Why I don’t want to win many arguments

I have had a couple of conversations with (good, close, affirming, valued) friends recently in which I have been challenged to be less generous in argument: ‘truth matters, and we need to contend for it!’ – that sort of line. I confess that this makes me uncomfortable.

Truth does matter, yes; that said, my present opinions are, I am certain, not truth. I hope that, in many cases, they approximate to it; in certain core cases I fervently hope that they approximate closely. I do not, however, want to confuse myself with the One who could say ‘I am the Truth’. Because of this, there is a proper humility and a proper provisionality in the way I hold my opinions; in all things, I acknowledge that I might be wrong.

As to needing to contend for truth – well, I have preached four or five times in the last couple of years on Rev. 20:7-9; I am fairly convinced that truth will win out, regardless of my best efforts. God does not need me to defend His ways and works; God calls me primarily to holiness and to witness, not to controversy.

There is, certainly, a Christian duty to contend for the faith once delivered. But most of the ongoing arguments I find myself in are with Christian sisters and brothers, many of them good friends to whom I owe a great deal. With them, I don’t think I am contending for the faith, just for a particular interpretation of it. Of course, there are views that are true, and views that are false on various issues, and we need to discuss these things in the family. But if I win these arguments, someone else has to lose. And, as a general orientation, I really don’t want my friends – or my sisters and brothers who I have not yet met  – to lose.

Of course, this raises the question of the limits of Christian fellowship: which issues are ‘in the family’ on this description, and which are contending for the faith? My test-case here is baptism. Baptism is the basic command of the Lord Jesus, the beginning and heart of Christian ethics, and so on. I make common cause with people with whom I disagree on the proper mode and subjects of baptism, work with them in mission and pastoral care, teach alongside them in conferences, offer them the eucharist I celebrate and receive joyfully from them the eucharist they celebrate. So, unless an issue is more important than baptism, unless a practice is more fundamental to the Christian life than the practice of baptism, unless an ethical command is more urgent than the last word of Jesus (Mt. 28:19) and the first word of the newly-Spirit-baptised church (Acts 2:38), I am not going to break fellowship over it, and so I really do not want to win an argument about it.

Thus considered, there are very few things I argue about that are more important than baptism.

I do not know what a mode of rhetoric that debates issues with a principled refusal to win the debate might look like; the generosity of the sort of medieval scholasticism exemplified by Thomas’s Summa Theologica is probably the closest thing I have seen, and some of the practices of discussion that my good friend Andrew Marin narrates in his Love is an Orientation also begin to come close. I do know that I want to discover or invent that rhetoric, to find ways of exploring and testing the truth of issues which place ideas in competition, but people in community.

Whenever I engage in public argument, I try hard to be self-critical after the event, to test my heart and actions against the call of the gospel as I understand it. With due respect to my friends who would have me be sharper, on my best understanding of what gospel holiness looks like, I have never yet been too generous or too loving in debate – rather too often the opposite. If some of my friends call me to be less generous in argument, I believe the gospel calls me to be far more generous than I have yet imagined.

I suppose that in the next few years of my life I will be even more active in public arguments than I have been so far; I pray that I will be far less willing to win those arguments than I have been up till now.



  1. Jon
    Mar 1, 2015

    This makes me wish I had picked you as an external examiner!

    Thanks for this. Really good to hear.

  2. Alastair Roberts
    Mar 2, 2015

    I have mixed feelings about your approach here, not least because you don’t seem to differentiate much between the many forms that argument—or ‘winning’ in argument—can take.

    There are occasions when I am arguing in order to win over a friend or acquaintance to my position in a way that doesn’t hurt their feelings or wound their pride. On such occasions, I may ensure that there is a context of friendship and mutual respect sufficient to sustain the discourse. I may strategically make weaker arguments. I may step back or change the topic before delivering any killer blow, giving them the time and space to change their mind without losing face. I may eschew direct challenge in favour of talking them through my thinking process, without using an opposing position as a foil.

    Non-confrontational Socratic questioning is a fantastic tool in such situations (in general, I don’t think that people exercise much discipline and care in the art and practice of questioning). There is no need for direct assertion of one’s own position when one can, through shrewd questioning, guide people around to one’s way of thinking without opposing them. Gently leading people to expose the errors in their own former ways of thinking is generally far more effective than doing it oneself for a number of reasons. Carefully employed, it can also be a means of engaging people’s imaginations in ways that overcome existing narrow terms of debate. It can be a means of maximizing your interlocutor’s share of the conversation and demonstrating your attentiveness to them and their point of view. Finally, it can be a subtle way of moving your interlocutor to take an external perspective upon their point of view.

    Recognizing the psychological structure of conversations and the ways in which you can change this using rhetoric, psychology, or institutional means is always helpful. Healthy thinking always involves volitional and relational components and often we will only change minds by carefully addressing the relational dynamics of a conversation, attending to and mending the sorts of relationships that persons have with their interlocutors, the conversation, and the issues. If I want to win over someone to my position, I will occasionally make them a spectator of a more confrontational argument that I have with a third party, demonstrating the strength of my position and the weakness of the opposing one. If I am having a direct conversation with them, I will occasionally seek to involve a calm third party in the conversation somehow and frequently alert my interlocutor to their presence. This helps to keep tensions down and heads cool.

    There are many other tactics. Changing the medium of the conversation can make a difference. Sometimes I will take conversations into private correspondence. On other occasions I will slow down my responses to encourage response over reaction. Removing certain discussions from the speed and social density of most online networks can be helpful. I will occasionally take a heated online argument, wait a week, and then write a response in the more aerated context of a blog. Sometimes you need to create a new platform for the conversation. I have recently been involved in setting up a new blog for this purpose, a blog where, without external commenters, thoughtful people of different opinions can debate an important set of issues in a respectful, friendly, yet challenging conversation. On other occasions you need to establish ways of restricting participation in certain conversations to those who are temperamentally and intellectually suited for them.

    While they are certainly not the only worthwhile method and can frustrate many, I’ve also found that there is great benefit to writing long comments on many fronts. They sharpen my thought and force me to address any weaknesses within it as I engage thoroughly with another’s thought, not dodging any challenge. They encourage response over reaction. They slow everyone down. They can smoke out the lazy, the reactive, and the impatient interlocutors, undermining their credibility. In my experience, they can work extremely well in persuading spectators. Thorough and considered responses encourage and value responsible and thoughtful blogging and make comment sections places of rigorous response and engagement, not merely reaction.

    My differences with this piece primarily have to do with the way that you frame the process of argument, ‘winning’ and ‘losing’, and what is involved in making an aggressive case for one’s position. First, argument can be something that we share. It can be a form of tough sparring between people grounded in a deep mutual respect and sense of intellectual responsibility. The Christian duty to think truthfully about God is a shared one and combative debate between Christians of differing convictions is one means by which we hone our understanding, stress test our viewpoints, and discover our weaknesses and errors. We can serve our Christian neighbour by pushing their thinking to the limit and are served by them as they return the favour. Contexts where we must always pull our punches to avoid hurting thin-skinned people are seldom conducive to the development of strength of mind and clear and robust articulation of the truth. Establishing contexts where such discourse occurs between gifted interlocutors benefits the whole Church.

    Second, argument isn’t merely undertaken for the sake of those who are speaking. There are occasions when I want publicly to destroy a person’s position and credibility beyond all hope of recovery. I am not trying to persuade such an interlocutor, but completely to remove any power that their false teaching might have for those witnessing our discussion. Anyone who sets themselves up as a teacher of Christian truth and as a leader is and should be exposed to a ‘stricter’ judgment. The good of the Church sometimes requires us to deliver knockout punches to toxic teachings, false teachers, and abusive leaders. It can also serve as a salutary warning to others who might be tempted to set themselves up as teachers that they should not do so unless they have what it takes to face the sort of tough testing that accompanies the awesome responsibility of publicly teaching Christian truth.

    Third, the point of such conversation is not that one participant ‘win’ but that truth emerge through an uncompromising process of testing. If we all have thick skins, strong nerves, courage, and the humility to surrender our faulty viewpoints, everyone stands to win from the emergence of truth from the crucible of tough debate. Even if we do not fundamentally change our minds, we have much to gain, as Oliver O’Donovan observes. The dramatic and public loss of an opponent whose pride prevents them from backing down can also be of considerable benefit for those in the Church who might have been susceptible to their false teaching had they retained their credibility.

    Finally, although it often may, making an aggressive case for one’s position need not involve a lack of humility or awareness of the provisionality of one’s opinion. Rather, aggressive argument can be an open display of the strength of our case that is always an implicit invitation to a countering position to respond, rising to the challenge by seeking to expose our weaknesses and display its own strengths. Aggressive argument can be a commitment to making the testing of truth as rigorous as possible. Just as in court the strength of the case of the prosecution can be elicited by a rigorous defence, so the greatest servant of my growth in understanding and the honing of my articulation of truth can be my relentless sparring partner. ‘Steelmanning’ the cases for all perspectives can also serve the Church as a whole and we can all lose out when arguments are weakened, made less searching and forceful, avoided altogether, or when key voices fail within them, leaving weaknesses in other viewpoints unchallenged.

    Perhaps one of the deeper problems here is our democratic notions of Christian argument and the assumption that every voice should be included equally, or the failure of our contexts and media to uphold the restriction of key conversations to those who are temperamentally and intellectually equipped for them. There are clearly many contexts and forms of Christian discourse beyond the crucible of rigorous argument. However, none of these forms of discourse may be as effective in serving the maintenance of the weighty responsibility and demands of those teaching Christian truth.


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