Making an Argument (revisited and revised)

I look at the year 2020 as a time of collective insanity. We faced a pandemic that isolated us with our fears, frustrations, and addictions. Political upheaval, racial enmity, shootings, and riots brought much division. People responded with wrongheaded (in my opinion) political correctness and threats to free speech.

We are still in a lot of pain over this.

I first published this blog back then, along with others in which I shared my own reactions to what I was witnessing. Some recent observations and conversations have brought this topic back to my focus.

One of the phenomena that was most troubling to me was the tendency for people to react publicly, loudly, and emotionally to unfolding events. At all levels, it seemed that millions of people were trying to regain some sense of control by expressing their feelings and opinions–on the streets, in the sports arena, or especially, on social media.

I celebrate our right and ability to express ourselves in this wonderful country called the United States of America. If what you say makes me uncomfortable, that is my issue to deal with. I can confront you about it, but I mustn’t limit your right to express it. I believe I should be afforded the same consideration.

Because my worldview is distinctly biblical and Christ-centered, I have come to be at odds with the northeastern liberal and secular cultural mindset in which I was raised. I have to be ready to respond when people attack my beliefs, and “give an answer for the hope that I have” in Christ (1 Peter 3:15).

This is the basis for my ability to respond from the best of who I am, heart, soul, mind and strength.

I have also spent a lot of time in formal study, where critical thinking is an absolute requirement. I had to take the time to form ideas, rigorously support those ideas with Scripture or research data, and write papers that communicated my thought processes and conclusions.

In essence, I had to learn to not just state a point of view, but make an argument to defend it. This is what I continue to strive for in all of the writing I release into the world.

We often hear people these days yelling at each other, full of emotional fury, but unable to make a clear defense for their strongly held positions. Presenting a thesis and a coherent argument to support it is becoming a lost art.

We don’t all have to be high-level debaters, rhetoricians, or apologists to acquire skill in presenting a case for what we believe and why we believe it.  

One of my daily prayers has been, ‘Lord, show me when to speak, what to say, and more importantly, when to be silent.’ If I can’t state my case on an issue in a way that is honoring to God and his word, and with the genuine desire to peacefully edify and inform others, it is probably best to hold my tongue.

Granted, it is sometimes hard to discern when it is the right time or place to argue a complex or difficult case, and with whom. Please, not on Facebook with your Aunt Sylvia!

I won’t attempt here to cover all the bases, because when I wrote this in 2020, it was addressed to Christian believers who earnestly desired to use their voices well in public or private discourse. My revised comments are still offered in that context.

Let’s start with scriptural guidance on what not to argue about…and with whom:

Who is greatest. In Luke 9, the disciples disputed like children in the schoolyard about which of them would be the greatest. Let us not be found engaging in this kind of ridiculous argument with our brothers and sisters! It is fruitless to compare people. Everyone is valuable, and all of us have a part to play and a contribution to make. We avoid identity politics, racism, sexism, and envious rants.  

Religious traditions. John the Baptist’s disciples argued with some Jews about the need for ceremonial washing (John 3:25-26). The Pharisees were always trying to pick a fight with Jesus about his healing people on the Sabbath. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have time for disputes about religious practices that are not essential to faith in Christ and his salvation. Diversity in these things is acceptable in God’s sight.

Geneologies and angels. Several times Paul warns about those who get caught up in genealogies or obsess about angels. These are distractions from sincere faith in Christ. We shouldn’t give them space in our heads. We are permitted to study these things if they are of interest. But they shouldn’t be a basis for conflict.

Second, let’s look at the Bible’s admonitions about certain types of people we shouldn’t argue with.

Fools and heretics. There are clear warnings in the Proverbs about the futility of trying to convince fools of anything. That is what makes them fools in the first place—they do not receive instruction and despise true wisdom.

Paul says about a person who persists in arguing against the commandments of God, “If anyone is ignorant, let him be ignorant” (1 Cor. 14:38). He warns Timothy,

“If anyone…does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness,he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw yourself. (1 Tim. 6:3-5).

These are some strong apostolic warnings and we should take heed to them. His description unfortunately applies to quite a few troublemakers out there right now.

Demonic arguments and human arguments

The father of lies continually stirs up strife and sets up deceptive arguments against faith-based convictions. These then become culturally normalized, so that if we dare to object to what we perceive to be lies, people who promote them will call us names and try to silence us. This is true right now on issues of sexuality, abortion, vaccines, environmentalism, and many others. It’s being called “cancel culture.”

When we recognize demonic work like this in our midst, we must counter with the correct weapons—Scripture, spiritual admonition, prayer, and prophesy. We use our spiritual authority in the name of Jesus Christ to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 10:5).

We demolish arguments, not people; we are not fighting against flesh and blood. This is a spiritual calling, and it requires faith, determination, and plenty of courage. Even in the midst of severe spiritual warfare, we do our best to keep loving people. They often don’t know they are being exploited by the enemy.

We don’t give in, as Eve did in the garden, when the serpent flatly contradicted God’s clear direction. God had said, “Don’t eat of this tree or you will surely die.” Satan said, “You will not surely die, because…” Satan brought an argument, and Eve had no counterargument to demolish his. I don’t think there is a plainer illustration in all of Scripture. We must be prepared to demolish demonic arguments.

Apologetics. Not all arguments are demonic, of course, and certainly not all who argue against Scripture are evil. Others may be inculcated in a different system of thought but are open to an honest discussion. This calls for the art of apologetics. This is where being an ambassador for Christ gets interesting and can even be fun.

The best-known biblical example of this skill is Paul’s message to the curious Athenians in Acts 17. Paul acknowledges their religious, cultural, and philosophical worldviews, and makes his own case from that platform. He shows the skeptics a path to faith in Jesus Christ that makes sense to their Greek mentality.

Paul can do this because he has taken the time to understand their cultural context. He doesn’t yell at them to win them to Christ. He reasons with them using their own cultural vocabulary.

There are some contemporary apologists I admire greatly–Tim Keller, Lee Strobel, and Michael Brown, to name a few. What I appreciate about these men is their ability to stay objectively grounded in truth, while showing great grace and respect for their debate opponents.

It is a pleasure to watch one of these apologists patiently listen to a debate opponent’s or skeptic’s challenge to Scripture and then respond with disarming wisdom, grace, and kindness. They’ve learned to make an argument and defend it, using chapter and verse, but not only chapter and verse. They also use reason, philosophy, literature, logic, experience, and history. And, common sense!

Like the opponents of Jesus, their opponents are often left speechless. Not disrespected, just corrected. Challenged to think more deeply, their curiosity aroused.

In this highly charged, conflicted atmosphere we are experiencing, it is tempting to just ride with the downstream flow of the cultural current. But if we do, we forfeit our opportunity to offer an alternative to the increasing barbarity and depravity that grieves our hearts and the heart of God.

Let us look to Jesus, The Apostles, and the honorable apologists of our day and follow their examples. When called to take a position on a controversial issue, we will do well to learn how to make an argument based in Scriptural truth. We approach people with respect for their differing worldview. We then can speak with authority and grace, and not merely react from our emotions.

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