Contending is not debate

This article is the first part of a 3 part conversation – see also the following:


The following comment appeared on Facebook after AntWoord announced James White’s programme and the debates that was organised in South Africa:

“Contending is not a debate. When one agrees to debate someone it is an acknowledgement of the fact that their point of view might have merit. That is not contending, that is affording them an opportunity to oppose God. We are not called to debate any unbeliever or pagan religion.”

Dear Smithy

It’s a pity that you have decided (if your Facebook comments are any indication) that AntWoord and its work is now another one of the multitude of things that you feel necessary to speak out against. We don’t mind constructive criticism, we can acknowledge our faults and want to learn from it. But your criticism is misplaced. My aim is not to change your mind about AntWoord (or me personally for that matter) for it seems that once you’ve decided that you are dealing with false teaching and compromise, then one shouldn’t expect any further understanding or support. That’s okay, one has to deal with this regularly, because the world is full of people for whom it is easier to criticise than to really understand where others are coming from.

I am commenting on your remark that you’ve posted on your Facebook page because I think you are simply mistaken. I will look at each sentence in turn:

You say:

“Contending is not a debate.”

It depends on your understanding of the words ‘contend’ and ‘debate’. One of the definitions of ‘contend’ is ‘to strive in debate’ (feel free to look up the words ‘contend’ and ‘debate’ in any dictionary and thesaurus and notice the similarities for yourself). To contend would thus mean to give reasons, discuss, explain or defend one’s position against other or opposing viewpoints, which in turn is a definition of what is meant by ‘debate’.

In Jude 1:3 we read the following: “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” (ESV)

In his Notes on the Bible Commentary, Albert Barnes considers the words “that ye should earnestly contend” (in verse 3 of the KJV) and writes:

The word here rendered “earnestly contend” – ἐπαγωνίζεσθαι epagōnizesthai – is one of those words used by the sacred writers which have allusion to the Grecian games. Compare the notes, 1 Cor. 9:24, following. This word does not elsewhere occur in the New Testament. It means “to contend upon” – i. e., “for or about” anything; and would be applicable to the earnest effort put forth in those games to obtain the prize. The reference here, of course, is only to contention by argument, by reasoning, by holding fast the principles of religion, and maintaining them against all opposers.”

According to verse 4 of Jude, “certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” The reason Jude appealed to believers to contend for their faith was precisely to answer these people who perverted and denied the faith “that was once for all delivered to the saints”.

The New Testament is full of examples, especially of Jesus and Paul (Matthew 22:23-34, Luke 20:26, Acts 9:22, Acts 17:17, Acts 18:4,19, Acts 19:8-10, Acts 28:23-24) who were contending for what they believed, for certain points of view. They were in discussion with people over various issues and with people of opposing viewpoints (Somerset seems to think that these are not examples of ‘debating’, but I would contend that that is precisely what happened – also, look again at the definition of the word ‘debate’). Nowhere are we commanded not to discuss, explain or defend what we believe, in fact, that we are to do so is exactly what the following passages indicate: Philippians 1:7,16, Titus 1:9-11a, 2 Timothy 2:25, Jude 1:3, 1 Peter 3:15-16, Colossians 4:5-6, 2 Corinthians 10:5, Acts 17:1-5, Acts 22:1 (and many more).

Of course there are times when we should shake the dust from our feet (Matthew 10:14), but surely we don’t do so before we’ve explained and defended our position and then have seen that people are not further willing to listen us. Of course we should also be careful not to throw our pearls before the pigs (Matthew 7:6), but surely we are not to assume that all are pigs that would trample on the pearls of God’s wisdom, before people had opportunity to show themselves to be such.

Of course we should also take heed of the warning of being taken “captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition” (Colossians 2:8) and to “avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge” (1 Timothy 6:20). But the point of these warnings is that we shouldn’t believe these things since they are false, not that we shouldn’t refute and expose falsehood for what it is through discussion and debate with sound reasoning and expounding Biblical truth. We need not be afraid of confronting things that are false, but we should be aware that it is indeed false. (By the way, some people refer to Titus 3:9-10 as an exhortation not to get involved in discussion with unbelievers, because such would be “unprofitable and worthless”. But Paul wasn’t referring to discussions with unbelievers, he was admonishing believers causing division among themselves.)

Referring to 1 Corinthians 2:14, it is often rightly pointed out that the natural person cannot accept the things of the Spirit of God, for it can only be understood by spiritual persons. For some this seems to mean that believers should therefore not discuss things of a spiritual nature with unbelievers since they will not and cannot understand it. The problem with this interpretation is that all believers themselves were once natural people, but came to faith anyway through what once also seemed like foolishness to them (1 Corinthians 1:18, 23). The point is not that we should not or cannot dialogue with unbelievers, it is that we cannot do so independently of the Spirit of God calling those persons and working in their lives. That is why we should never think that unbelievers will merely be convinced through our human effort and words; no, it is the Spirit and his power that works to brings understanding and salvation (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). But neither does it mean that we should not think deeply and reason carefully, nor that we cannot discuss the things of God with others, for the Spirit uses our efforts and words in the lives of others, otherwise he wouldn’t have given us the responsibility to take the Good News to others in the first place.

You continue:

“When one agrees to debate someone it is an acknowledgement of the fact that their point of view might have merit.”

When we agree to debate someone it is an acknowledgement of the fact that we respect their right to have a different opinion and their right to say what it is. That doesn’t automatically mean that their opinion or viewpoint is right, for the merit of any viewpoint depends on what the reasons are for believing it to be true and that is what needs to be discussed. But it is simply the height of arrogance (and unloving) to say, “I will not discuss this issue with you, because I already know, without having carefully listened to you, that your view has no merit”. Couldn’t it be the case that at least some of what someone says has merit? And even if you think that what someone says does not have merit, isn’t it meaningful and respectful to discuss and explain why, by giving reasons, it doesn’t have merit? Wouldn’t that at least afford others the opportunity to be corrected or challenged, even if they do not in the end accept your point of view? (By the way, in formal debate, the benefit of what is being said is mainly directed at the audience who are challenged to wrestle further with the issues for the sake of discerning truth – and, to be clear, not apart from the Spirit’s prompting and working in their lives.)

You continue:

“That is not contending, that is affording them an opportunity to oppose God.”

It is ironic, according to this way of thinking, that the only way we could try and prevent people from opposing God, is to never speak to them about God at all. For when we make any kind of attempt to speak to people about God, we are giving them an opportunity to oppose God, simply because most people will disagree with what we say, whether we give them opportunity to share their disagreement or not. By exhibiting the arrogant attitude that people should only listen to us and that we never have to listen to others (because they would be opposing God), we are actually contributing to people’s resentment and contributing to the reasons for why they oppose God. Such an attitude does not show a concern for people, for meeting them where they are and for being willing to take their concerns seriously because we really care. People quickly project this same kind of uncaring attitude on the God that we claim to believe in.

You continue:

“We are not called to debate any unbeliever or pagan religion.”

We are called to proclaim or preach the gospel to all unbelievers of any religion. Part of that proclamation is contending, defending, discussing, refuting, arguing, debating, reasoning, dialoguing, explaining and clarifying all kinds of issues that stand in the way of people really hearing and understanding the gospel. Doing so is not to be confused with compromise, ecumenism, human effort, “succumbing to ALL sorts of weird things”, being “off the narrow road”, or any other kind of uncharitable and false accusations that suggest someone hasn’t received the love of truth and that their main concern is not for people to hear the gospel and accept Christ.

Here are two Christians speaking about some of the issues raised here that I find very helpful:



Read further:

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