In his letter to the Colossians, the Apostle Paul instructs his readers to “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person,” (Colossians 4:6). I have found this advice to be invaluable in the context of debate, an activity in which many of us in the apologetics community participate.
Recently, I have had the opportunity to be involved in a few radio debates. In such situations, it is so important to always exemplify an attitude of humility and graciousness. Too often, regrettably, I have seen people (believer and unbeliever alike) attempt to disparage people on the other side of the argument. For the Christian, I firmly believe that the purpose behind debating is not simply to win an argument. Let me say that again: The purpose of debating, for the believer, is not simply to win an argument. It is possible that one successfully win an argument while failing to win the audience or one’s interlocutor. There are souls on the line. A message of love should thus be clearly conveyed — through the words we speak, through our conduct and mannerisms, and through our devotion to the message of the cross. It is so easy to let our Christian apologetics be reduced to nothing more than an intellectual pursuit, or a way to bolster one’s own ego. But as the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:2,
If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
Having a tremendous stock of knowledge will do you, or anybody else, no good if you have not love. Each opponent whom you face, and each person who observes and watches you debate, is an individual precious soul, desperately in need of Christ. If you view them as such then your conduct during and after debate will reflect that.
If we are honest, there can sometimes be an element of superiorism among Christian intellectuals. We feel smug about being the ones with the truth, and pride ourselves in having the better arguments to support our position. But remember that, had the Spirit not opened up our eyes and illuminated our vision so that we could clearly perceive the mystery of Christ, we would be in precisely the same place — lost, in darkness, without God, without hope of salvation. What is so clear to us is not clear to those whose hearts are covered by a veil (2 Corinthians 3:14). The only thing that makes you able to perceive and understand the Truth is God’s grace — nothing more, nothing less. Coming to that realization is without doubt a humbling experience, and one that should spur us on to treat our non-Christian dialogue partners graciously, and with love and humility.
Ultimately it is the Spirit of God — and not your arguments — that will convict a man of his sin and bring about repentance. Yes, your arguments may persuade him intellectually that Christianity is true — and God may opt to use that as the means of drawing Him towards Himself (Isaiah 55:11). But the Bible teaches quite plainly that unless God supernaturally enables a man to repent and choose to submit to Him, man will always be in perpetual rebellion against God, looking for excuses to not believe. Now, let me be clear: this is most definitely not to say that we should not handle information and facts responsibly. Indeed, I believe that our presentations of the truth should always be accurate and well researched — and we in the apologetics community should hold each other accountable in this regard. In so-doing, we honor God who is Truth itself.
It is so important that we exercise love, graciousness and humility towards those people with whom we engage in debate and argument — even if the attitude is not reciprocated. Your conduct is just as much a part of your apologetic as your persuasive arguments. It is not honoring God to coldly present the arguments without exemplifying love and compassion for the precious people you are speaking to. Remember, it is only by God’s grace that you have come to a knowledge of the Truth concerning the gospel. So present a defense of the faith that is within you, but do so with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).