There is an attitude in the hearts of some Christians that regards debating as beneath the dignity of the followers of Christ and as detrimental to the spread of the Kingdom. The world regards debating with suspicion. This almost universal disapproval of religious debating outside the church has had its effect on the members of the church. For this reason it is good to examine the Scriptures to learn the true attitude one should have toward such matters.
Truth is in constant conflict with error. In view of this situation, what should be our disposition and action amid such a conflict?
Some of those who find debating obnoxious remonstrate with us when we try to reason with them by saying that “debating” is condemned in the Bible. They then quote Romans 1:29 and 2 Corinthians 12:20 from the King James Version: “Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness, full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers. . . .” “For I fear, lest, when I come, I shall not find you such as I would, and that I shall be found unto such as ye would not: lest there be debates, envyings, wraths, strifes, backbitings, whisperings, swellings, tumults.” The words “debate” and “debates” in these passages are pounced on to condemn religious discussion.
These words are translated “strife” in the American Standard Version. They are derived from a term which means “a disposition to be quarrelsome and contentious and is an outgrowth of enmity” (W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, IV:82). This is strife for its own sake and not discussion to learn the truth. Strife causes division. In fact, those engaged in it are divided and such conduct is inimical to real Christianity. But the idea of bringing truth and error into conflict is not in the word “debate” in the above passages. To condemn debating on the basis of these passages is to pervert the Scriptures.
Contend for the Faith
Jude’s exhortation to contend for the faith once for all delivered is most familiar to Christians. Yet, some brethren have not felt the impact of this passage for they have a distaste for debates. The word “contend” is compounded from two words. One means “about or upon”; the other means “a contest.” One engages in a contest as a combatant. Thus it follows that a Christian must intensely (indicated by earnestly in Jude 3) contest that opposed to the faith or the gospel. Obedience to this commandment makes it impossible for one to be a non-controversialist (emphasis added, sfd). Since error and truth are constantly in conflict, it follows that the Christian is and must be in constant conflict with all those who espouse the cause of error. This conflict of necessity involves controversy.
The word “defense” occurs in a number of passages and means a verbal answer made in favor of one or his belief. An examination of some passages in which the word occurs will aid us in arriving at its meaning.
“Some indeed preach Christ even of envy and strife; and some also of good will: the one do it of love, knowing that I am set for the defense of the gospel; but the other proclaim Christ of faction, not sincerely, thinking to raise up affliction for me in my bonds” (Phil. 1:15-17). Paul was set for the defense of the gospel. Whether against Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in intellectual Athens, or in a Jewish Synagogue, or before a heathen king, Paul made answer showing why the gospel should be accepted and the other systems rejected. When they remonstrated with him, he disputed with them. These disputes are studied elsewhere in this article.
On numerous occasions Paul had charges leveled against him. To these he made an answer or a defense. Festus laid the case of Paul before King Agrippa stating that Roman law provided for the accused to face his accusers and to make a defense, an answer (Acts 25:16). Paul made answer to the false teachers who tried to undermine his influence with the Corinthians but he called this answer his defense (1 Cor. 9:3). When attacked by a Jewish mob, Paul stood and made a defense (Acts 22:1). Finally, Paul stood alone in making his defense or answer in Rome (2 Tim. 4:16). These four incidents from the life of Paul should clearly indicate the essential meaning of defense. There is in the term the idea of putting two things side by side in order to determine which is right.
The truth is that no Christian can be loyal to the cause he espoused and fail to defend his position. “But sanctify in your hearts Christ as Lord: being ready always to give answer to every man that asketh you a reason concerning the hope that is in you, yet with meekness and fear” (1 Pet. 3:15). The word “answer” in this passage is the same word “defense” in the passages immediately above and could be translated apology.
The Good Fight
The word “fight” in 1 Timothy 6:12 and 2 Timothy comes from a word that originally meant “to lead, then to an assembly and finally a conflict or a contest” (Vine, ibid, II:94). Timothy, “fight the good fight of the faith.” Here then is a conflict or a contest involving the faith. He was to lead in this conflict in favor of the truth. Christianity is aggressive. The gospel is God’s might or ability to save the soul (Rom. 1:16). It expunges error from the heart and life and instills the wisdom of God. This is a mighty conflict! No true disciple can avoid the fight The life of a Christian is a fight of the faith.
When ready to lay his armor aside, Paul said tersely, “I have fought the good fight.” We shall have denied the Lord if we cannot so comment when we are about to depart. Yes, the Christian’s life is a militant battle with the forces of error whether in the form of false religions, perverted gospels, infidelity, or immorality.
Dispute or Reason
“For three Sabbath days” Paul reasoned from the Scriptures with the Thessalonian Jews (Acts 17:2). Likewise at Corinth he reasoned in the synagogue seeking to persuade both Jews and Greeks (Acts 18:4). Whether in the synagogue with Jews and religious persons, or in the marketplace with any who would talk, Paul reasoned seeking to win people to Christ through his argumentation (Acts 17:17; 19:8, 9; 18:19). Before a ruler of this world he reasoned about righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come (Acts 24:25).
The word “reason” or “dispute” used in these above passages originally meant “to think differently about a thing with one’s self”; therefore, the idea of arguing or disputing with others was an easy transition in meaning. What Paul did when he reasoned was to argue or dispute with others. There is the interplay of truth and error with the idea being to cause truth to stand out in contrast. Truth is made to shine brightly when set beside error. Error appears in darkness when set against the real light of truth. May no Christian shrink back from this worthy effort of arguing for the truth!
Proving the Point
Confounding the Jews at Damascus, Paul proved that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 9:22). A joining or compacting together is the idea of the word prove in the statement before us. The word “knit” in Ephesians 4:16 and Colossians 2:19 is from the same word. Thus Paul stirred up the Jews by “knitting” or compacting Scripture together to demonstrate to their minds that Jesus was the promised Messiah or Christ. Frequently, some one says that he does not like all this “skipping” from passage to passage. The idea in the passage before us is that Paul took various passages and knit them together and that which he compacted proved his point! The conclusion from such a joining together denies every false conclusion. It is therefore impossible to prove one point without arguing against the false notions on the same point. One cannot help being a controversialist.
It was amid “much conflict” that the Thessalonians first heard Paul preach the gospel (1 Thess. 2:2). From the shameful treatment at Philippi, Paul entered Thessalonica to be opposed by the jealous Jews, by vile fellows of the rabble and by an unruly mob who set the city in an uproar against the apostle (Acts 17:1-9). He was in continual conflict with the enemies of the gospel. But, today, in many quarters this kind of conflict would be vulgar and beneath the dignity of the gospel and the “respectability” we have gained of late. May God help us to the end that such warriors as Paul may always be with us and not ashamed to meet error head on.
“And when he was minded to pass over into Achaia, the brethren encouraged him, and wrote to the disciples to receive him: and when he had come, he helped them much that had believed through grace; for he powerfully confuted the Jews, and that publicly, showing by the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ” (Acts 18:27, 28). This word “confute” in the original is formed by a combination of three words: through, down, and to convict. Hence Paul met their opposing arguments in turn, brought them down to the ground and consequently brought their blame to them. He convicted them by this process of reasoning. He convicted by taking the arguments in turn and showing their falsity. This is a truly classic example of truth routing error and its exponent. Who said debating is sinful?
Contend, answer or apology, fight, reason or dispute, prove, conflict and confute are expressions used that demonstrate that debating is not foolish and wrong. A Christian is forced, if faithful to his duty, to debate the exponents of errors, to throw down his arguments that truth might stand in the eyes of men.
From Truth Magazine October 1956 (Vol. 1, No. 1)