I enjoy debates. Which on occasion can be a good quality, but if being honest, more often than not, it just means I can excel at being obnoxious. It also seems I’m not alone with this condition. It turns out many Americans seem to share in appreciating the back and forth manner of argument. All one would have to do to confirm this general fascination is to recheck the record-breaking ratings for the presidential debates this past election cycle, and the manner by which they were conducted. Though you wouldn’t even have to go that far. In just visiting the most popular websites throughout the Internet from online newspapers, to Facebook, to YouTube, if you’re willing to scroll far enough down the page, you’ll be hard pressed not to bump into a raging argument in the comments section at some point, and some of those disputes might even include me. A wide variety of people engaged in disagreement, often polemic, behind the anonymity of a computer screen.
Unfortunately the debate culture can bleed into the church as well. Don’t get me wrong, I understand Peter, through the power of the Holy Spirit, encouraged us to ‘always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you’ but we often forget the second part of 1 Peter 3:15, ‘yet do it with gentleness and respect’, and when we forget the second half, we’ve failed to appreciate the dignity in which we should conduct the Christian witness.
I had a friend of mine from seminary tell me about how he got to visit and spend time with a lifelong Christian apologist. So I asked him how he found the experience, and while he was very thankful for the mentoring this man provided, my friend did say that this man seemed to have ‘a hard time turning it off…’. Basically what my friend had noticed is that while this man was a gifted apologist, and has had a fruitful ministry filled with contending for the faith, he seemed to struggle not to turn every discussion into an argument.
This is a shared problem. It’s not just found in great apologists, it’s found in the heart of every broken sinner – we want to be a people who contend, but we need to heed the words of God regarding the way we speak. If it can’t be done with gentleness and respect – then you can’t actually do it as God has asked. This can be liberating because it grounds our witness to be personal and engaging rather than polemic.
Paul touches on this idea in 1 Corinthians 13:2, “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all the mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing”. When I look back to many of the Gospel and truth centered conversations in my life, the most fruitful discussions always tend to be the ones most grounded in deep loving respect for the other individual. We are inherently relational, and we’ve all through our sin lost the pinnacle relationship man can enjoy… which is with our Triune God. We are better served to look at people not as having a litany of problems that we need to personally fix through argument – but as image-bearers who are missing out on the fullness that a relationship with God gives.
One example of this came early on in my walk as a believer when I was very involved in Mormon outreach. It’s an incredibly illogical religion. Frankly the Internet has done well to uncover lots of its fatal flaws, and it doesn’t take much to show the bevy of contradictions the Mormon worldview has when engaging with them. However, when I labored in this ministry I was often quite discouraged, and you might think I’m speaking of my dealings with the most entrenched and staunchest supporters, but that isn’t the case…
No, the most depressing interactions I had were with ex-Mormons who had uncovered enough to know the emperor wore no clothes in regard to Mormonism, because Christians along the way had successfully poked holes in their religion, but after losing the debate, they saw no reason to press forward in uncovering who the true Christ was. No they just handed themselves over to a spiritual agnosticism. They saw that they were wrong, but they never saw a love for Christ worth having in the ones who helped shatter the darkened lens by which they had viewed the world.
In witnessing, there will be the potential for contention. There likely will be moments where you have to take head-on the folly of other worldviews in rather direct ways, and yet if our doing that doesn’t also include a healthy dose of love, gentleness, and respect – you can win the argument, but lose the day. We are not a people trying to win a debate, but we are attempting to reflect the light and love of Christ, into the dark corners of the world. We have been graciously granted to eat from the living bread, and our desire is aid those starving around us to partake as well.