Arguing Is a Virtue

Author Greg Koukl Published on 05/01/1999

Imagine living in a world in which you couldn’t separate truth from error. You wouldn’t be able to tell food from poison, or friend from foe. You couldn’t tell good from bad, right from wrong, healthy from unhealthy, or safe from unsafe. Such a world would be a dangerous place. You wouldn’t survive long.

What protects us from the hazards of such a world? Some say the Word of God, but that’s not entirely true. Something else is necessary before we can accurately know the Bible’s teaching. Yes, the Bible is first in terms of authority, but something else is first in terms of the order of knowing.

We cannot grasp the authoritative teaching of God’s Word without using our minds properly. Therefore the mind, not the Bible, is the very first line of defense God has given us against error.

In order to understand the truth of the Bible accurately, our mental faculties must be intact, and we must use them properly as God intended. We demonstrate this fact every time we disagree on an interpretation of a Biblical passage and then give reasons why our view is better than another’s. Simply put, we argue for our point of view, and if we argue well we separate truth from error.

Arguing Is Good

Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). Loving God with the mind is not a passive process. It’s not just having thoughts about God. Rather, it’s coming to conclusions about God and His world based on revelation, observation, and careful thinking.

Both a process and a skill are involved. There is a way that thinking works, a tool that needs to be employed. What is the tool we use in our observations of the world that help us separate fact from fiction? That tool is reason, the ability to use our minds to sort through observations and draw accurate conclusions about what is true. Rationality is the tool God has given us to acquire knowledge.

Generally, this is not a solitary enterprise. It’s best done in the company of others who dispute our claims and offer competing ideas. In short, we argue. Sometimes we are silent partners, listening, not talking, but the process is going on in our minds just the same.

The ability to argue well is the essence of all clear thinking. That’s why arguments are good things—arguing is a virtue because it helps us discover what’s true.

This is not rationalism, a kind of idolatry of the mind that places man’s thinking at the center of the universe. Rather, it’s the proper use of the faculties God has given us to understand Him and the world He’s made.

What Is an Argument?

There’s a difference between an argument and a fight. Christians are not to be acrimonious, nasty, or harsh, fighting for the fight’s sake. Paul warns against such quarreling and abuse (2 Timothy 2:24–25).

An argument is not a fight or a quarrel, but a reasoned and principled disputation about matters of fact. Arguments are important, therefore, because they help us discover the facts and find the truth. If you think about it, much of the New Testament consists of arguments in written form—Paul, Peter, and the others arguing for a critical point of truth.

Think of an argument like a simple house, a roof supported by walls. The roof is the conclusion and the walls are the supporting ideas. By testing the walls we can see if they are strong enough to keep the roof from tumbling down. If the walls are solid, the conclusion rests securely on its supporting foundation. If the walls collapse, the roof goes flat and the argument is defeated.

Some arguments are not really arguments at all. Many people try to build their roof right on the ground. Instead of erecting solid walls—the supporting ideas that hold the conclusion up—they simply assert their view and pound the podium.

An argument is different from an assertion, though. An assertion simply states a point. An argument gives supporting reasons why the point should be taken seriously. The reasons, then, become the topic of mutual discussion or analysis. Opinions by themselves are not proof. A mere point of view is not worthy of belief. Belief requires reasons.

Roofs are useless when they’re on the ground; they don’t cover anything. In the same way an assertion without evidence doesn’t do any work. I frequently get calls on the radio show from people who think they’re giving me an argument, when all they’re doing is forcefully stating a point of view. They sound compelling, but a closer look reveals an emperor with lots of bluster, but no bloomers. My job is to recognize that the roof is laying flat on the ground and simply point it out.

If you find yourself stymied in a discussion, you may be looking for an argument that’s not there. Ask yourself, “Did they give me an argument or just make an assertion?” If the latter is true then say, “Well, that’s an interesting opinion. What’s your argument? Why should I believe what you believe? Give me your reasons.”

Don’t let them flatten you by dropping a roof on your head. Make them build walls underneath their roof. Ask them for reasons or facts to support their conclusion.

Fight Phobic

If the notion of truth is central to Christianity, and the ability to argue central to the task of knowing the truth, why do some Christians often get so upset when you try to find the truth through argument and disagreement?

Two things come to mind. First, some fear division. When people are free to express strong differences of opinion it threatens unity. Just when the Bible study starts getting interesting, someone jumps in to shut down dissent to keep the peace. This is very unfortunate.

True, sometimes Christians get distracted by useless disputes. Paul warns against wrangling about words and quarreling about foolish and ignorant speculations (2 Timothy 2:14, 23–24). But Paul also commands us to be diligent workmen handling the word of truth accurately (2 Timothy 2:15). And, because some disputes are vitally important, Paul solemnly charges us to reprove, rebuke, and exhort when necessary (2 Timothy 4:1–2). This cannot be done without some confrontation, but disagreement need not threaten genuine unity.

To be of one mind biblically doesn’t mean all have to share the same opinion. It means a warm fellowship based on communion with Christ in the midst of differences, not abandoning all attempts at refining our knowledge by enforcing unanimity. True maturity means learning how to dispute in an aggressive fashion, yet still maintain the harmony of the body and the unity of peace.

There’s a second reason Christians resist arguments. Some believers unfortunately take any opposition as hostility, especially if it’s their view being challenged. In some circles it’s virtually impossible to take exception with a cherished view or a respected teacher without being labeled malicious. This is a dangerous attitude for the church.

The minute one is labeled mean-spirited simply for raising an opposing view, it cuts off debate. This simply isn’t fair. We avoid what may be a legitimate discussion by simply calling names. Worse, we compromise our ability to know the truth.

It’s absolutely imperative that we not silence dissent in this way. We ought to learn how to argue fairly, reasonably, and graciously. We need to cultivate the ability to disagree with civility and not take opposition personally. We also must have the grace to allow our own views to be challenged with evidence, reasoning, and Scripture. Those who refuse to dispute have a very poor chance of growing in truth.

“And If Your Brother Sins...”

Sometimes a different objection is raised. Some refuse to even consider a public critique of another’s ideas unless that person has first been confronted privately. According to Jesus’ directives in Matthew 18:15–17, this should be done before going public with an analysis, they say.

I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind, though. Note the specific wording of the passage:

“And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer.”

Three things are worthy of note here. First, the pattern given in Matthew 18 is meant for a brother who is in sin (v. 15). Second, it initiates a process in the local congregation (“the church” v. 17) where individual discipline can be carried out. Third, if it runs its course, the correction results in excommunication from the local body (v. 17). The local community of faith has the responsibility of correcting moral error in its midst because they’re the only ones in a position to do so.

To my mind, none of these apply when you critique someone’s ideas or teaching. When brothers in Christ disagree about an issue of doctrine, it’s fully appropriate to register the differences publicly, particularly when the teaching in question has been public.

This is the New Testament pattern. Paul’s own letters are, in many cases, public refutations of error being taught by others in the church. In some cases, he even mentions the names of those who have faltered, either doctrinally or morally (1 Timothy 1:20; 2 Timothy 1:15, 4:10, 14). An especially noteworthy example is when Paul publicly corrects the apostle Peter while many others are present (Galatians 2:11, 14). This was no private confrontation about sin, but a public correction of wrong doctrine.

Keep in mind that the person’s heart is not the issue in such a dispute. His doctrine is. The proper way to judge doctrine is not to look at a teacher’s personal spirituality, but at his teaching. Further, it’s important not to strain at the gnat—concern about Matthew 18—and swallow the camel—the Biblical arguments raised against one’s teaching. An unbiblical doctrine can’t be ignored just because the critic fails to fulfill the directives of Matthew 18.

Retaining the Standard

There is no reason to threaten our unity by frivolous debate. However, many debates are not frivolous, but are worthy of our best efforts.

Paul told Timothy to retain the standard of sound words, and to guard the treasure which had been entrusted to him (2 Timothy 1:13–14). He told Titus to choose elders who could exhort in sound doctrine and refute those who contradict, teachers, he said, who must be silenced (Titus 1:9, 11).

This kind of protection of the truth is not a passive enterprise. It’s active and energetic. Arguments are good and dispute is healthy. They clarify the truth and protect us from error and religious despotism.

When the church discourages principled debates and a free flow of ideas it leads to shallow Christianity and a false sense unity. No one gets any practice learning how to field contrary views in a gracious and productive way. The oneness they share is contrived, not genuine. And they lose the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff.

When arguments are few, error abounds.

If we argue well, we separate truth from error.