How to have a theological debate

Getting along when we disagree

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.

.11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. – James 3:1-5; 11-18

Debating the meaning of Scripture among believers is a good thing. When we engage honestly, we learn, We grow.

I had a delightful lunch yesterday with a young man who is a student at our local seminary. He shared with me that he no longer engages with some of his friends because the engagement with them was just too painful. Rather than fellowship in Jesus, they engaged in doctrinal fights.

The key to successfully engaging in this process is to desire the truth more than wanting to be proven right. If I am always desirous of the truth, I can engage with someone who has a different perspective than me without becoming defensive or aggressive because the objective isn’t to prove myself right but to discover the truth. I’m not advocating empty-headedness and a mush-brain that has no conviction regarding the truth, but an attitude that allows congenial discussion; real fellowship in Jesus.

If we become overly vested in our brand of doctrine, we can’t hear anything from someone who has a different perspective.

Defensive debates become rancorous and drive brothers apart. As fellow Christians, that ought not to be. We are fellow members of the same body so when we hurt another brother; we are hurting the body of which we are a part. That is typically seen as self-destructive behavior.

How we engage is the key to my point today. James 3:18 contains the key principle, I think. The NASB translates it like this: “And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”

And the seed (the word of God) whose fruit is righteousness (practical righteousness, the fruit of the Spirit) is sown in peace (not rancor) by those who make peace.

When we engage another as anything other than a peacemaker, we become a spring pouring forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water. It has been my observation that even if a person is leading people to Christ but has this rancorous spirit, the disciples they make don’t look much like Jesus. They too become rancorous and divisive. How we debate the Scriptures and how we share the gospel to some degree determines the quality of the life of the folks whom we disciple.

If we want to make disciples that look like Jesus, then it behooves us to disciple like Jesus.

We can appropriately disagree with a brother. We don’t have to agree on all doctrine. We do have to love one another. We do have to treat one another as brothers in Christ. Do not belittle another because of a difference of position on some secondary doctrine. We need to take care how we judge a brother. There may be some things we don’t know or don’t understand.

If you would like to debate this topic, do so in the comments section below. Just be a peacemaker.