/ Warren Peel

Dealing with Debaters

Have you ever tried to share the gospel with someone and they keep bringing up one objection after another? How did you respond? Did you patiently try to answer each argument? Did it degenerate into a shouting match? Did you give up trying to talk to them and walk away? What should we do?

The apostle Paul was a master debater. His natural debating abilities were developed in the rabbinical training he received from Gamaliel in Jerusalem (how the Pharisees enjoyed arguing!) and then redeemed and honed in his missionary labours in synagogues and marketplaces all around the Mediterranean world after his conversion.

In his letters we see Paul engaging with imaginary debaters, though no doubt the objections he deals with are drawn from any number of real conversations he had over the years. In Romans 3.1-8 we have a good model of how to deal with debaters. He is anticipating and answering four of the most common Jewish objections that he would have heard many times in the synagogues he visited. I don’t want us to get bogged down in the details of these objections: if Paul were writing a letter to the church in your city the objections to the gospel he mentions would no doubt be very different. Instead I want us to notice a few principles we can learn from Paul’s interaction with his opponents.

1. Paul does engage with debaters

We see this in action over and over in Acts. Paul didn’t just stand up and deliver monologues. He interacted with unbelievers—he reasoned, persuaded, argued, dialogued. He did apologetics, defending the gospel against misunderstanding and misrepresentation. He took questions, thought through objections and developed arguments in response.

 We need to do the same. We shouldn’t hide from questions or be intimidated by arguments. We have the truth and so even if we don’t know the answer to every question we are asked, we know that the truth can stand up to the most rigorous examination. We should listen carefully to what people are actually saying. Don’t set up straw men or rely on caricatures of unbelievers’ positions. Take time and make the effort to find out what your Muslim friend actually believes and don’t just assume you know. Find the strongest arguments against Christianity you possibly can, the most common arguments that come up where you live and work out the best answers to them. We shouldn’t have a ‘one size fits all’ approach to debaters. In my experience, ‘one size fits all’ means ‘this size fits no one’!

Paul is also drawing on his own experience as a one-time Jewish opponent of Christianity. He understood his debaters’ position from the inside because he himself used to be one of them. Perhaps you can do that too? Can you remember how you used to think before you were converted? Do you understand the atheist mind, the Roman Catholic mind, the legalist’s mind from the inside?

2. People will twist your words

They did this with Paul, one of the most gifted communicators of the gospel in the history of the church, so don’t be surprised when they do it with you. He says in Romans 3.8: ‘And why not do evil that good may come?’—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just. People listened to Paul preach and this is how they summed it up afterwards: ‘He’s saying we should do evil so that good may result!’ They did it with his letters as well as his preaching, according to Peter in 2 Peter 3.16: There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. Don’t be shocked when people draw wrong conclusions from what you say or make your argument sound ridiculous. Work hard to be as clear as possible, minimize the possibility of misunderstanding as much as you can, but be prepared that people will always distort our message, whether maliciously or through ignorance.

I remember some years ago explaining the gospel to a lady who came to church occasionally but wasn’t a Christian. I don’t think I got the message wrong or overlaid it with so much jargon that it was incomprehensible, but at the end she said, ‘So you’re telling me that Christianity is just for good people?’ Her understanding of what I had just said was the exact opposite of what I’d been trying to explain!

3. Paul doesn’t answer every objection

We shouldn’t feel bound (as we sometimes do) to answer every single question and every person. Paul doesn’t do that here in Romans 3. Not all questions are equal and not all questioners are the same. The questions in Romans 3.1-8 are increasingly sinful and Paul’s responses take that into account. The first one (v1) isn’t bad: it relates to the Old Testament and the promises of God; the second one (v3) is a bit theoretical, but not altogether foolish; the third question (v5) is ridiculous, and Paul apologizes for mentioning it; the fourth question (v8) is blasphemous and Paul doesn’t dignify it with a response.

There are genuine questions that people sincerely ask and we should discern them and do our best to answer them. But there are other questions that are foolish and blasphemous and we don’t need to feel guilty about refusing to answer them. In fact, as Jesus taught, we should feel guilty if we do answer them. In Matthew 7.6 he says, Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you. You need discernment to know if you’re talking to a ‘dog’ or a ‘pig’, but be very careful about giving them the precious pearls of gospel truth just for them to trample over in ignorant malice.

Jesus himself modelled this at times. In Mark 11.28 he is asked a question by people looking for an argument: ‘By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?’ What a great question! What an opportunity to speak to these chief priests, teachers of the law and elders! But Jesus doesn’t answer their question. He says he will answer their question if they answer his first—and then he asks a question about John the Baptist that he knows they won’t be able to answer. He knew they weren’t really interested in the truth and so he refused to answer.

We can worry that we are missing a gospel opportunity if we don’t answer, or that we are conceding the battle. But sometimes refusing to answer a blasphemous or foolish question may bring home people’s folly in a way that nothing else will. Sometimes patiently answering every single question can feed the questioner’s pride and arrogance.

4. Paul doesn’t answer everyone in the same way

Paul gives more time to the first two questions, less to the third and none at all to the fourth in Romans 3.1-8. In fact the fourth draws a strong rebuke from Paul: ‘Their condemnation is just.’ In others words, ‘If that’s really what they believe they deserve to go to hell.’

Have you come across those two verses that appear side by side in Proverbs 26?

·         V4: Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.

·         V5: Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.

 Someone might seize on these verses as evidence of a contradiction in the Bible, but of course they don’t contradict at all. Apart from the fact that the result in each verse is different depending on whether you answer the fool according to his folly or not, each verse is for a different situation. You need wisdom to know which verse to follow in any given situation. We need to tailor our answers to the individual we are speaking to. One of the most common questions we are asked as Christians is ‘Why does God allow suffering?’ Should you answer that question? How should you answer? It all depends. As a friend of mine puts it, you need to know is the question being asked from an armchair or from a wheelchair. We need to pray continually for wisdom, grace and sensitivity as we interact with debaters.

 And we need to remember that at the end of the day only the Holy Spirit can open blind eyes and bring spiritual life and light. He uses our words, so we must speak and we should try to speak as well as we can, but it’s reassuring isn’t it that even the most brilliant debater in the world, Jesus Christ himself, didn’t convince everyone he spoke to. Nor did Paul. Most Jews rejected the gospel and no one knew their arguments better than Jesus and Paul! This drives us to pray earnestly that God will bless our faltering words to bring new life.

Warren Peel

Warren Peel

Warren has been married to Ruth since 1998 and God has blessed them with four daughters. He is Pastor of Trinity RPC in Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland. He serves as a Trustee of the Banner of Truth.

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