Debating: Why And Now

By Ron Halbrook

The Bible commends debating and teaches the proper attitudes to guide us in this good work. Many people including some so-called “gospel” preachers have watered-down concepts of truth and watered-down convictions against error. Therefore, we frequently hear it said that it is not right or proper for the Bible to be debated. We hear that gospel preachers should avoid it at all cost. We hear Christians should stay away from all debates. We hear it said that two subjects should never be discussed in “polite” company: religion and politics. It is said that debating is not approved by the “meek and mild” Christ – that the inspired apostles do not authorize it – that true Christian attitudes forbid it.

To Debate Or Not To Debate?

Paul said such a time as this would come, and it has! “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables” (2 Tim. 4:3-4). As the New American Standard Version says, they will want “to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires. ” As Moffatt translates, “. . . people will decline to be taught sound doctrine, they will accumulate teachers to suit themselves and tickle their own fancies.”

People’s ears are itching for easy, soft, smooth teaching. There are plenty of preachers willing to supply the necessary compromised, watered-down, lenient teaching which tickles the itching ears! As in the days when Israel mixed human teaching with divine law, the preachers today say, “Peace, peace: when there is no peace,” and the “people love to have it so!” (Jer. 6:14; 5:31) A “gospel preacher” is no longer expected to challenge error in its strongholds and its citadels; instead, he is expected to grin and play dead like a possum in the face of error. It is “unchristian” to debate, so we must either pretend that issues between truth and error do not exist or else that such issues do not matter very much. Ignorance is considered bliss by the people, and silence is considered golden by the preachers.

The modern idea about what is “Christian” or what the Lord approves is a far cry from Bible teaching. Jude 3 still teaches us to “earnestly contend for the faith” or for the gospel of Christ. The dictionary says to debate is to contend in words, to discuss a question by considering opposing arguments or views. Since the gospel contradicts every form of sin and every system of error, debate is necessary to save souls. It may or may not include formal propositions and rules of procedures. It may be public or private, written or spoken. Debate is a verbal study, answer, defense, or discussion. Paul was “set for” it, Peter said to be “always ready” to engage in it (Phil. 1:17; 1 Pet. 3:15). All Christians engage in debate from time to time in their efforts to spread and to defend the gospel.

Some people quote Romans 1:29 (King James Version) in an effort to prove all public debate sinful. But the word “debate” (Greek word eris) here does not mean a public discussion in which two sides of an issue are presented clearly and defended with a sense of urgency. The word indicates malicious fussing and feuding which seeks, not the salvation of souls, but harm and destruction to others. Envy, brawling, and deceit are bound up with such bitterness and ugly strife. A standard dictionary of Greek words explains “debate” in Romans 1:29 as “the expression of enmity” or hatred. It might be translated “quarrel” – an unfriendly, angry, or violent dispute. Any type discussion (family, religious, business, etc.) can degenerate into such malignant wrangling when men lose sight of love for truth, for each other, and for the Lord. But a debate or discussion which is centered around a desire to know, believe, and obey divine truth, and which therefore is an expression of love, is in no way related to the expression of enmity condemned in Romans 1:29.

Debaters in the New Testament

Our Lord debated, disputed, and discussed the things concerning his kingdom throughout his ministry. He did it in a spirit of genuine love, but that kind of love is poorly understood today. Men have always been amazed, even dismayed, at such love. “And his disciples remembered that it was written, the zeal of thine house hath eaten me up” (Jn. 2:17).

On Pentecost after Jesus arose, “the wonderful works of God” for man’s salvation were preached in many languages by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-15). Some who heard the Good News challenged the speakers (vv. 12-13). They were debating – offering verbal arguments. After hearing both sides of the discussion, hearts and minds were 40ff). From this time on, repeatedly the preaching of the gospel included debating – striving against the arguments raised to question the gospel, striving for the whole counsel of God.

“The gospel does not have to be debated, it can take care of itself,” we sometimes hear. It is true that none of us is indispensable to God, but God himself gave Christians the responsibility to spread the truth in the face of all opposition. That includes even the duty to be militant, to be aggressive, i.e., to debate! Paul was not indispensable, but notice how he fulfilled his duty. He disputed or debated concerning the gospel “in the synagogue,” and “for three months” at one place, even “daily in the school of one Tyrannus” (Acts 17:17; 19:8-9).

Every New Testament epistle advocates the truth and specifically disputes some error concerning the gospel. Not one of them identifies earnest and sincere discussion as wrong or useless. Paul and Barnabus had “no small” disputation with erring brethren at Antioch. They traveled to Jerusalem, where the matter was vigorously debated with “much disputing.” Peter put his hand to this good work with Paul (Acts 15). The text uses the word “disputing” and Greek dictionaries use the word “debate” in defining that action. See other examples in Acts 24:10-25:8 and 26:1-2, 24.

Proper Debating

Cars, guns, Bibles, and debates can be abused – that does not make the thing itself wrong. The Bible warns against the abuse of preaching and debating. (1) Philippians 1:15-17 shows that wrong motives and attitudes must be avoided. Love of truth, souls, and Christ must prevail. (2) Wrong propositions should be avoided (1 Tim. 1:4). “Fables and endless genealogies” are not proper subjects for preaching or debating. Matters that do not affect Bible doctrine should not be debated.

Those who engage in public debate should require of themselves the highest possible standards of conduct. They should not deviate from the format agreed upon, simply because they see in this a way to escape the job of defending some belief which has come under severe review. Mere wrangling can be avoided by devotion to learn and know the truth, rather than devotion to creating excitement or a reputation. Personality contests can be avoided by sticking to the issue at hand, though this may involve reference to the person who teaches the error, rather than attempting to cloud the issue by personal references designed to create prejudice, hatred, or suspicions regarding matters unrelated to the issue at hand.

Propositions should be worded carefully and examined fairly by both parties. In order to have the clearest possible presentation of both sides of an issue, each man should be willing to affirm his own position – i.e., to sign an affirmative proposition in the event of a formal debate. It may be difficult at times to agree to the wording of two, opposite affirmative propositions, or a single proposition may suffice for other reasons. When in the negative, each speaker should attempt to deal with the material presented by the opposite party, rather than simply making his own affirmative speech or passing off the opposite arguments with ridicule or laughter. Each person should try to present his points clearly and with force, and personal offense should not be taken when the opposite party presses his point with all his might. In all matters relating to such discussions, both parties should conduct themselves as gentlemen. In keeping with the “golden rule” of Jesus, each should treat the other as he wishes to be treated (Luke 6:31).

Just as all conduct should be regulated by the “golden rule,” the format of public discussion should be regulated by the honorable standards suggested in Hedge’s Rules of Debate or similar formulations. Hedge’s seventh rule is especially appropriate: “As truth, and not victory, is the professed object of controversy, whatever proofs may be advanced, on either side, should be examined with fairness and candor; and any attempt to ensnare an adversary by the arts of sophistry, or to lessen the force of his reasoning, by wit, caviling, or ridicule, is a violation of the rules of honorable controversy.” The second rule urges each person to sincerely seek for truth and to regard his opponent as having a sincere “desire for the truth.” If our opponent’s conduct proves to be “unreasonable and wicked, ” we should not be thrown off balance, over react, or return evil for evil (2 Thess. 3.2). We can rebuke and repudiate such conduct and still be “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matt. 10:16; Acts 13:10).

The perception and propagation of divine truth must be our unalterable goal in controversy; whether it be public or private, formal or informal. When such is the case, and the goal of personal victory is laid aside, only good can result. Gospel preachers and all Christians should encourage t he honorable defense of sound doctrine, rather than trying to suit the fancies of those who have itching ears.

Guardian of Truth XXXII: 19, pp. 586-587
October 6, 1988