Making an argument the “Christian” way?

Making an argument the “Christian” way? September 28, 2012

In recent theological discussions I have noticed that I and others fall into traps that are best avoided if we want to discover more truth. Here are my suggestion of arguing styles to be wary of.

1) Antithetical

This describes the tendency to imply that there are only two possible choices when discussing an issue.
This can be explicit like the response I once heard from a six day creationist who exclaimed that if I didn’t believe in a literal six day creation then I was undermining salvation.
It can also be merely an implied argument like the Gospel Coalitions stance that being egalitarian was heading on a road to having a low view of scripture.
In both examples there are only two seemingly opposite options available when in fact the situation demands a more nuanced response.

2) Straw Man

This is when you hear someone’s argument or reasoning then create a caricature of it. You then begin to argue against your own caricature rather than the other persons point of view.

We saw this a lot during the Rob Bell Love Wins situation. I heard one preacher take Rob’s example of a single mum struggling to bring up her child. Rob had asked whether she might be one of the last who will be first. The preacher in question took Rob’s single mum and constructed a whole backstory about her; listing things she had done wrong. Whilst he suggested to his audience that he was answering Rob’s question he was in fact doing no such thing.

3) Thin end of wedge

This is where audiences are frightened into rejecting a particular view point by someone over stating where the said view might lead. For example suggesting that allowing for equal rights for gay people will lead to the dissolving of the institute of marriage. There is no real evidence of a link but the scare tactic means that people will reject the proposal and cease to engage from further dialogue.

4) Worst example as norm

This is where you find the most extreme example of an issue and bring it into the centre of the argument. Perhaps speaking about right wing issues and mentioning Hitler as his views are normative.

5) But he also says lots of good things

This is often used where people seem intent on supporting someone no matter what ridiculous ideas they are presenting.

6) We should all love each other.

This is the perceived Christian agape response – it is usually only used by those who don’t have a strong opinion either way on the subject at hand.

7) Agree to disagree

This has the ring of openness about it but can often be said after a long discussion only to by a stinging parting shot.

It is like saying ‘I don’t wish to discuss this anymore, now take that and don’t bother answering back’.

8 ) We need to be dispassionate.

This is used by the over analytical or rational types to seemingly silence those who are most affected by the subject matter. They talk in tones that try to undervalue the opinion of anyone who might passionately care about something and dare to show it.

What do you think?
Can you think of any other examples?

And before you think I am only speaking about other people, let me say that I challenge myself with these ideas too.


Thanks to my good web friend, Al Molineaux for this challenging guest piece. Connect with him on Twitter.

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  • Pat68

    Agree to disagree isn’t necessarily bad depending on one’s motivation. I may say it when talking with someone who is being obstinate and unwilling to really listen and dialogue. When it’s clear that we’re not getting anywhere, I may use this phrase just to end the conversation on a hopefully respectful tone.

    I may come across as dispassionate at times so as not to get sucked into other’s people emotionalism and to be able to carry on a rational discussion.

    Antithetical is a good one and shuts down people quickly who are not skilled in argumentation or who are easily intimidated. Particularly when the argument is delivered in authoritative sounding ways, it can shut people down, but you have to not be afraid of sounding foolish and question or challenge those things that just don’t ring true to you. Or calmly respond with something like, “Hmmm, I’ll have to look into that”, which lets the person know you’re not swallowing what they give without question.

  • Mea culpa? 😉

  • I might not see 6 and 7 as being as big of a problem as you do, in certain situations. There are some issues which have been rehashed over and over again and which have valid arguments on both sides. Eventually you do have to just agree to disagree, and the reminder that we need to love each other despite our disagreements is important to keep the debates in perspective.

  • Good stuff, but at the same time, we should also realize that the advice above can also be used to control the argument to a way we want it to be and can become more manipulative and distorting than truly gracious and in touch with reality.

    * There are times where there are two mutually exclusive views.
    * There are times where an extrapolation about an argument is more accurate than the original argument; sometimes we put great sounding prose in a PR manner that actually distorts what we are really arguing. In other words, the original argument is really the straw man, the rebuttal may be a more accurate depiction.
    * There are times where certain actions will create a spiral to negative consequences, even when the evidence is not initially available. In fact, all trends/trajectories start off without evidence as to the direction things will take.
    * There are times where the worst example highlights another issues in the discussion that would otherwise be forgotten.
    * There are times where we should give some credence to someone because they have made good arguments elsewhere and so we should have some level of trust in the person.
    * There are times where people’s arguments are more about their own egos than it really is the truth, and so a reminder to love should ideally call us to genuinely recognize each other.
    * There are times where a disagreement needs to be concluded by others and clearly signaled, so as to clearly convey that there remains disagreement and the other person should expect the discussion to cease.
    * There are times where we do need to make sure our emotions and our emotional experiences aren’t clouding our judgment from other perspectives. Rationality is necessary to bring together many various types of experiences that contradict each other on the surface. When we stay within our emotions and not try to distance ourselves on occasion from them, we can fail to see the legitimacy of arguments.

    The point being is, there should be no set of rules for ‘Christian’ argument. When a principle is made a rule, it justifies a certain type of argument and thinking as always being the right way. But the best arguments along gracious and honest dialogue requires a variety of forms of arguments and thoughts that one set of rules can very well exclude. It becomes a manner of knowing when to do something and when not to do something. In other words, wisdom, which can not be easily codified in rules. There is a time to say “calm down and check your emotions” and there is a time to not.

    • To add: Making proper arguments is knowing in what ways an argument is valid and in what ways it isn’t. The frequent problem in debates is that we take one argument we make and treat it as absolute, or we reject an argument someone else makes and treat it as entirely in error with no merit whatsoever.

  • I disagree about the “agree to disagree” thing. I think there are many times where you realize that the person you’re arguing with will never recant their position and the same goes for you. Basically, the argument is going nowhere and there is no point in debating it further.

  • I read a psychologist recently who talked about the “Insult Effect.” Two people debating an issue have a chance of changing each other’s mind as long as their arguments are reasonable. But once one person insults the other person, the chances of persuading the person drop completely to zero. Their mental doors instantly slam shut.

    So any time a person laces his or her arguments with anger at the other person’s motives, or talks down to the other person because of how stupidly uniformed they are, etc, their chances of actually “winning” are nil.

    • Thanks for this EXCELLENT INSIGHT!

      Have a great weekend Lois 🙂

    • Alan Molineaux

      Excellent Lois

  • Jeanny

    Sometimes I wonder if its hurting others more when I speak against their belief system then it would be benefiting them. I wonder what is opinion? where does opinion reside in our world? If it angers, divides and stirs the ugliest parts of us is it necessary. What about with those who are older than us, how do we show respect in an argument. Why do people avoid arguments, why do some seek them. Instead of argument we should call it brainstorming. Leave straw man out, leave personal biases out. Focus on a collaboration of ideas and put them on the table. Treat this brainstorming like a meal. If your picky youll only take what you like, and you will still be hungry. If you’re humble you’ll eat the whole plate. Sure it might be hard to swallow, even more so to digest but it seems like the right thing. Very interesting blog.

  • I see the commenters all posing the negative side of agreeing to disagree, and sometimes this is indeed a reality. Jesus himself told the disciples not to toss their pearls in front of swine. But there really is another, positive side. I have had really vigorous debates with dedicated brothers (and, less frequently, sisters) in which we both felt that our engagement with the other sharpened our own position, where we came to understand where the other was coming from, and while we wound up disagreeing on the conclusion to that particular issue, we:

    1) Fully respected the process and dedication to God through which the other came to the conclusion he/she still held, and

    2) Remained solidly convinced of the faithfulness of that other.

    This is a form of agreeing to disagree where we remain dedicated fellow-followers and where “agreeing to disagree” really is a conclusion of a process by which we’ve both been enriched, but out of which complete agreement hasn’t come. Nobody’s giving up on anybody.

  • Interestingly I just wrote a book about exactly this! It’s called Arguing with Friends ( The problem with dismissing the antithetical perspective is that truth is, by its very nature, antithetical. The law of non-contradiction has yet to be broken despite many failed attempts. The question is not whether an alternative exists to the “antithetical” approach, but whether one can dialogue respectfully and civility with the background understanding that two contradictory perspectives cannot both be correct. I believe we can.
    Problems arise if the two choices that are put forward represent a false dichotomy (i.e. six-days or heresy; choose!), which is similar to a straw man fallacy. Then we need to discuss the issues sufficiently to understand what the true options are. Still, we cannot escape the exclusivist nature of truth. What we can escape is approaching Truth in such a way as to exclude people instead of ideas. Striking a balance between an honest respect for the nature of truth on the one hand, and the highest possible ideals of interpersonal interactions on the other hand, is precisely what I hoped to accomplish in my book. I hope it is what we all strive to accomplish.