Making Arrangements For A Public Debate

By Ron Halbrook

The suggestions offered here on making arrangements for a public debate do not come from an expert and are not absolute. They are meant to encourage and to equip some younger men who may become involved in public debate so that they will not make the mistakes I made.

For instance, my first public debate was with J. Watts, a “Full Gospel” or pentecostal-holiness preacher, 16-17 May 1969 at the Wooley Springs Church of Christ between Athens and Ardmore, Alabama. The subject was miracles. He brought few of his people to hear the discussion and walked out during one of my speeches on the second night, as he muttered, “This isn’t doing a bit of good. ” Though he had promised we would have two nights on instrumental music at his meeting place, we never got another word from him on it. The arrangements should have provided for the first debate to be at Mr. Watts church before his own audience. If there was no second debate, his people still would have been exposed to the truth. There would have been more incentive for the second debate if he had not yet appeared before our brethren in our meetinghouse.

Mr. Watts was eminently right about one thing: debating does false doctrine no good. The false teacher will soon learn this unpleasant lesson and will want to avoid further controversy. We must take that into account when we make the arrangements and construct them so as to give him some incentive to complete the discussion. We want to make it difficult and embarrassing for our opponent to discontinue the discussion. If we hope to have more than one debate, it is well to get him to sign several propositions before the first debate occurs. Then during the first debate, make repeated references to the other signed propositions and commend the opponent’s willingness to debate. Mr. Watts would have had far more incentive to debate again if I could have stood in his meeting place before his people with his signature on the next proposition.

Mr. Watts is to be commended for his willingness to engage in open study. He has already signed another proposition which says, ” . . . ” This shows him to be a man of courage and conviction. Such a man can be expected to keep his word and we look forward to having him speak before our brethren. Mr. Watts is not like these spineless preachers who run and hide from public discussion.

That speech was never made before Mr. Watts’ people because the first debate was not held in the best location and other important details were missing in the arrangements.

Helpful comments on good debating can be found in school textbooks on speech, logic, and debating. Hedge’s Rules of Logic is worth reading. His “Rules of Controversy” or “Rules of Debate” are included and explained in that book, and are briefly stated below. James D. Bales has provided a wealth of helpful information on various aspects of debating in such books as The Sufficiency of the Scriptures (Searcy, Ark.: Bales Bookstore, n.d.), Soils and Seeds of Sectarianism (Kansas City, Mo.: Old Paths Book Club, 1947; reprint Shreveport, La.: Lambert’s Book House, ii.d.), Christian, Contend For Thy Cause (Delight, Ark., Gospel Light Publ. Co., n.d.), and Jesus, The Master Respondent (Shreveport, La.: Lambert’s Book House, 1970). There is no better way to study debating than by reading debates in the Bible, in other books, and in journals; by attending debates and listening to them on tape; or by studying with such experienced debaters as Elmer Moore, A.C. Grider, Weldon Warnock, J.T. Smith and Larry Hafley.

In making arrangements for a debate, an agreement should be signed by each disputant, spelling out the responsibilities of the speakers, the moderators, and the audience. A sample “Agreement” is provided below. Notice that the format of the discussion is included. Some people may prefer four 30 minute speeches or some other arrangement, rather than the one given here. It is not necessary to read the agreement to the audience. If an infraction occurs, the pertinent section can be read publicly. A sample “Announcement” briefly explaining the roles of the speakers and of the audience is also provided. Notice that it precludes the audience participation used by some false teachers in an effort to disrupt the logical and intelligent process of debate. Proper arrangements contribute to successful and fruitful discussions.

Agreement Signed By Each Speaker

I. Responsibilities of the Speakers.

A. We agree to engage in honorable discussion of the matters specified in the propositions signed. Therefore, we shall adhere to the honorable standards of public discussion known as “Hedge’s Rules of Debate”:

Rule 1. The terms in which the question in debate is expressed, and the precise point at issue, should be so clearly defined that there could be no misunderstanding respecting them.

Rule 2. The parties should mutually consider each other as standing on a footing of equality in respect to the subject in debate. Each should regard the other as possessing equal talents, knowledge, and desire for the truth, with himself, and that it is possible, therefore, that he may be in the wrong and his adversary in the right.

Rule 3. All expressions which are unmeaning, or without effect in regard to the subject in debate, should be strictly avoided.

Rule 4. Personal reflections on an adversary should in no instance be indulged.

Rule 5. No one has a right to accuse his adversary of indirect motives.

Rule 6. The consequences of any doctrine are not to be charged on him who maintains it, unless he expressly avows them.

Rule 7. 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.

Rule 8. That in the final negative no new matter shall be introduced.

B. We agree in all matters relating to this discussion to conduct ourselves as gentlemen, in keeping with the “golden rule” of Jesus – each shall treat the other as he wishes to be treated (Luke 6:31).

C. The dates, times, and places shall be mutually agreed upon by the speakers.

D. The format of discussion for each proposition shall be:

25 min., lst Affirmative Speech

25 min., 1st Negative Speech

25 min., 2nd Affirmative Speech

25 min., 2nd or Final Negative Speech

10 min., Summary Speech by Affirmative Speaker (no new material to be presented)

10 min., Summary Speech by Negative Speaker (no new material to be presented)

E. No new material may be introduced in the Final Negative Speech of each proposition.

II. Responsibilities of the Moderators.

A. The speakers agree that each of us shall select our own moderator.

B. Each moderator shall be responsible to:

1. See that the speakers observe Hedge’s rules of debate and the “golden rule” of Jesus during the discussion.

2. See that the audience is orderly.

3. Keep the time for his own speaker.

C. In the event of a point of order:

1. The moderator alone shall call the point of order.

2. The two moderators alone shall have the floor until they agree upon the solution.

3. The speaker’s time will be held during a point of order, and shall resume when he continues his speech.

III. Responsibilities of the Audience.

A. The audience should give respectful attention to both speakers.

B. The audience should make no demonstration, either favorable or unfavorable.

C. The audience should avoid getting into heated discussion on the grounds before and after each session.

IV. It is agreed that the moderator of each affirmative speaker will read the appended “Announcement to Audience” and the proposition to be affirmed, before the discussion of each proposition commences.

Signatures of both participants

Announcement To Audience

1. Jesus said, “. . all things whatsoever ye would that men should to do you, do ye even so to them” (Matt. 7:12). The speakers have agreed to abide by that principle. We request that everyone in the audience will abide by it as wen in your conduct toward the speakers and other people who are attending the debate.

2. If you have never attended a religious debate, you should understand that each speaker is expected to be bold and forceful, both in presenting his own material and in testing the arguments of his opponent. Just because a speaker is vigorous in making a point, this does not mean that he is bitter or unkind. Jesus is the perfect example of love, yet he was often pointed and even severe in his speech (see for instance Matt. chapters 21-23). People who believe they have the truth are not afraid for it to be examined and will not be offended by the process of examination-in public debate.

3. The debaters have been selected because of their outstanding ability to represent their respective positions. The moderators are responsible to insure decorum on the part of everyone here, to rise to a point of order if necessary, and to settle any such dispute. The audience is here to listen and to learn.

Please listen quietly and respectfully, not only to the speaker you support but to both disputants. Remember that they are eminently qualified to present their material without any help from the audience. If you must call out from the audience to help the man you support, it means he is not adequate to do the job himself and needs some propping up. If you want to debate one of the disputants, you need to make your own arrangements at some other time and should not interrupt the present debate in order to try your hand at it.

To avoid any appearance of our audience getting out of order or attempting to prop up these excellent speakers, we ask that you do not speak out in the assembly to indicate approval or disapproval. Do not interrupt the disputants or the audience by speaking out in any fashion.

4. Let the debaters do the debating. Come every night so that you can hear them out fully. You may wish to exchange addresses and phone numbers with people you meet if you are interested in further study on the subject at hand. But please do not get into heated arguments with people you meet Ion the grounds here.

Signed By Disputants

Signed By Moderators

Guardian of Truth XXXII:21, pp. 654-655
November 3, 1988