It was going to be a long drive. After some general chit-chat and catching up on each other’s lives, my friend Paul probed me on my views on same-sex marriage. I was unprepared. I did my best to fumble together some thoughts without trying to sound like a bigot: I said something about how God’s design for marriage is between a man and a woman. But it wasn’t the answer Paul was looking for. He described my view as outdated and intolerant. At least he was honest! The argument that then unfolded was tense, with both of us trying to talk over the top of one another, both of us pretending to listen, and both of us shooting quick-witted jabs at the other’s position. Let’s just say the argument didn’t go according to plan. I guess the only positive I took from the conversation was that it made the trip feel shorter.
Just like me and Paul, Australians have forgotten how to argue well—not just at a personal level, but also at a societal level. The ferocity surrounding the 2017 Marriage Plebiscite was a shining example of this: it was a debate Australians were unprepared to have. In fact, there really wasn’t any debate, just a lot of shouting.
It strikes me that we live in a world where thoughtful, meaningful and sustained dialogue is becoming a rarity. Matters of religion and politics are taboo cultural touchstones. Furthermore, with this lack of positive, sustained dialogue comes a very dark “us versus them” mentality. We are now seeing increasing polarisation within our culture. The rise of sloganeering, emotionalism and ad hominem attacks are not too removed from the kind of squabble we might see down at the pub. But unfortunately, this time, everyone is sober. Attempts at dialogue and discussion often turn into a war of words, with verbal Molotov cocktails being hurled across the room and the compartmentalised echo chambers of social media adding further fuel to the fire.
If this is the state of things, how can Christians respond meaningfully and enter into the dialogue space? How should Christians transformed by the gospel of grace and truth argue?
The overarching principle that must control the way Christians argue is love: we need to love our conversation partner and argue in such a way that shows that we truly value them. We need to be able to argue well in order to love others well. The point of an argument is not to win or even to change someone’s mind; the point of an argument is to discover truth in relationship. As we rediscover the lost art of arguments, below are a number of principles that can help us love others in the way we argue.
1. Don’t be afraid of arguments
Firstly, don’t be afraid of arguments. Often we view arguments in a very negative light. However, I want to suggest that arguments are a good thing: arguments can help us engage with one another and work towards a goal. Arguments can help us work together towards the noble endeavour of pursuing truth. As a society, we should be seeking what is right, good and true in the world. For the Christian, this endeavour is supposed to reflect the very nature of our God, who is truth (John 14:6). All Christians are in a loving relationship with the one who is truth himself. Truth’s opposite—deception—is found in the father of lies—the devil himself. So don’t be afraid of arguments; arguments are a good thing.
2. Ask questions and be quick to listen
Secondly, ask questions and be quick to listen to the answers to those questions. Often we can be slow to listen and quick to speak. But when we are, the other person doesn’t feel heard or understood. This is why James 1:19 instructs us to be slow to speak and quick to listen.
Furthermore, asking questions and listening has a disarming effect: it communicates to the person you’re speaking to that you want to hear them out and understand their position. In addition, by asking questions, you are helping someone think through their views. It may even turn out to be the first time someone has thought critically about the position they hold.
3. Practise empathy
Thirdly, when arguing, always practise empathy. A person’s view on abortion rights may be informed by their own experience of having one, or their relationship with someone who has. Remember: ideas don’t form in a vacuum. People may have deep-rooted reasons for why they hold to a particular belief.
Practising empathy involves walking alongside someone and understanding where they’re coming from. Understanding someone takes time and intentionality. Practising empathy develops the kind of relationship in which you can talk about deep topics in a way that is considerate of the other person. So where there is disagreement, be willing to lean in and acknowledge the sensitive nature of the topic at hand. As the walls between you are broken down, you may end up discovering that you have more in common than what divides you.
4. Practise gentleness and respect
Fourthly, when arguing, always practise gentleness and respect. Arguments can get tense. However, Christians need to respond in gentleness with respect (1 Pet 3:15b). This sort of attitude will cause others who speak maliciously to be ashamed of their behaviour (1 Pet 3:16). Notice that responding in a manner not seasoned with gentleness and respect only escalates things: it often leads to more heat, and usually neither side feels heard. In comparison, Christians should look to the interests of others: they should seek to care, respect and love the other person.
5. Be willing to admit you don’t have all the answers
Fifthly, be willing to admit you don’t have all the answers. If you’re asked a question and you don’t know the answer, don’t make it up. It’s important to be willing to accept what you don’t know.
That said, there’s value in looking into something and coming back with a more thought-through reply. It demonstrates a respect for the other person’s views and questions. So be willing to investigate the other person’s question and continue the discussion next time. Sometimes it’s helpful to keep the dialogue open-ended for the sake of continued relationship.
6. Be willing to accept that you may not get a hearing
Finally, be willing to accept that you may not get a hearing. Unfortunately, if the other person does not have a similar posture of humility and empathy to yours, they won’t be willing to engage in discussion. Remember: you can’t force someone to hear you. You can share with them, but they may not be ready to listen. Be willing to respect that and continue loving them regardless.
Hopefully these principles help you the next time you get into an argument. Remember: the goal of an argument is not to win; it’s to pursue truth and understanding in relationship with one another. Happy arguing!
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