For many Christians, it seems a reasonable question to ask whether it is profitable for us to engage in public debates at all. Whoever changed his mind because of some public argument? Why wrangle about words? Logomachies just make my head hurt.
In contrast to this, I want to argue that such a quietist position is not only inconsistent with the teaching of Scriptures, but runs directly contrary to it. We are called to speak with unbelievers in the public square, and we are to do so in a way that includes answering their objections. We are called to prevail in such discussions (in a particular way). When we do this right, what is happening is public debate, the kind that can be very helpful.
But before making the case for this, it should be said at the outset that those who want to avoid “unseemly spectacles for Jesus” do have a point. There are some debates that are no good at all, and the Bible tells us expressly to avoid them. But when the Scriptures tell us not to lose our battles in a particular way, we should not infer from this an imaginary duty to avoid fighting those battles at all.
That said, let me begin by noting a few places where Christians are told not to engage in verbal free-for-alls. While we are not to avoid all debates, we are to avoid some debates.
“To speak evil of no man, to be no brawlers, but gentle, shewing all meekness unto all men. For we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another” (Tit. 3:2-3).
We are not to be “brawlers.”
“But foolish and unlearned questions avoid, knowing that they do gender strifes. And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; And that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will” (2 TIm. 2:23-26).
We are told here to stay out of stupid and fruitless debates, where the topic being discussed is guaranteed to spiral down into meaningless yelling. The servant of the Lord must not strive. But even here, note that the servant of the Lord must “instruct those who oppose themselves.” In other words, Paul’s rule here is “not this kind of debate,” not “no debate.”
You have to gauge the situation, and read the crowd. There are times when we must not descend to their level (Prov. 26:4). But, since wisdom is not optional, there are times when we must step into their world in order to run the reductio (Prov. 26:5).
So with that caution out of the way, why should we debate? Well, to begin where all Christians should always begin, let’s look at the life of Jesus. Asking whether it is lawful to debate is like asking if it is lawful to speak in parables. Jesus spoke in parables constantly, and He also was engaged in public point and counterpoint constantly.
Jesus adroitly countered a question about His authority with a question about John the Baptist (Matt. 21:27). Jesus shut down the Saducees in a debate about the resurrection (Matt. 22:29). Jesus debated the highly charged issue of taxation (Mark 12:17). Jesus debated the devil (Luke 4:4). Jesus debated the question of healings on the sabbath (Luke 5:22). And Jesus routs His opponents on the question of His own identity (John 8:14). There are numerous other examples. In fact, there are so many examples of polemical exchanges in the gospels that questions about the propriety of polemical exchanges can only arise if people are ignorant of the gospels, or if they come to the gospels with a strong, preconceived idea about Jesus that they picked up somewhere else.
This is odd, but not surprising, because there is a strong unbiblical tradition that tags Jesus as the original hippie, teaching us all to peace out. This runs directly counter to all the hellfire teaching the Lord did, and the numerous debates He won with the establishment theologians, and, as Sayers or Chesterton once put it, let us not forget that time He threw furniture down the front steps of the Temple. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, not.
That said, it is not surprising that we find instructions that reveal how public clashing is actually a pastoral duty.
“Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers. For there are many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers, specially they of the circumcision: Whose mouths must be stopped” (Tit. 1:9-11).
This not only requires pastors to debate false teachers, it requires them to win those debates.
“And when he was disposed to pass into Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him: who, when he was come, helped them much which had believed through grace: 28 For he mightily convinced the Jews, and that publickly, shewing by the scriptures that Jesus was Christ” (Acts 18:27-28).
Putting all this together, we see the biblical reasons for debate. We see them both in the example of Jesus, and in the instructions given to pastors in the first century. The point of debating is to stop the mouths of unruly talkers and thinkers. When this happens, it will sometimes not be evident to the false teacher that he has been silenced — even though it is evident to everybody else. This is the valuable service that Apollos provided — he was a help to the believers in how he refuted the Jews on whether Jesus was the Messiah. Translated into a modern setting, if a believer effectively refutes someone arguing for homosexual marriage, or an atheist denying God, the debate on the stage might not be settled at all. But there are many believers out in the audience who have heard those same arguments in numerous classrooms, and they now know that those arguments can be effectively countered. Apollos was a great help to the believers.
In a godly debate, you are trying to win men, not arguments, and you have to remember that many of those you are trying to win are out in the audience. In the great public square issues of the day, there are large numbers of people on the fence. Debates can have a huge impact on that “swing segment.” I would want to say that when we observe how ineffective our debates are, it would be far better to listen to Scripture, and lament how ineffective our debaters are. This is a pursuit that must be encouraged, honored, and praised, and we must provide the requisite training for those who are called to it. And those training programs must turn away those pugnacious types who just want join up with a “who’re gonna call?” Cultbusters.
In conclusion, I would like to say a few things about one of the great proving grounds for debating skills, and that would be the classrooms of secular universities. To what extent should Christians just keep their heads down, and if they speak up, how should they speak up?
I would suggest three things to students in such a position. The first is that if you want to challenge a professor, you should do it with an established ethos. By this, I mean that you should not be a struggling C- student who only does half the reading, and who then goes off at the teacher half-cocked, and then, when you get shut down, cry persecution. Earn your right to speak, and do that by being in the top of the class — or by being in the top of the class before you decided to open your mouth. If your grades drop after that, that’s the professor’s look out.
Second, let most of your opportunities go by you. If you challenge everything that you could challenge (depending on the class) you will be doing it every ten minutes. If you are in a target-rich environment, then you probably shoot at every 25th one. You will make the point effectively enough, and in this setting — trust me — a little bit goes a long way.
And last, as a student, you are not a professor. That means you shouldn’t preach, or attempt to highjack the lecture. There is a place for gospel declaration, but this is not it. Having said this, it is not out of place for a student to ask questions. That is not inappropriate — that is a student’s calling and vocation. And if you ask the right questions for which the professor has no answers, then you don’t have to draw the conclusions. You can do that in conversations with other students after class. Keep your debates (in this setting) in the interrogative.
If you learn to do this well, it may be an indication that you are called to an apologetic ministry after graduation. If that happens, you will have more tools availabe to you than you do as a lowly student.