)
Some people get caught up in arguments to which there is no point. I remember a Catholic priest wanted to discuss whether the grass was green on the hill where Jesus gave the sermon on the mount. His goal was to establish authority for extra-biblical sources, but the problem was that it really doesn’t matter if the grass was green or brown from a drought. The condition of the grass does not change the meaning of Jesus’ words. I have had more than one person want to argue whether the cross Jesus died upon was “t” shaped or a straight pole. My response has always been, “What difference will it make if we settle on a shape?” Usually, I am told, “none,” but they still want to argue the point.
Arguments over empty words only serve to divide people and to keep Christians from using their time productively and addressing real issues.
Strife About Words (I Timothy 6:4; II Timothy 2:14)
Sometimes we lose our focus over the issues between ourselves and others and we spend more time arguing who’s dictionary is right than what is right. The meaning of words is important, but ultimately we must realize that dictionaries are extra-biblical sources. Fortunately, most definitions can be established by the context in which they are used. The vast majority of dictionaries agree on most words. Yet many people will take firm stances on meanings they do not have the background to judge.
As an example, many Jehovah Witnesses have reference books which give the wrong definition to the word “earth” in II Peter 3:10. To enter into a debate where they appeal to their reference material and you appeal to your reference material is a debate that will not be settled. Since both reference works are works of men, there will be no conclusion. However, if you appeal to how the word is used in other contexts within the Scriptures, you may be able to persuade others of the truth.
Contentious People (I Timothy 6:3-5; Titus 3:9)
Christians must also be aware that some are not interested in promoting the truth, they are only interested in promoting themselves. Such people use arguments as an attempt to draw more followers to themselves.
Similarly, there are people who enjoy arguing for the sake of arguing. They will take a contrary stand simply to stir up strife. Their enjoyment comes from the clashing of ideas and not from locating the truth.
Contrary People (I Timothy 6:20-21; Titus 3:10-11)
There are also people who take delight in finding fault instead of finding the truth. They will spend hours searching for supposed contradictions. While Christians must always be ready to defend the truth, we must realize that skeptics are not interested in the truth. The Christian should answer, but not argue because the arguments will never cease.
“The first one to plead his cause seems right, until his neighbor comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17). There is a natural advantage to the first speaker in a debate. Yet if the truth is being sought, all sides of a matter must be considered. When some argued that Christians had to be circumcised and follow the law of Moses, the leaders of the church looked into the matter and spent time debating the issue before arriving at their conclusion (Acts 15:5-7).
Issues must be clearly defined if a productive discussion is going to take place. In formal debates, the two parties make statements that affirm or deny an issue. Often games are played in establishing those statements. A good debate can take place when the difference is clearly expressed. Ideally, the affirmative statement is something the person believes is true. The denial statement is something a person believes is false. For example, we could affirm that “Baptism by immersion saves a person” and deny that “Baptism by sprinkling or pouring brings salvation to a person.” The issue then is the difference in how baptism is administered. Some debaters, to put their opponent in an awkward position, will insist that they affirm the negative of what they deny. Using the same example, to affirm that “A person who is sprinkled or poured upon is not saved” and to deny that “A person can be saved without being immersed” is more difficult to defend. At first, they appear to be the similar stances, but consider this: Was Abraham saved by baptism? You see the double negative hides broad interpretations.
Many of the positions that Christians affirm are not denied by people in the denominations. I don’t know anyone who will say that a baptized believer is not saved. They will say that baptism is not necessary, but they will not claim that it is harmful. Hence, to keep any debate productive, whether formal or informal, the difference must be clearly expressed. Without a clear understanding of where we stand, we can easily be pulled into idle talk. “Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith, from which some, having strayed, have turned aside to idle talk, desiring to be teachers of the law, understanding neither what they say nor the things which they affirm” (I Timothy 1:5-7).
Proper defense of the Gospel requires men who are not angered by poorly expressed positions. “But avoid foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they generate strife. And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will” (II Timothy 2:23-26). The goal of all debates is to instruct – either the one being debated or the audience watching the debate. In either case, anger does not productively instruct other people (James 1:20).
It is very tempting to bolster your case by tearing down your opponent. Usually, people will stoop to this tactic when they feel they are in a poor position, as the Pharisees did to the blind man in John 9:24. But I have seen people with solid positions do the same. Such is not proper. Paul tells us “to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men” (Titus 3:2). It does not matter who is right, but what is right. Far too many preachers and debaters spend more time attacking the character of their opponent than dealing with the issue of disagreement.
Proof in a debate must be offered from a common source that all agree is authoritative. For Christians defending the gospel, our source is the Bible. “If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God” (I Peter 4:11). A solid, logical use of the Scriptures is hard to avoid. “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (II Corinthians 10:4-5). If we place our confidence in the word of God, we will not find ourselves cornered in an indefensible position.
The writer of Proverbs warns, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes” (Proverbs 26:4-5). At first glance, the two statements appear to be contradictory, but they are not and the difference is important. When responding to a foolish argument in a debate, do not respond by making the same mistake. If it is dumb for him, then it will not improve when you use the same method. At the same time, an opponent should be treated as he acts. An opponent who makes reasoned, though incorrect arguments should be treated with respect. But an opponent who makes silly responses should have his lack of reasoning exposed, even though it may embarrass him before others. As an example, I once had a fellow argue that baptism took place under the Old Testament. Since the Old Testament is no longer in effect, then baptism is no longer in effect. My response was in kind. David prayed while living under the Old Testament Law. Since the Old Testament is no longer in effect, are you willing to say that prayer is not in effect under Christ’s law? The answer was so embarrassingly obvious the gentleman refused to discuss the matter further.