A short manifesto on arguing well

I hate arguing.

I really don’t enjoy confrontation (it gives me this weird sinking feeling in my stomach). I don’t like being wrong, and sometimes I take too much delight in being right. I care too much what other people think of me, and the idea that I may have offended someone makes me squirm. I think I’m a wimp at heart.

But the reality is that being a Bible teacher (or any Christian who cares about the truth of God’s word) sometimes requires you to argue. A certain amount of conflict just goes with the territory. Of course we should be known primarily for what we’re for, not what we’re against, but sometimes saying yes to one thing means saying no to others. And the Bible is explicit that there is a time and a place for refuting error (eg: Titus 1:9). 

Of course, it’s not always theological disagreement. Conflict and arguments sometimes arise from a clash of personalities. And sometimes, all too often, conflict and arguments arise when one person sins against another, or when two (or more) people sin against each other. And calling for repentance from professing Christians is just as important as correcting theological error (eg: Matt 18:15-17; 1 Cor 5).

Painfully aware that conflict and arguments are part of everyone’s life, I’ve put together this short list of ideas, in no particular order. I hope these ideas will help me (and maybe you) in thinking through how to have a godly argument. I’m mostly thinking about theological disagreement or a conflict of ideas, but a lot of this applies just as much (or, in some cases, even more) to conflict caused by personal sin. (Several of these points are based on ideas found in this article by Mark Thompson.)

1. Truth matters, especially God’s truth, so don’t be scared of an argument. Done right, it’s just a way of getting at the truth. See your arguments (both the content and the manner) as a chance to adorn, proclaim and defend the gospel.

2. Truth and love are not opposites. On the contrary, if all truth is God’s truth, and if God is love, then the truth (rightly delivered) is always loving. We should speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15). If arguing is a necessary part of getting at the truth, it’s profoundly loving.

3. ‘Tolerance’ is not about ignoring our differences or pretending we agree on everything. “I agree with you completely and I tolerate you” makes no sense. Real tolerance presupposes some kind of difference or disagreement. It says, “I may disagree with you, but because we tolerate each other and don’t want our disagreement to divide us, we can still engage with each other respectfully. And I will defend your right to argue for your view, even if I profoundly disagree with it.” (h/t Don Carson)

4. When God tells you how to handle disputes (eg: Matt 5, 18; 1 Cor 5), trust that he knows what he’s talking about. Take him at his word. How many of our disputes would die a quiet, peaceful death, and perhaps even end up adorning the gospel, if only we would follow the Bible’s prescriptions for handling those disputes!

5. Whether you think / know you’ve been wronged (Matt 18:15-17), or you think / know you’ve wronged someone else (Matt 5:23-24), be the one who takes the initiative to put things right. Don’t sit back and wait for the other person to fix things.

6. If you want to be like God, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matt 5:44-48). And remember, they might not be persecuting you. Maybe you caused the conflict. Or maybe they’re just disagreeing with you. Don’t play the ‘persecuted martyr’ card too quickly.

7. Where possible, resolve disputes quickly: “Never let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph 4:26). However, I take that as a piece of biblical wisdom, not a hard-and-fast rule to obey in all situations. Occasionally, there will be wisdom in walking away and cooling off (or letting someone else cool off). That email can usually wait until tomorrow or the next day. Re-read what you’ve written when it’s not 2.30am. But if you’re walking away to cool off (or for some other reason), it helps to let the other party know. Don’t leave someone to wonder if they’re being ignored or given the silent treatment.

8. The ends never justifies the means (2 Cor 4:2). If you win the argument but have done so in an ungodly way, the gospel is discredited, which means you actually lost.

9. Persuade – don’t brow-beat, coerce, expect agreement based on ‘tribal loyalty’, or manipulate with guilt or shame. And always, always be open to persuasion. No one is the suppository of all wisdom (h/t Tony Abbott).

10. Be very careful of confronting someone based on hearsay or gossip. If you hear that someone said or did something, go to the source to clarify and get the truth. Resist the urge to form your opinion or whip yourself up into anger before you’ve spoken in person. Basically, do to others what you would have them do to you (Matt 7:12).

11. Not everything is worth a fight. If God cares enough to have revealed it in his word, it matters (at least to some extent). But if the Bible is silent, hold your view loosely and be quick to forego the argument. There’s so much in this world to make us bleed; save your battles for the things that matter.

12. Let God be true though everyone were a liar (Romans 3:4). If the Bible says it, believe it. Don’t be deluded or enticed away by fine-sounding but unbiblical arguments (Col 2:4). That means that a prerequisite for being a good arguer is knowing your Bible well.

13. Be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, which does not produce the righteousness of God (James 1:19-20). It’s frighteningly easy to be slow to hear, quick to speak, and quick to anger.

14. Take the time to figure out what ‘pushes your buttons’ or ‘raises your hackles’, then be extra careful and extra-slow to respond when those personal launch codes are initiated.

15. Play the ball, not the man (or the woman).

16. Express agreement when you can. Don’t find the one point with which you disagree (or that was poorly worded, or whatever) and rip it to shreds while ignoring everything else. That only adds fuel to the fire. Expressing agreement takes the heat out of many situations, helps find common ground, shows that you’re actually listening, and clarifies what are (and are not) the real issues.

17. As far as possible, choose your words carefully. The world can move, or not, by changing some words (h/t Toby Ziegler).

18. Find the absolute best version of your opponent’s argument and tackle that. As a rule, leave bad arguments to die a quiet death on their own. I’ll quote Ben Sasse, a US Senator (and an evangelical Christian), at this point: “People of goodwill are going to argue…. That is a good and healthy thing. We, as Christians, have a responsibility to do it in a way that doesn’t violate the Ninth Commandment. We don’t want to bear false witness against our neighbor, so we should assume our neighbor means well and try to characterize their position accurately, not beat a straw man. As it turns out, really believing in the dignity of your neighbor and loving your neighbor means that you want to try to refine and shape their best argument. Sometimes I’m going to be converted. There’s going to be a policy issue where I thought I knew the answer and somebody else has a better argument. I should be humble enough to actually be persuadable. If I’m going to try to persuade them, I want to do it by not misrepresenting their view. Some debates are genuine, where you’re actually open to wrestle with another idea. Other debates are faux, where all you’re really trying to do is beat someone. It turns out the latter is not only unpersuasive and ineffective—it’s really boring. It’s also dishonest.”

19. Argue against what is actually said, not what you hear being said. Take people’s words at face value. That doesn’t mean be naive (after all, hidden agendas are everywhere); it just means that we should do others the courtesy of responding to what they have actually said (or done) rather than responding to what we think they might have meant.

20. Remember the delightful paradox of Proverbs 26:4-5. There’s a time for not responding to the fool, and there’s a time for responding to the fool. Knowing which is which takes great wisdom (cf. the entire book of Proverbs). Also, pause and consider the possibility that you’re the fool.

21. If someone is playing intellectual games, picking a fight, or showing no interest in actually listening, you should mostly ignore them (Matt 21:23-27, though remember you lack Jesus’ omniscience). Don’t cast your pearls before swine. Wherever someone is genuinely seeking the truth (even to a small degree), engage with them lovingly, seriously, and patiently. If you’re not sure whether someone is playing games or seeking truth, make the gracious assumption and treat them like the latter.

22. Be careful not to over-trust your instincts when deciding where someone else is coming from. Many disputes get worse because someone wrongly assumes they’re wise enough to ‘read between the lines’, to ‘see what’s really going on’, or to ‘have someone pegged’. If you suspect there’s something going on beneath the surface, ask questions and clarify before rushing to judgement or assuming you’ve diagnosed things properly.

23. Don’t take the argument personally. Get over yourself. (Unless it is personal because the conflict is based around your need to repent. In that case, take it personally. And repent. Always be quick to repent and acknowledge your mistakes.)

24. Just because someone is wrong doesn’t make them a heretic. It might just make them wrong. (h/t Peter Jensen)

25. Don’t attribute motives. Again, ask questions. Asking “why did you do that?” or “what did you mean when you said…?” will stop many disagreements before they begin.

26. Be slow to claim the moral high ground. There are two sides to every story. Most people aren’t complete jerks, and nobody’s perfect.

27. As my Dad always told me: “A text without a context becomes a pretext for a proof text.” (Actually that’s what Don Carson’s dad always told him, but it sounds better if I make it personal.) Be careful how you use the Bible. God’s revelation is clear and understandable, but in our sin or our silliness we can distort it to suit our own purposes. That passage that you’re sure ‘proves’ your point: what is it actually saying?

28. When applicable, argue from Scripture first and last. Use your reason, authority, experience, tradition and intuition only in a minor, supporting role.

29. Consider the possibility that you’re wrong. In fact, perhaps it’s helpful to assume that you are – the noetic effects of sin being what they are, not to mention our overall sinfulness being what it is.

30. The gospel tells me that, if I happen to be right, I have absolutely no right to be arrogant about it. Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord (1 Cor 1:31).

31. The gospel frees me from having to justify myself, even on those (rare) occasions when I’m clearly right. If Christ – the only truly right person who has ever lived – was willing to hang on the cross and be counted as an accursed sinner, why can’t I handle being taken out of context once in a while? (h/t David Ould)

32. When you’re wrong, apologise. I mean actually say sorry. And things like “sorry if anyone was offended” or “I’m sorry that you feel that way” don’t count. Apologise for whatever you actually did wrong.

33. The gospel gives me the freedom to not have my soul crushed when I’m wrong. It also frees me to admit where I’m wrong – and to apologise, get back on the horse, entrust myself to God’s grace, and try again.

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2 thoughts on “A short manifesto on arguing well

  1. Thanks for this Geoff, It is very helpful.

    It seems to me that there is allot more to be fleshed out in these points. It is almost as if each of the points could be the first line in a chapter of a book.

    I generally try to avoid religious arguments these days, mostly because I don’t want to upset people. I probably need some time to think about my points a little further before i discuss with people.

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