Pistols at Dawn: Five Steps for Discussing Doctrine Amicably

A few precautions can keep a friendly debate from becoming an ungodly bloodbath

by Clint Archer of TheCrippleGate.com

A seminary cafeteria (or a church coffee bar) can be a veritable gunslinger’s saloon of theological repartee. Quick minds, earnest souls, armed to the teeth with truth, and packing Greek lexicons loaded to draw exegetical blood, can look to the casual observer as volatile as the OK Corral.

It’s all good-natured, of course; just a herd of young bucks sharpening skills for future battles to contend for the faith, defend the flock, and refute error. Christians are all on the same team. After the shoot-out is diffused by that recollection the contenders shake hands and buy each other drinks (lattés usually) while regaling each other with stories of Mormons they’d wrangled.

But sometimes the sparring leaves darker bruises than were intended. Precautions need to be in place to maintain love and unity in the midst of debate.

Here are five house rules for having edifying debates with other believers…


1. Love the person, not your position.

Do you relish theological debate? Do you notice that your conversational repertoire possesses a marked predilection toward heated deliberations? Does what starts off as a civil bout of spirited parlay tend deteriorate into a gloves-off fracas of unedifying verbal kickboxing? Probably not. But I’m sure you have at least encountered this particular species of believer.

Jesus tended to bypass the defense of a postion, and instead go after the soul of the person to whom He was talking. One example is in Luke 6:3 when He asks the Sabbatarian Pharisees– who were picking on his disciples for picking grain for a fast-food snack on a Saturday– if they had not read about King David’s unlawful fast-food snacking on the showbread. Instead of Jesus proving His position by flipping to Exodus 20 and showing how the Sabbath was not being violated, He chooses to probe their inconsistent standards. He goes for the heart, not the jugular.

2. Approach the discussion with the humility to be corrected if you are wrong.

This humble attitude secured a clandestine audience with, and a tender gospel presentation from Jesus. Nicodemus opens the discussion with Jesus respectfully in John 3:2 acknowledging that although his party of Pharisees opposed Jesus, Nicodemus was willing to concede that he may be wrong. This is a way of loving your neighbor, securing grace from God (who opposes the proud), and opens your mind to evaluate objectively your preconceived ideas.

1 Cor 8:1 knowledge puffs up but love builds up.

Did God give you this knowledge so you can bludgeon other believers with it to make yourself look taller? You may know more, or you may be wrong. Have the humility to admit that that either way, — even if ”I understand all mysteries and all knowledge, … but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor 13:2).

3. Ask, don’t argue.

Questions help you understand exactly what your counterpart means. This prevents you arguing a point that you may have misunderstood.

Again Nicodemus is a good example of one who asks the question “How can a man be born again, he cannot enter into his mother’s womb a second time can he?”

Nicodemus didn’t just argue that it was too late for him, he asked if Jesus thought it was still possible.


4. Remember your journey.

John Newton explained in his winsome way:

I have been thirty years forming my own views; and, in the course of this time, some of my hills have sunk, and some of my valleys have risen: but, how unreasonable within me to expect all this should take place in another person; and that, in the course of a year or two.

Another example is the Apostle Paul who persecuted Christians, and was later himself persecuted. He could not harbor animosity toward his persecutors who were–like he had been– “not yet” Christians.

1 Tim 1:13 Though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief … 16 But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.


5. Open your Bible.

Paul didn’t show up in a new town and present a take-it-or-leave-it lecture with a my-way-or-the-highway attitude. He “reasoned with them from the Scriptures… explaining andproving…” (Acts 17:1-3).

I’m not saying these steps will convince your opponent to alter their position, but it will remind you that other believers are not really opponents. You are partners. And hopefully it leaves you unscathed by your interaction. If you can’t stick to the house rules, then don’t enter the saloon.


Clint Archer is the senior pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Durban, South Africa. He has written his first book, The Preacher’s Payday. You can follow him on twitter @ClintArcher or his blog for aspiring theologians and writers at Café Seminoid.
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