It is 8:45 and Dr. Seymour Johnson, a forty-ish, exciting professor-author from the state university, summarizes the evening’s lecture on “Ethical Values in an Unethical Age” by saying:

And so we conclude that the Indian, the Chicano, the Black, and the Italian have fallen heir to neither their constitutional nor statutory rights because Whitey, the only and ultimate source of value for ethnic groups in our country, has aborted his social, ethical, and legal responsibility.

You muse on this briefly, realize others are applauding, then pick up your notebook and coat and slip out the rear exit, remembering your 9:00 obligation elsewhere.

“But that’s not true!” you say to yourself. “No man nor group of men ultimately provides the values and determines the worth of anyone else. God does that. If man did, it would require but a stroke of the legislative or judicial pen to deprive others of that worth, as indeed we see repeatedly in history. I’m going back to talk with him about that.”

“No, maybe I shouldn’t. He’s a lot smarter than I am—I’d simply make a fool of myself. Besides, arguing only drives wedges between people; it never accomplishes anything. And he does have a right to his opinion.”

So the opportunity to challenge a questionable statement slips through your fingers.

Some Christians think it is unseemly to argue about God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. They may maintain that the Christian may discuss but not argue.

I will attempt to show, however, that (1) debate, argument, is a God-given method of inquiry, and is no more immoral than a plumber’s wrench or the back seat of a Mustang, though both may be used for immoral ends; and (2) not only may the Christian argue within the will of God, but sometimes he must unless he is willing to permit error to go unchallenged.


Argument might be loosely defined as a verbal attempt to get a receiver to accept a viewpoint. The New Testament has two Greek words for it: eris and dialegomai.The first of these suggests strife and contention—negative qualities for the Christian, as Paul, the only user of the word, clearly shows (e.g., Rom. 1:29 and Titus 3:9). The second word means debating, mingling thought with thought—the sort of thing that went on at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), or when Paul confronted the Areopagus or Felix (Acts 17:17; 24:25).

A well-constructed argument has three essentials. First, a thesis: “Jesus was in fact the Christ”; “The ultimate solution to interpersonal problems lies in God, not guns”; or “Jones can do that job better than Brown can.” Second, evidence to support the thesis, such as statistics, examples, and quotations. Finally, argument requires a spokesman, a person who (1) has done his homework and has a good foundation for his position, (2) respects his opponent, and (3), for purposes of this discussion, is empowered, controlled, by the Holy Spirit. Assumed in all this is the ability to handle the language.

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So much for the nature of argument. Now, what precedents has the believer for using it?

If one confines himself to Scripture alone, he soon discovers a host of witnesses and practitioners who found argument indispensable to their ministry. Why? Because in a sense God needs us. He needs spokesmen who can use nature and rhetorical art to awaken wandering men.

Aristotle and John Stuart Mill declared that truth and justice are inherently stronger than their opposites. But most of us today, on empirical grounds, would reply that life does not bear out this hope, at least in the short haul. Twelve million Jews who lost their lives in Germany, Poland, and elsewhere in the 1930s and ’40s bear eloquent testimony to this. False impressions need correcting. Gaps in data must be supplied. Incorrect conclusions must be challenged. So argument finds its place.

The biblical writers clearly perceived this truth. We must not only go forth into all the world and proclaim but must also be ready to answer every man who asks us reasons for the hope within (1 Pet. 3:15). When challenged, we must have done our homework in order to meet the cross-examination of a thinking person or to refute his error. Indeed, Jude mandated his readers to “contend for the faith,” because ungodly men “pervert the grace of God and deny our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Furthermore, we need argument to get more facts in order to make important decisions. Getting facts often requires argument about the procedure for obtaining them, their significance, and the like. If the Christian held that argument was morally wrong, he would be hypocritical to build on the foundation of non-Christians who through argument obtained facts that were useful to the Christian. Suppose, for example, that the local police and prosecuting attorney were in league with the numbers racket, and the attorney’s office suppressed evidence important to an investigation. Prosecution would be nearly impossible. The Christian layman and lawyer would have not only the right but also the obligation to contest this suppression.

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Then we also have precedent for it in the way Scripture pictures the search for truth. Take for example that famous invitation of Isaiah 1:18, “Come now and let us reason [argue] together, says the Lord. Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.”

We counter, “Impossible! I have done too much!”

GOD: “It is possible if I say it is. I have done more at Calvary than you have even thought of.”

WE: “That’s ridiculous, God. I have blasphemed your name, ridiculed those who follow you, lied, stolen, cheated, played musical beds. How can simply praying to one I have never seen have any possible connection with the things I have done?”

GOD: “All this I know, my son, and more. But as far as the East is from the West, so far will I remove your sins—if you want me to.”

And so the debate rages, sometimes for years. It will never end in a stalemate. We will lose every time, though we may think we have the better end of it.

Jesus never hesitated to argue with people if that was the most effective means of getting at the heart of the matter. As a great teacher, however, he was never interested simply in mental gymnastics, as were medieval schoolmen; his goal was to tear down barriers men erect against God. He not only warded off the attacks of opponents but thrust his points to the heart of his foes, as a fencer jabs with a rapier. He used reproach, fiery indignation, even sarcasm, and so effectively that at times his opponents slinked off with their tails between their legs. They feared to engage him in the mortal combat he handled so well.

Unlike Socrates and Aristotle, who were more concerned about the intellectual search for truth than for the searcher himself, Jesus sought to bring men into the life more abundant. Exposé of fallacies did not suffice. Commitment and discipleship were his goals. He sought always to get at the essence of the questions, sometimes passing by the outward form of them—as with Nicodemus (John 3) or the woman at the well (John 4)—to probe the depths. He knew which points to explore and which to avoid. The cutting edge of his argument pealed away the mishmash and phony fronts men hide behind so that many could say, “No man ever spoke like this man!” (John 7:46).

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Probably some of us secretly wish that Jesus had not argued so much. We prefer the gentle Jesus meek and mild. Matthew’s account (23) mystifies us as we see Jesus lash out at the scribes and Pharisees with, “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites” (“hypocrites”six times), “You blind fools …,” “You serpents.…” Their boxed-in God vexed him and broke his heart—a picture that never embarrassed the writers who saw him as one pressing hard for truth and changed lives.

Following the Ascension the early Church was nearly torn apart on the critical issue of law versus grace (Acts 15). Imagine the debate in that first ecumenical council as the radicals (Peter and Paul) contended with the conservatives (the Judaizers) about the essence of the Gospel! Certainly the apostles spoke with all the power they could muster. They did not see moral fervor as evil, and neither should we. To be lukewarm in such matters compromises the righteousness of God.


But one need not look far to discover problems in arguing. Perhaps the most difficult for the Christian to handle is that of pride or simply wanting to win. He loses his perspective, forgetting that love seeks not its own benefit, and that on most issues he sees through a glass darkly.

“But one may also see, in arguments, a flaring of tempers,” protest some. Of course! And so it was with Jesus, Paul, and a million servants of God who have confronted men with truth in Jesus Christ. If ideas grip a speaker and they become part of him, he cannot dissociate himself from them, nor can his opponent. The communicator will feel threatened and so will his listener, because an attack on the idea often appears as an attack upon the man himself. Someone has said that “the love of truth is humanly inseparable from the wish to spread the belief in what one holds to be true.” While I may wish to distinguish the idea from the desire to propagate it and from myself, seldom in the heat of battle will I succeed. Voices will rise, tempers will flare.

Some will counter that argument accomplishes very little; hence it is unnecessary in the long scheme of things. For them the encounter of truth and error is like unhomogenized milk: truth will rise to the top while error settles at the bottom.

Not so. Shapers of public opinion—radio-TV, newspapers, spokesmen for a dozen causes, yes, and also other Christians (as Paul found repeatedly)—are often on the side of the Enemy. Unless God’s man and woman wage an uphill battle, the fortress at the summit will surely remain in the Enemy’s hands. Truth, often suppressed by sin and ignorance (Romans 1:18), needs effective spokesmen if it is to prevail, as Augustine clearly pointed out in Book IV of his De Doctrina Christiana.

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Unnecessary wrangling may come because one has not wisely picked his audience. He can waste valuable time and energy if he argues with the wrong person or at the wrong time, and Scripture points out that reasoning with a fool provokes laughter and rage (Prov. 29:9).

“I don’t feel up to it. I don’t have the training or the knowledge. Someone will ask questions I could never answer. I’ll just let my life speak for Him,” some will plead.

Of course you are not worthy of serving as God’s messenger. Who is? Who would claim enough goodness, justice, and mercy to tell of His greatness? Furthermore, anyone who thinks his life is consistent enough, Christhonoring enough, to lead another automatically to the Saviour is either a trifle naïve or a little self-righteous, or both. Ask a man’s wife how consistently holy he is, or query the husband about his wife.

If it is true that one who does not work should not eat (2 Thess. 3:10), so it is true that one who does not study should not argue. We should read, do our homework—and not just in the Bible, for our opponents will seldom start with that premise.

Other Christians contend that debate and argument never won anybody to the Kingdom, so we should eschew them.

To this, several replies are needed. First, what does the objector mean by “debate and argument”? Wrangling and ’tis-’tain’t bickering, or giving reasons for the position one holds? None of us would defend the former, but most of us would the latter. Second, upon what grounds does he think that no one was ever won by argument? Acts shows the contrary when Paul argued in Thessalonica, Athens (Socrates’ hometown), and Corinth (17:1–4, 16 ff., 18:1–17). Indeed, the churches in two of these cities were born in argument. Third, what is our purpose in life? Is it to win converts or to bring honor to God? Manifestly, the latter, though we are happy if the two mesh (Eph. 4:15). One seeks then to bring home accuracy, precision, and insight, all the while remembering Plato’s statement, “What I say may not be the truth, but the truth is something very much like this.”

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What, finally, results from the Christian’s contending in a God-honoring way? Several things, both negative and positive.

In the first place he may lose the argument, not only because he may not have adequately prepared himself but because he may defend the wrong position or use shoddy arguments and evidence. He then deserves to lose. All of us have lost some encounters, but the losses can teach us to regroup our intellectual forces and find better ways of handling the situation and ourselves. Or we may win the battle but lose the war—or lose the battle and ultimately emerge victorious in war.

Further, we may come away looking stupid. But the Christian is called to be a fool for Christ’s sake (1 Cor. 4:10)—though not to be a fool, period. He must be willing to be thought stupid because of his radical belief that man apart from the Master is monotonously sinful.

He may also lose a friend. The truth of the Cross empowered by the Holy Spirit alienates, hurts, and often drives a wedge in friendships, even in family relationships. But the arguer must make certain that it is the offense of the Cross and not that of his personality. Few of us really enjoy having enemies, but we shall have them if we stand for important matters. (We cannot turn the other cheek if no one has yet struck us on the first one.) If our opponent refuses to accept the eternal truth of Scripture, ultimately we can do nothing except pray for and love him. At the same time the believer would do well to remember Aldous Huxley’s statement that “facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”

Fortunately, we can also point to positive results. Initially, debate runs the chance of falling on good soil, springing up, and leading the listener to a fuller perspective on God and truth. And what could be more important! Not only is God honored because of such changes, but this rational approach coupled with love and respect for one’s opponent (Eph. 4:15) assumes a higher view of man than that held by the demagogue or propagandist, for it places a premium on his cerebral processes. The propagandist’s low perception of men as objects to manipulate projects him into the role of the pied piper.

Moreover, argument can help preserve its own constitutional right. If we do not exercise this prerogative, the privilege of free speech may seem unimportant to those extremists who wish to remove it. What many people use, one can usurp only with great difficulty. Liberals take pot shots at conservatives and vice versa, and each with its dissent helps keep alive the privilege of open and free encounter of ideas.

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Then, too, social reform can come from the intellectual encounter of two people, and often does, as we know from the Luther-Eck encounter in Leipzig (1521) or from the long and difficult slave-trade debates of England’s William Wilberforce.

Furthermore, one’s own position will often change. Significantly, some of the strongest, most effective Christians on the contemporary scene are men and women who attended colleges and universities where they were forced to listen to contrary views and question them. I do not mean we should compromise on the key points of sin, redemption, the deity of Christ, and the like; what can give way are the trivia that too often occupy us. Heresy and contrary views force us to rethink our positions.

In the dynamic process of change, one or two facts lodge in one’s mind. Then a chance comment by a trusted friend or an article by a respected author will make a similar point, though perhaps on quite a different subject. Later one may see in life an extreme application of his own position that shocks and embarrasses him. In the end he shifts, not over to his opponent’s side, but to a modified position. And perhaps his opponent, too, will move closer toward the truth.

Let us not shirk our Christian responsibility to try to correct error. But when we differ with others, let us do it not with spite or vengeance but with the spirit of Christ. In a sense the believer, like Socrates, is a midwife in the world of sacred thought, for he seeks to bring to light truth as he perceives it. If he loves and respects others, he has a clear mandate to do his forensic part.

Perhaps, dear reader, you should have talked with Dr. Johnson after all.

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