Your blood begins racing, and you are certain your heart is beating twice as fast is it normally does. How could this of happened? You started a discussion with someone, and you assumed that they would see things the way you do. You are confident that your position is right, and you only naturally assumed that this other “lover of truth” would be in agreement with you. Once you realized they weren’t, you figured you would speak on the issue briefly, and they would obviously change their position and adhere to yours without much need of engaging further. You were wrong. Your pride is what got you here. You can’t believe they still stubbornly hold to their opposing view, and now you have entered into a debate. You were not prepared for this, you didn’t even really want it. You simply wanted the other person to conform to your view and the fact that they don’t just seems, unthinkable. Do you engage in the debate? Or do you search for some way out of the discussion? Debates are hard work; they require not only intellectual engagement, but spiritual effort as you battle against the impatience of the flesh and strive to engage with the other person with a Christ-like demeanor. Engage? Decline further discussion? Write them off?
The Christian understanding of humanity, truth, and love should all speak into how we engage in debate. In this article, I would like to look at a very common tactic within debate. The tactic I would like to look at is the tactic of insulting someone in order to belittle their value and input. This tactic is used very often in debate as a method of neutralizing an opposing view. This tactic is commonly called “mud-slinging” and unfortunately, it is very common in Christian circles. Out of all the various ways of engaging in debate, this is the laziest and most dishonoring to God. Here’s why
1. To write off someone’s thoughts through belittling or insults is an affront to the image of God that each person has. God has made us in His image, and this reality has numerous implications. One of those implications is that we are reasonable beings who are able to think, imagine, reason, and articulate thoughts. This gives every human being an inherent dignity and value. As Christians, we are called to love our neighbors. We are told that it is the second greatest commandment. Is it not ironic that we can look in the mirror and value the person who is reflected back at us, but when we look at others we are more inclined to see an enemy than a fellow image bearer? A fellow sinner? A fellow recipient of grace whom Christ loved enough to die for and who has intellectual and creative value?
2. No one comes to convictions in a box but rather people hold convictions because they believe what they think is true to various degrees. Humility recognizes that there may always be something of value that you can gain from an image bearer of God whether you agree with them on fundamental issues or not. Humility also causes an individual to praise another’s pursuit of truth even if it is misguided and wrong. Consider the Apostle Paul at the Areopagus. He commended the Greco-Roman philosophers for pursuing knowledge and spirituality. Of course, he desired to correct them but the Apostle Paul recognized that any pursuit or valuing of truth is a mark of the mercy of common grace in sinful men. Why do we so often try to quench a burning candle within the heart of a truth seeker? Should we not try to fan the flame and have it burn all the brighter? Is fire evil? No, fire provides warmth and light for those who are in the cold dark. Fire can be dangerous when it is out of control but when it is contained it can be a tremendous blessing. Similarly, the goal of debate is never to quench a fire but to help the fire of truth to shine more brightly and for it to be contained within the fireplace of Christian orthodoxy. Afterall, Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. Therefore, A truth seeker should always be encouraged in their pursuit of truth and never ridiculed for it. Correction should come with a gracious hand that seeks to guide the flame and not quench it.
3. Love compels an individual with a desire to know deeper, the other person they are engaging with. A person who loves will have a desire for the person who disagrees with him, to walk in a deeper truth for the sake of that person and not self-vindication. Self-centeredness seeks to convert people to its understanding of truth for the sake of being proven right. It is difficult writing that sentence without weeping as I recognize how culpable I can be myself in seeking to debate for the sake of self-vindication rather than from a heart of selfless love which desires for the other person to simply know the truth. If we are truly walking in love, then we will care less about being “proven” right and more about the other person walking in “rightness,” It is impossible to sling mud in the face of someone you love like this.
Isn’t it obvious, the person who is truly confident in their position does not have a need to insult or belittle their opponent? One of the reasons this tactic is used is because many people who love making assertions do not know what they actually believe. Their belief is a surface belief, and they are insecure. They are afraid that an opposing viewpoint will dismantle their convictions and so they have to get it away from them as quickly as possible! They may not say this, but it is clearly true. Ironically, a person feeling intimated is one of the main motivations behind mud slinging. A person settled in their convictions has nothing to fear and so they don’t mind hearing an opposing view and engaging with it. It is the one who fears their foundations may crumble that feels the need to demean in order to keep their foundations intact.
The first step in debate is to grow in the knowledge of your personal convictions. Too many people try to enter into debates when they are still in a place where they should be learning and not debating. Unfortunately, pride can keep people from admitting they need to study a topic more before arguing for its truthfulness. Generally, it is pride that makes us want to pretend we know more about an issue than we actually do. Humility recognizes the need for growth and doesn’t mind admitting that they should learn more before aserting their opinion. I encounter this often when it comes to young Christians but the way to engage with these people is to lovingly encourage them in their studies and to not belittle or demean them.
I certainly believe that there is a clear place to call heresy what it is. In this series I have not yet laid out what the proper way is to engage with individuals who are asserting heresy. This article does apply to those who use the term as a kind of mud-slinging. The term heresy should not be thrown around. It is a very serious charge and should be used sparingly and only when the belief system compromises historical orthodox Christian teachings that relate to the Gospel. I hope to deal with this later in the series.
You can follow me on Twitter @KyleJamesHoward. Also, check out my podcast “Coram Deo Podcast” which focuses on issues concerning Biblical Counseling and Practical Theology. You can search for podcast on any major podcast catcher, listen on the web here, follow updates @CoramDeoPodcast, or just click the artwork below.
Kyle J. Howard Kyle J. Howard currently serves the church as a biblical counselor. He is a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he received his associate degree in biblical/theological studies and a bachelor’s degree in biblical counseling. He is finishing a graduate degree in Historical Theology and is preparing to plant and pastor a transcultural church.