Tactics and Tools

Must We Choose between Winning the Argument and Winning the Person?

Author Keith Plummer Published on 07/12/2018

Some people are uncomfortable with the third use of the Columbo Tactic (using questions to help people see flaws and inconsistencies in their thinking). They might see it as being necessarily contentious, aggressive, and driven by a prideful desire to best the person with whom they’re talking.

Once, after I had finished teaching on the subject, someone who I could tell was wary of the tactic came up to me and said, “I don’t really agree with this approach; I’d rather win the person than the argument.” As we talked, it became clear that according to her, we either aim to lovingly win a person to Christ, which means avoiding confronting (no matter how gently) their faulty thinking, or we inquire about apparent incoherence and lack of correspondence to life, in which case we’re not genuinely concerned about the person but only about creating a “Gotcha!” moment to make ourselves feel superior and our conversation partner feel bad. This way of thinking assumes we must either love the person or challenge their outlook on life, but we can’t do both because they’re mutually exclusive.

I understand what’s behind such a stance. The word “win” together with the word “argument” evokes, in the minds of many, images of an adversarial, hostile, and competitive encounter, a fight to the finish with a victor and a vanquished, a belittling gloater and one shamefully gloated over. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we understand arguing in its formal sense—namely, offering reasons in support of one’s claims and assessing the reasoning put forth by someone holding an opposing position—and understand winning an argument as simply making a more compelling case, I think we’ll see that to pit winning an argument against winning a person is unwarranted. In other words, it’s a false dichotomy.

Wanting to win an argument isn’t necessarily wrong. It’s why I want to win that determines whether there’s a problem. If I’m motivated by a desire to display my cleverness and/or to demean or belittle the person with whom I’m speaking, or if I consider winning the argument as an end in itself, I’m out of step with the Holy Spirit and misrepresenting Jesus, whose truth I say I’m defending. Due to the reality of indwelling sin, this is a temptation we must always be prayerfully on guard against and repentant of when we recognize it in ourselves. Anyone engaged in apologetics to any degree needs to be asking the Lord to purify their motives so that we all increasingly desire to win arguments as a means (though certainly not the only one) of winning people to the gospel.

The late Francis Schaeffer is a good example of what I have in mind. Schaeffer said that despite the non-Christian’s rebellious attempts to interpret himself and the world in unbiblical ways, he cannot do so consistently because he continues to be a divine image-bearer living in God’s world. Thus, there will always be what Schaeffer called a “point of tension” between life as the unbeliever experiences it and their professed philosophy. In fact, Schaeffer said, the more logically consistent the unbeliever is to his/her unbiblical presuppositions, the more out of touch he/she will be with reality. In an attempt to demonstrate to people the consequences of their rejection of God’s revelation and why they need Christ, Schaeffer advised that Christians lead unbelievers to seriously consider the logical ends of their presuppositions in order to drive home the existential and intellectual lostness of humanity apart from God. (Schaeffer called this approach “Taking the Roof Off.” It’s one of the tactics Greg explains in greater detail in chapter 10 of Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions.) Schaeffer urged Christians to engage in such argumentation but sounded a sober warning about doing so for the wrong reasons:

As I seek to do this, I need to remind myself constantly that this is not a game I am playing. If I begin to enjoy it as a kind of intellectual exercise, then I am cruel and can expect no real spiritual results. As I push the man off his false balance, he must be able to feel that I care for him. Otherwise I will only end up destroying him, and the cruelty and ugliness of it all will destroy me as well. Merely to be abstract and cold is to show that I do not really believe this person to be created in God’s image and therefore one of my kind. Pushing him towards the logic of his presuppositions is going to cause him pain; therefore, I must not push any further than I need to. (The God Who is There)

In the same volume, Schaeffer rightly noted that “[t]he purpose of ‘apologetics’ is not just to win an argument or a discussion, but that the people with whom we are in contact may become Christians and then live under the Lordship of Christ in the whole spectrum of life.” No, the winning of arguments is not more important than winning people, but neither is it necessarily in conflict with that end.