A Word Fitly Spoken

“A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.”    –King Solomon

I’ve been thinking about the nature of online debate. 

Online debates, in general, are vicious things.  At least six of the Rules of the Internet confirm this.  And as people argue about things they’re passionate about, tempers flare, insults and name calling erupts, and the debate becomes a flame war.  Don’t think that the religious topics are exceptions to this–if anything, it seems like discussions on spiritual matters are more likely to get nasty.

The frequently controversial topics on the Internet are ideal breeding grounds for both healthy discussion and vitriolic argument.  And so, I find myself asking–how should we debate?  For those bloggers who, like myself, consider ourselves disciples of Jesus, and seek to become more like him, how should we conduct ourselves in online arguments?

1)  Focus on the Goal

When I teach my students how to write an Argument paper, I ask them what the goal of an Argument is.  Inevitably one student will raise his or her hand and answer, “to win!”  That answer is incorrect.  A student who focuses on winning will write a bombastic, arrogant, offensive paper, which will fail at its real goal–the real goal of an Argument paper is to persuade.  If I focus on winning the argument–if I try to intellectually beat my opponent into submission–I will never convince my opponent that I am right.

“Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.”   –Paul

As a Christian I have a responsibility to speak truth.  When someone is in error, I must offer them correction.  But how should I offer it?  If I’m speaking harshly, or arrogantly, I will not persuade anyone that what I am saying is truth.  If anything, I’ll encourage them to fight back instead.  No-one has ever changed their mind because they were beaten in an argument.  Plenty of people have changed their mind because they were convinced in a discussion.

All that Jesus did was motivated by love.  All that a Christian does should be motivated by love.  Remember that Jesus didn’t just die for you, he also died for the guy on the other side of the argument.  Whenever we speak truth into the world, we must do so with love.

“Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.  And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.”   –Paul

2)  Tame the Keyboard

“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”    –King Solomon

When we debate about something that is important to us, it is easy to be angry at those who oppose us.  And when we are angry, it is easy to unleash a barrage of epitaphs upon the other.  The problem is, once you start insulting the other person, you severely hurt your ability to convince him or her.

Scripture says much about the power of the tongue.  In this age of the Internet, the computer keyboard we type on has equal power–power to edify and uplift and encourage, or to tear down and insult and hurt.

With the [keyboard] we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same [computer] come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.”   –James

As a Christian, I have no right to bring intentional insult or to call names.  Any debate I engage in, online or otherwise, must be conducted respectfully on my part.  This does not hinder me from speaking truth–I may inform someone that I believe they are incorrect, but it is possible to do that respectfully.  I can tell someone that their beliefs regarding crosses are Scripturally unsupported, but I can’t call them an idiot or a dumbass, or imply that their beliefs stem from inbreeding on their mother’s part, or claim that their beliefs stem from their lack of male genitalia.

Re-read everything you type before you click “Submit.”

“Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”    –Jesus

3)  Know When to Walk Away

“Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself.”  –King Solomon
“Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.”  –King Solomon

These seemingly contradictory verses are the Bible’s equivalent of the Internet’s Don’t Feed the Trolls rule.  If someone is talking foolishly, and you leave his foolish statements unanswered, he will think he won the debate.  BUT–if you do answer him, you run the risk of being drawn into his foolishness.

The lesson here is: there comes a point when you simply must walk away.  We must speak Truth to all who will listen, but some people simply aren’t listening.  Know to recognize when further discussion will be pointless.  Learn to recognize which comments need to be replied to, so that error does not go unanswered… but also learn to recognize which comments–no matter how error-filled and incorrect they may be–are not worth responding to.  Don’t let yourself get drawn into endless and pointless arguments over minutiae.  Don’t let yourself get drawn in by perennially argumentative quarrelers.  Know when to walk away.

“But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.”    –Paul

4)  Summary

Focus on the goal–you’re trying to persuade others that your view is correct, you’re not trying to argue them into the ground.  Don’t just speak the truth–speak it in love.
Tame the Keyboard–don’t let your anger destroy your credibility or your witness.
Know when to walk away–don’t get baited into an endless spiral of pointless arguments by those who have nothing better to do.

We all have our moments of weakness.  There are times when I’ve gotten so riled that I’ve tried to bury my opponent in a debate.  But we have to hold each other accountable.  If the church is really a community, we should be able to say to one another, “Careful, brother,” when one of us begins to comment in an unChristlike manner.  And so I invite you all–no, I ask you all–to hold me accountable to this standard I’m espousing.  Don’t let me comment disrespectfully, or in a manner that brings shame to the Body, without calling me on it.  And if you let me, I’ll do the same for you.

Perhaps in this manner we can have more respectful conversations when we talk about spiritual things, rather than descending into endless flame wars.


One thought on “A Word Fitly Spoken

  1. And to go with your Rule #1,I’d add a Rule #5 — LISTEN. Too often, we enter into a discussion with an insistence on persuasion, but little care for understanding or being understood. If we want to understand where the other person is starting from, we have to listen. And once we’ve understood, we can properly respond. And if we listen honestly, we sometimes discover that we were actually the ones who were wrong. (!) 🙂

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