Fundamentalism—and conservative Christianity in general—needs more people who argue well. It does not need more people who quarrel well!
Scripture opposes quarreling, along with the behaviors the KJV renders as “strifes, backbitings, whisperings, swellings” and “tumults” (2 Cor. 12:20). But arguing is something else. Scripture calls us to argue and to do it well. Every Christian is obligated to develop and exercise the skill of thinking and communicating clearly with the goal of persuasion.
With that as a working definition of argue, let’s consider a few basics for arguing better.
Argue for the right reasons.
Why do people argue? Unflattering reasons come quickly to mind. As sinners, we often argue to gain the esteem of others, to defeat someone we don’t like, or to try to win an imagined (or real) competition for loyal supporters. Sometimes people argue because they have a contrarian disposition and enjoy the challenge and repartee. (For these, the question is not “Why argue?” but “Why not argue?”)
But for Christians, the proper goal of argument is to establish the truth or rightness of ideas or actions.
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 (NKJV, 2 Tim. 2:24–25).
Here, Paul instructs Timothy to avoid quarreling but to engage in teaching and correcting—forms of persuasive speaking—with the ultimate goal that others “may know the truth.”
But the goal of argument is not limited to external persuasion. Skilled argument is also important to the inner life of the Christian. “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind” (KJV, Rom. 14:5). Romans 14 emphasizes the need for Christians to seek not only an accurate understanding of biblical principles but also an accurate understanding of how those principles apply.
Accomplishing that goal requires the ability to argue for and against alternatives in the courtroom of the mind.
And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent. (NKJV, Phil. 1:9-10)
Discernment—the ability to distinguish between true, false, right and wrong—ought to be a growing skill in the life of believers. Arguing is integral to that skill.
Argue the right kind of questions.
The old adage says there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but the NT encourages us to question that. Paul warned Titus and Timothy against “foolish disputes” (Titus 3:9) and “foolish and ignorant disputes” (2 Tim. 2:23). In addition, 2 Timothy 2:16 targets “irreverent babble” (ESV) as leading only to increasing ungodliness, and Titus 3:9 warns that “strivings about the law” are “unprofitable and useless.”
Proverbs councils us that there are times when we should not “answer a fool according to his folly” (Prov. 26:4), though there are also times when we should (26:5).
So what kinds of questions are foolish? It’s probably easiest to identify this category in reverse, by elimination. Questions that concern details should not be categorically rejected as foolish. Highly detail-oriented questions are sometimes important (Does Christ have one nature or two?). We should also not categorize questions as useless on the grounds that they are highly divisive or concern matters that happened a long time ago (whether God created the world is both divisive and ancient history). Nor can we reject questions as foolish because they concern matters only a few understand (relatively few understand the doctrine of the Trinity thoroughly).
But some questions aren’t worth arguing because their answers are obvious to all who possess an inkling of sound judgment. Whether Christians should wander through neighborhoods killing kittens at random is a foolish question. Questions are also foolish if they are completely unanswerable (How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?) or if the answer has no importance. (See the previous example. But a word of caution here: it’s foolish to assume that if we can’t instantly see the importance of a question, it must therefore have no importance.)
In the end, there is no substitute for sound judgment about which matters are worth arguing about and which aren’t. But if the question is ridiculous or unanswerable, there is no way to argue it well.
Argue with the right people.
The SharperIron experience has slowly taught me a few things in this area that are probably obvious to most people. First, people believe only what they are willing to believe. Second, the process of argument has no direct access to anyone’s will. The combination of these two realities reveals a third: successful persuasion of someone with an opposite position is so rare, it’s usually not worth attempting. (I do say “usually.” Evangelism is essentially an effort to persuade, see Acts 17:2, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8-9; etc. And views do not get any more opposite than “believer in the gospel” vs. “unbeliever in the gospel.” See 1 Cor. 1:18.)
Arguing better—at least in any open setting (whether Internet forum, book, pamphlet, or public speaking venue)—requires that we make a distinction between whom we are arguing with and whom we are arguing to. Effective argument argues against the view opposite our own. But it argues to the people in the middle. When we understand that the most fertile ground is the relatively silent middle, we’re empowered to be much more patient when the anything-but-silent opposition proves intractable. Aiming to convince entrenched opponents is a recipe for frustration.
Arguing skillfully is complex topic requiring more lengthy attention—and really, everything in this essay fits under that umbrella. But a couple of essentials are worth mentioning here. Fundamentally, arguing well is engaging in two activities and doing so with two sets of skills. The two activities are supporting claims and answering objections. The two skill sets are clear thinking and (when the argument is not entirely within our own minds) effective communication. Lord willing, we’ll explore these—and other features of arguing better—in days ahead.