The Art of Christian Statesmanship–Part 1

   From time to time, I have posted on this blog about gracious speech. Christians are called upon by God to use speech that is filled with grace and ministers edification to the hearer. I would like to take that thought a little further and apply the principles of grace to methods that we sometimes see employed in theological debates, particularly on the internet.

    Let me say up front that I am exploring these ideas as a learner, not a master. I have been tempted, at times, to use every underhanded tactic that I am about to describe. I am ashamed to say that there have been times when I have stooped to using some of them in one form or another. I have been doing a lot of praying and thinking about this topic, though, and am trying to set a higher standard for myself. I want to share it with you. In this post, I want to point out some of the unsavory methods that I have seen used in theological debates. In the next in this series, I will propose some positive methods to which I am going to try to hold myself to following.

   I titled this post, “The Art of Christian Statesmanship,” because of the implications of the phrase, “Christian statesmanship”. Statesmanship is the art of diplomacy. I would like for us, for the sake of this conversation, to view debate as a diplomatic endeavor.

   Debate can be a very healthy thing. Debate can cause us to re-examine our theology, thus giving us opportunity to see where we may be wrong, or further solidifying our grasp on truth. Debate can broaden our understanding of the way others think. We can be exposed to ideas, concepts, and tenets that we previously were not aware of. Debate can clear up misconceptions that one may have about another’s position.

   Debate can be a healthy thing, it can also turn ugly. 

   What I am about to share is hardly earth-shattering news. If you have been involved with, or simply observed many theological debates in bloggyland, you have more than likely seen some of the things I am about to describe.

   In its simplest and purest form, debate should be a dialogue between opposing points of view. It should consist of one side presenting its own perspective, allowing the other side to present their perspective, and then perhaps each side responding with further information about their own position or questioning the validity of the opponent’s position (not the opponent’s intelligence, etc.). I call this “statesmanship” because it should be an exercise in diplomacy. I call it “Christian statesmanship” because above all it should be carried out in a manner that reflects the grace of Christ.

   Here are some tactics that I feel have no place in Christian debate:

  1. Allowing debates to devolve into a series of personal attacks. Name-calling and character assassination do not minister grace to the hearer.
  2. The use of “straw men.” This is a deliberate attempt to misrepresent an opponents position for the purpose of making their position look ridiculous.
  3. Attempting to align an opponent’s view with another view that is heretical without a clear line of connection. It is not unusual for various theological camps to share some common ground and even common terminology. The fact that they do so does not mean that they are in line with each other. Those who resort to this tactic should be careful, it is likely that their own position could be connected in this manner to a doctrine that they find revolting.
  4. Ridicule, sarcasm and generally rude behavior. Making fun of someone who holds a differing point of view does not minister grace. I have heard it argued that men of God (including Jesus) used sarcasm at times to make their point. I would say that there is a significant difference between Elijah using sarcasm against the prophets of Baal, Jesus using sarcasm against the Pharisees, and us using it against a brother or sister in Christ who has an opinion (or even a conviction) that differs from our own. I have yet to see any of these tactics used in a positive way in contemporary debates.
  5. Using a difference of opinion as a basis for judging.This is perhaps the most reprehensible of all tactics. When we allow our distaste for someone’s pet doctrine to cause us to question their love for God or their salvation, we should immediately step back and examine our own heart. I am not speaking about differences in religions, I am speaking about brothers and sisters in Christ who may interpret a particular Scripture text differently than we do.

   This list is not exhaustive, but it certainly covers many areas which Christians should avoid in our debates. Hopefully, in the next post we will take a look at some positive methods of discussion.

   Until then, be filled with the grace and peace of God.

  

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22 responses to “The Art of Christian Statesmanship–Part 1

  1. Tim A. Blankenship

    Gordon,
    I want to commend you for this article. I also want to add that all that I have seen from you qualifies you to write on this subject.
    It is a shame the times we as Christians can revert to name calling and labeling just to make sure that our point is “Right”.
    Thanks for your ‘Christian Statesmanship’.

  2. Bro. TA, you are a gracious man. I appreciate your visits to this blog and what you contribute to the discussion here.

  3. gordon

    i agree with you wholeheartedly about the negative sides of debate that can occur. and i agree that gracious debate is necessary. in fact, i dont disagree with anything you say.

    but i want to add something to the discussion. i think that there is more to be benefited from debate than just a better understanding. i can say that i used to increase in head knowledge after debating, but there was never any change. this i think is not helpful, and debates should be for change in life, not just understanding.

    you see, as i have debated, say with my wife, i have recognized that i was wrong for thinking and ACTING a certain way toward her. you see it wouldnt be enough for me to just think differently about her if i never treated her better. thus, action must follow belief. a wise man put it this way, “faith without works is dead”.

    i think debate (if controlled and not personal, etc, like you described) is good for thought and accompanying actions.

    peter

  4. I second TAB’s comment that you are qualified to write on this topic. You have always blessed me in our “debates”, even when the topics were difficult to remain “objective” for either of us! 🙂

    Thanks for being such a great blogging buddy, Gordon. I do hope to see you again soon, my brother.

  5. This is a great post, Gordon. I agree wholeheartedly. The truth is, that a debater usually resorts to name-calling, straw man bashing, and personal attacks when he runs out of factual ammunition to support his position.

    In our prayer meeting last night, we meditated on Ps. 19:14. That would be a good memory verse for all of us.

  6. I appreciate everyone’s input on this. I apologize for running a little behind in responding to your comments.

    PB and J, that is a good point. Debate can bring about change in us and I have experienced what you are talking about.

    Steve, thanks for the kind words, Brother. I have benefitted greatly from our discussions.

    Garry, you are exactly right about debaters running out of information. Someone told me once that “profanity was evidence of a weak mind trying to express itself strongly.” I think the same principle would apply here.

    That’s a great verse, btw.

  7. Great post, Gordon. I look forward to hearing more. 🙂

  8. Thanks for posting this Bro. Gordon it kinda ties in with what I was talking about the other day on my blog ! You said it well! I read a lot of blogs and I kinda look at each man’s blog as I would act as if I was visiting him in his own home and respect His blog and the other readers that may be reading them. Blessings to you ! Ron.

  9. The absence of common civility in our culture is disconcerting. If people can’t be respectful in everyday life, what will they do in a debate?

    Excellent post.

  10. Pastor, I really appreciate your heart in this post and I agree totally with points 1,2 and 5 but I had some questions on the specifics of 3 and 4.

    With respect to item 3, aligning an opposing view to an accepted heresy, I have to confess that I was greatly helped by this tactic once and I am persuaded that my opponent did so to help me see the error in my arguments. It did and it also made it possible for me to clarify my position and clearly set it apart from the heresy. Could we say that the intended use of this method determines its usefulness?

    I will be frank on item 4 and in particular concerning sarcasm. Here again it seems to me that motive and intent are critical. I know that for many this is a cruel form of humiliation but if a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, then sarcasm is certainly that line in debate. I have seen men literally rescued from them selves by a well-timed and well phrased sarcastic remark given by one who loves and supports them. It gave him the time and opportunity to recant in a humorous manner before being ridiculed and totally dismissed. When I witness others do this I can’t help but consider their ability a gift, and one I do not possess. Do you think sarcasm might be useful in this way?

    I can’t say how much I appreciate your understanding on judgment in item 5. I so much wish we could all become aware of this sin in all our conversation and even our considerations. I think this understanding is critical if we are ever to follow Christ’ command to be of the same mind.

  11. Amy and Ron, thanks for your words.

    Cameron, what you said reminds me of what James said about “taking heed that ye devour not one another.”

    KC, thanks so much for your comment. Let me see if I can make my meaning a little clearer.

    In regard to #3, I think the key phrase in my point is, “without a clear line of connection”. For example, in the past week or so, I have seen at least three articles on various blogs attempting to link dispensationalism with open theism. Obviously, the fact that many open theists also adhere to dispensationalism does not mean that all dispensationalists are open theists. I see this as an attempt devalue a tenet of theology by association rather than on whether or not it is actually true.

    Now, if there is a clear connection between two schools of thought, then I do not think it is being underhanded to point out the connection. As you said, motive has a lot to do with it, and I will address that in the next post.

    As far as sarcasm goes, I would say that as a literary/linguistic device it probably has some value (again, depending on the motive). However, the vast majority of the times that I see it being used in Christian debates, it is used more for belittling one’s opponent and making the user appear superior to those who adhere to his position.

    I do not think this has any place in Christian conversation.

    Thanks again for your input, let me say that I have read many of your debates with Adam and others and I have never seen you exhibit any of the negative tactics I have described. You have always demonstrated grace and I applaud you for that.

    BTW, my family and I may be visiting Mobile next month. It would be great to get to meet you and your wife.

  12. Preacher we’d be thrilled to meet you all. I Emailed you a proposal. 😉

    I appreciate the kind words and I do agree that, for the most part, these tactics are used unwisely and best avoided by most of us.

  13. You have hit me where it hurts.

    I often jokingly remark that my spiritual gift is that of sarcasm.

    Of course, I know there is no such gift.

    It is my attempt at humorously exposing my bent to respond sarcastically to some people’s comments. Sort of self-depricating.

    However you points are right on.

  14. I would say that there is a significant difference between Elijah using sarcasm against the prophets of Baal, Jesus using sarcasm against the Pharisees, and us using it against a brother or sister in Christ who has an opinion (or even a conviction) that differs from our own.

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last couple of days, and I’m realllllly curious as to what difference you see. I have my thoughts, but wondered what you meant by this.

  15. Hi, everyone. Thanks for your comments. I am really sorry I haven’t gotten back to them sooner, the past two or three days have been incredibly busy and it doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon.

    Steve, I will do my best to ‘splain myself asap. 🙂

  16. OK, Steve, I suddenly had a few minutes pop open unexpectedly.

    I think the main difference between some of the biblical records of sarcasm and most of what I have seen on the internet is the context of the argument.

    By that I mean, for us to use the biblical record to justify our own use of sarcasm, we are going to have assume two things: 1) that we are as absolutely correct in our position as was Elijah and Jesus, and 2) that our opponents are as clearly wrong as the prophets of Baal and the Pharisees.

    I am not saying that we cannot have confidence in our theological positions, we can and should. However, in my mind, there is much less margin of difference in most theological debates (ecclesiology, eschatology, Calvinism/non-Calvinism, etc) than between Elijah and the prophets of Baal and Jesus and the Pharisees.

    If the matter involved is over an interpretation of Scripture (as opposed to a completely different religion) I just don’t see that we have the latitude to employ language that demeans our opponent in a debate.

    I probably should not make this a blanket statement concerning all sarcasm, but I have rarely (if ever) seen it used in a positive way.

    Some of the points brought up in these comments are going to be touched upon by the follow-up post that I am working on for this topic. It seems now, though, that it will be well into next week before I get to post it.

  17. You and I are definitely on the same page with this one. The answer you gave is almost exactly what I had in my mind.

    Thanks for answering 🙂 Always glad when we agree! hehe

  18. Steve agreed with someone???

    oops… was that sarcasm?

    -Alan

  19. Steve, based on some of our previous discussions, I felt like we would be in agreement.

    Alan, I am trying hard not to laugh but…

  20. AMEN Brother!

    There are more Howard Dean thologians (yeagh!)
    out there, than there are Statesmen.

    Good reminders Doc.

    John M. Keeter
    http://www.fbc-nc.com
    http://hitherandyonder.blogspot.com/

  21. Thank you, John. I visited your church’s website and am very familiar with Williamston. In fact, one of the former pastors of your church (Jack Tripp) is an old and dear friend.

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