When not to debate

A friend of mine was recently challenged to a debate. He is fully capable of defending his position and I have no doubt that he would impress his audience with his knowledge and wisdom. However, I thought the particular debate would be unwise for several reasons and I wrote them in the following article.

After I wrote it, I realized that it had applications beyond the particular theological argument I was addressing. In fact, many within the church community would do well to understand the risks of a debate structure in answering challenges.  Politics, work situations, community organizations, even families suffer certain risks from debate-structured discussions.  Even those who come here to learn about narcissism will find these points to be familiar.

So I offer the article here and welcome your comments.



 As Americans, we believe in debate. We have been taught that reasonable discussion on various sides of a topic will lead to a reasonable conclusion that all can accept. If every voice is given equal opportunity and status, truth will prevail.

In fact, that rarely happens.

There are several reasons to avoid debating, particularly when the challenger wishes to debate the status quo. Here are just a few:


  1. Audience – There are four audiences in these debates: those who already support the current speaker; those who already disagree with the current speaker; those who have not yet made up their minds on the issue; and those who are outside the issue but enjoy the entertainment. That means three out of four are unnecessary. Those who already support one side over the other will very rarely be changed by a debate. Even if their side obviously loses, they will find excuses for the loss and carry on. Within the fourth audience, the ones who haven’t made up their minds, there will probably be many who will never come to a conclusion and the debate will not affect that. Thus, for many debates, the purpose of convincing the audience is insignificant.
  2. The primary reason most challengers wish to debate is for legitimacy. The debate forum, in our culture, appears to give each side equal footing and equal validity. One side may be wrong, but they are considered “worth listening to.” One recent book lists differing perspectives on various theological issues without judgment. By doing so, the author ignores the fact that many of these perspectives have been soundly and widely rejected among evangelicals. The reader is led to assume that these are equally valid perspectives simply because they are listed together. Two sides or more represented in a debate are assumed to be equal. Even though the status quo (SQ) may have superior scholarship and longer tradition, the challenger appears to have the same strength.
  3. The challenger has the most to win, because he has the weakest definition of winning. While the SQ appears to be burdened with everything included in traditional perspectives, the challenger simply has to create doubts or make the SQ look foolish. Many times the challenger doesn’t care about points or convincing the audience; he simply enjoys the opportunity to state his case and make the traditional look less appealing.
  4. Playing rules are different between the debaters. While the challenger is easily forgiven for overstating his case and attacking his opponent personally, the SQ is rarely afforded the same privilege. Our culture somehow expects that the underdog must stretch the rules and be more aggressive to make up for the weight of the authority of the tradition. In a Christian culture there is a burden on the SQ to be “nice.”
  5. The vocabulary is not equivalent. Challengers often redefine words. The audience believes that it understands the words as defined by the tradition, but the challenger uses the same words to mean something else. This deception is rarely explained and, if the SQ points out the discrepancy, the challenger finds a way to sidestep. By changing the definition, challengers give themselves opportunity to deny or affirm with little accountability.
  6. All statements are presented as truth in a debate, whether or not they are true. The expectation is that the opponent will be able to point out the error or deception in his time allotment. The challenger will use this to put the SQ on the defensive. When a statement is made and support is given, the opponent is not able to make clear to the audience the point of error without sacrificing his own opportunity to make a point. Once the challenger sets the tone of the debate so that the SQ is on the defensive, he no longer cares about the truth of his statements. When pressed, he can simply move to other statements to make himself look strong and his opponent look weak.
  7. The burden of proof is on the SQ. While tradition expects that the challenger should provide proof in order to support his challenge, the audience is usually less affected by a lack of proof from the challenger. The audience expects the challenger to appear weaker. However, they are greatly affected by the apparent weakness of the SQ. Since the two sides are debating, when one appears weak, the other appears strong. The challenger will seek to attack the SQ in ways that force the SQ to support the tradition. Any inability to do this will affect the audience far more than a lack of proof from the challenger.
  8. There is no common authority. When the debate lacks common authority, the opportunity for progress is stifled. We witness this often in debates concerning creation and evolution. One side appeals to the Bible as ultimate authority, while the other appeals to science. These debates usually frustrate both sides and the audiences. Even when the authority, like the Bible, is accepted by both sides, the interpretations may be sufficiently different to negate the commonality.
  9. The pull to the middle. One must always ask about the overall goal of the debate. If the debate is seen as a dialectic, the pull to the middle will be the goal. Dialectics are effective in “both/and” discussions, but not in “either/or” discussions. For example, if the abortion debate is framed as “the rights of the unborn” vs “the rights of the mother,” a dialectic approach may help to form laws or policies that address both concerns—because we want both concerns addressed. If it is framed as “the rights of the unborn” vs “the lack of rights of the unborn,” a dialectic approach will only lead to confusion. How could both be true? When the culture sees both sides as equal in the debate, the expectation will be that some middle ground represents truth.
  10. The appeal to the mind. Ultimately a debate is an attempt to convince by reason. Christian concepts are usually not learned or understood by reason, particularly reason alone. An appeal to reason in the Garden was what got us into this mess in the first place. The serpent simply questioned details of the truth until Eve’s reason took over and made a decision. When faced with the details or logistics of miraculous events, for example, reason struggles. And we tend to reject that which causes our reason to struggle. We may debate the reality of a world-wide flood in the days of Noah, but when the audience is confronted with the details of feeding the animals or cleaning the ark, they become troubled. The mind wants to be able to understand these simple things, rather than release them to the miracle. Debates give the impression that truth can be rationally discerned, when Scripture tells us the opposite.

(Notice that I could not find a better word for the defender than the “SQ.” Almost any word for the one who seeks to maintain the traditional good or right has negative connotations. We are a culture that admires the challenger and the underdog. I think that means they have an advantage in debates.)


So those are ten of my reasons. Anyone have any to add?


Filed under Church, Theology and mystery

8 responses to “When not to debate

  1. Kathy

    OH MY!!! LOVE LOVE LOVE this!!! I think many people, especially really nice people, often fall into the trap of debate, especially with Ns (and I recognize this is not a post particularly about Ns, but…well!) Nice people want to “help” and actually convince themselves that the Challenger just needs some gentle and loving explaining — and all the while the Challenger is playing mind and word games. And nice people are suddenly on the defensive and frustrated and walk away with the knowledge something is wrong but not knowing what it is.
    It’s head games.
    We MUST MUST MUST be aware of semantics and how easily we are drawn into stupid and meaningless debates.
    I did the same thing for each of my daughters when they learned to read: I wrote CAR on a piece of paper and asked them what it was. Both said “car.” I told them that it was NOT a car — it was the WORD “car.” There is a difference. I taught them never to use words like “transportation” if they meant BUS because someone else may be thinking “TRAIN” and you both walk away frustrated. When you debate, be SPECIFIC.
    This is so helpful in keeping your sanity and prevents you from arguing with fools.
    I hope my post doesn’t become boring, but I will give more concrete examples of what I mean.
    My children learned early on not to say “But I don’t need algebra in the real world because I would say “What, are you in the fake world now?”
    They tried to pull “don’t you trust me?” And I’d answer “not to fly a plane!”
    I wanted SPECIFICS of what they were planning!!!
    When my oldest was 5, and I was remarried, her bio dad told her that she could not call her stepfather’s parents Grandma and Grandpa. I had told her “it’s your brain, your decision.” She came home from a visit with bio dad and was very upset. She said “Daddy said if I called them Grandma and Grandpa, he would call that telephone pole a tree.”
    I sat her down and said to her “If he said he would call THAT telephone a tree, honey, that means he knows it’s a telephone pole. Do you want to call them Grandma and Grandpa?”
    “Then tell him go right ahead and call that telephone pole a tree and you’ll call them Grandma and Grandpa.”
    I taught them to be careful when anyone uses “obviously.”
    I taught them when someone uses nonsense, just agree and walk away.
    My ex told me I only wanted child support because I’m the megabitch from hell, and I said “Yes, you’re right. I want that on a tee shirt. Now, where’s the child support?” I refused to get involved with proving I’m not a megabitch.
    Listen listen listen to words people are using. Make sure you agree on the meaning. Otherwise, it’s just a game. Walk away.
    I’ll close with this (I know this is long): My oldest has a BA in psych and now working on her master’s at what is considered a prestigious school in Williamsburg, Va. (duh!! Can you figure it out? I’m so proud!!). She’s no dummy. She called me this week — she’s been counseling substance abusers. She actually said “Remember the telephone pole and tree, Mom? Thanks!! Now I can listen to the drug addicts and know how to counsel because I think I can tell the difference between those who want help and those who are just playing me, have to attend because of court orders, and I can tailor my counseling.”
    WOW!! I am so proud!! All because of a telephone pole and a tree!!!!
    Don’t get sucked into nonsense — like a post here where some N claimed that his ministry is not joyful and God will punish him because of someone else. WHAT?????
    Okay. I’ll get off my soap box.
    I love words. 🙂

  2. Kathy

    I’m sorry — I just wanted to add this so you don’t think my daughter wasn’t extremely affected at the time of these “debates.”
    When bio dad and 5-year-old were taking their walk and talking about grandparents, bio dad (who has a master’s in psych) actually drew a child into a debate. She abandoned her goal — wanting to call stepdad’s parents grandpa and grandma — and instead spent her walk with him in tears, trying to convince him about the difference between telephone poles and trees. This was not a short debate. She was frustrated and sad and tearful.
    It’s sick to play this kind of game with a child. SIck sick sick. But he HAD to match wits with her. When she was 3 he engaged her in a “debate” because she told him he put her socks on the “wrong foot.” Instead of just agreeing with her, switching the socks, and having a pleasant visit, he needed to prove her wrong.
    This is what Ns do to all of us. And it’s very easy to fall into the trap.
    Be careful out there. People are SICK.
    Stick to the topic — his/her cruelty or needing child support or breaking up, whatever. STICK TO IT and don’t be drawn in to the agenda of the N or those who want to mess with your head.

  3. Kirsty

    Thank you so much for this article.

  4. Penny

    Re: # 5, “the vocabulary is not equivalent”, I found my self thinking about your oft-stated “mantra” of being a “toy, a tool or an obstacle” to a narc or an abuser. I seem to remember things better when I use alliteration, so I remember this as “toy-tool-target”. I think I would NOT debate if it was clear that I was being used as a toy, a tool or a target, b/c it would NOT be about clarity but about control, and words (vocabulary) will be twisted. As for #4, “Playing rules are different”, I would also NOT debate if it was clear that it was about “power, control, entitlement & justification”–different rules indeed! In both these settings, a debate is utterly exhausting and a waste of time.

    • Kathy

      Amen!!! I have often been caught in stupid debates before I realized what was going on. Ever notice how those who truly don’t want to debate – their goal is just to win or have control or manipulate you – strike when you’re most emotionally/psychologically vulnerable? It’s like they smell blood!

  5. Susan

    With respect to theological debates, I happen to enjoy them as I find them to be “iron sharpening iron.” Whether or not anyone’s hermeneutics are changed matters not so much to me as sharpening my own understanding of Scripture. Even if one soul in the audience can be saved through such a debate, I think it’s worth it.
    That said, the debate with the N is something I repented of recently. After one of those going-around-in-circles-leading-to-nowhere discussions – be it ever so short – I apologized to our 11-yr-old daughter for the “bickering.” She replied, “I’m used to it.” And this in a home where my husband and I barely communicate anymore. So I told my husband that I’ve repented of bickering and I won’t do that anymore. On occasion when he’s come after me with poisoned tongue, I’ve either put my hands over my ears or, if at the computer, I put headphones on so I can continue with my work. I won’t let his poison get into my head and heart, and I won’t bicker anymore. It’s pointless and against God’s Word.

  6. UnForsaken

    Enjoyed this artlicle very much. 🙂

    It has always interested me to see the double standard of expectation. To our society some people can acceptably do something and others are totally condemned for doing the same thing. Also, although in many cases the aim appears to be logical, we can often been purposefully aroused emotionally to get us to agree with that one leader who needs followers.

    I think all of us have experienced what it’s like to maybe be only slightly emotional about something, and yet it still makes us struggle to see all the sides of the picture. We are human…but we can gain perspective. I loved this take on debate because the article itself is a good example of a type of analytical thinking . Put into practice, this can help coach us to our own perspectives and reach good decisions for ourselves!

    Thanks Dave!

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