Throughout the ages, debate has always been considered an art. Some of the most famous characters of church history were trained in this art—called rhetoric—and their abilities of debate emanate from their writings. The apostle Paul, Ambrose, Augustine, Frederick Douglas, and Martin Luther King Jr. are all examples of rhetoricians, and their imprint on the world of ideas has rippled throughout the church and secular world.
Unity does not mean uniformity
If you were to look up the term “rhetoric,” the most common definition you will find is as follows: “Rhetoric: the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing.”
Unfortunately, many people engage in debate not as an art of persuasion but as a means of self-vindication. Debate used to be the means in which individuals who valued truth could learn from one another and sharpen one another into greater understanding. For someone to win a debate and for the other party to lose a debate wasn’t a source of pride or humiliation. Rather, it was a source of encouragement for both parties as the losing party valued truth more than being right, and the winning party valued seeing the other walk-in greater truth more than simply being proven right.
Think about it: The idea of art immediately brings to our minds something that is aesthetically pleasing and delightful. If good debate or rhetoric is considered an art form, why is it that debate, more often than not, leaves a bitter taste in our mouths? I think the answer is because too many people debate with poor motives. Most people are generally more concerned about elevating themselves rather than truth itself as the “winner.” Christians cannot afford to fall into this trap. Christians are those who value truth so much that they are willing to die for it. The Christian so desires for truth to be known that they are willing to deny themselves for the sake of that truth being known.
Does anger run your debates?
Great debaters used to be highly esteemed in society. Now they’re considered manipulators, and people who are harsh and arrogant. Unfortunately, this is often the truth. But it doesn’t have to be.
The emotional default in a debate seems to increasingly be anger. There are multiple reasons for this, but one we can’t ignore is that anger takes over when we realize our arguments stand on shaky ground. I believe Christians should strive to reclaim the integrity and beauty of rhetoric/debate. That starts with strengthening our arguments and leaving behind our anger.
If we get offended or angry when we receive a firm pushback on our beliefs or convictions, we need to ask ourselves why anger is our default reaction. I believe that the real problem behind this is that our convictions are strong but our arguments for them are often weak. We have jumped into debate but bypassed the work it takes to establish a thorough understanding of our convictions first. We need to wrestle with our convictions and when we do not, we speak out of ignorance and pushback often leads to anger. When our beliefs are well researched, we will also have the potential to speak with a humble confidence that compels others to listen. It is important for us to understand that there are two different ways to debate. We can either debate for the sake of winning an argument or we can debate for the sake of winning over a person. The attitudes we have and the depths of research we have done prior to sharing our opinions prove which one of these goals is our genuine motive.
There are few things worse than being confident in falsehood. The good news is we don’t have to be. We have access to resources, people, and most importantly God’s word to guide us as we seek solid foundations for our convictions.
Who do you debate?
Even when our convictions have deep roots we can be drawn into anger. Sturdier foundations are a requirement for humble and confident debate but they can’t keep us from losing our cool in these debates.
If you believe you have the truth and your understanding can be supported with credible data why get upset? Notice that Jesus, even when he turned over tables, never lost his composure. He had no reason to.
Too often we categorize our anger as righteous and call upon Jesus as he flipped tables in the synagogue as proof that our anger is not just warranted but approved. Of course, there can be righteous anger in discussions but it should always be an anger at the perversion of truth, not anger that results from someone simply disagreeing with you or having a different perspective. Opposition encountered with a humble perspective refines our convictions and others’ convictions as well. It’s an opportunity not an affront. A spiritually mature debater is one that can be angry at the perversion of truth while at the same time demonstrate compassion towards the person who is perverting it. A spiritually mature debater also knows that not every difference in convictions is a perversion of the truth.
What does this look like?
Leaving behind anger starts long before the debate. It begins with praying for those we disagree with, even if they are a false teacher. It looks like cultivating a mindset that values seeking to truly understand why someone believes what they do rather than simply verbally attacking them to gain points with your base. It requires a philosophy of thought that understands that you can disagree with someone without them having to be your enemy.
Debaters who understand rhetoric as an art also understand that Christ’s love reigns most supreme in the battle for truth when the imago dei is lifted high even in the midst of sharp disagreement. Sin has left truth in this world covered in a grimy ash. Christian debate should be seen as a purifying water that washes away that soot to reveal the beautiful truth covered beneath.
Cover photo by Jonathan Sharp.