Local News: This Friday, January 25, the annual Mid-South Men's Rally will be taking place at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson from 5:15 to 9:15 p.m. This year's speaker will be Dr. Wilson Benton. For more information, click here to read the First Pres. Sunday, January 20, bulletin.
Winning a debate can be one of life's most exhilarating pleasures. The process of poking holes in an opponent's argument, satisfying yourself (if not your opponent) that you have successfully dismantled his or her viewpoint, can provide immense satisfaction. This is all the more true if what's being debated is something the debater believes to be a sacred topic, such as theology. The loser in a debate about politics or economics may just be ill-informed, but the loser in a theological debate is often scorned as being unspiritual.
Unfortunately, all of the pleasures that come from winning a debate, especially theological debates, are pleasures that appeal to what Scripture calls the "sinful nature". The fruit of the Holy Spirit, Paul said, is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. These are attributes that do not characterize the average debate. To the contrary, debates are usually power struggles, things that quickly degenerate into discussions, not about what is objectively true or false, but about which debater is superior.
1. Living in "debate mode" makes the Christian faith more a matter of the head than the heart.
There is, of course, a place in Christianity for serious, in depth scholarship. For some, the manner by which they can most glorify God is by going into a scholarly vocation, such as seminary professor, church historian, etc. However, intellectualism and spiritual maturity do not necessarily go hand in hand. The religious leaders of first century Israel were scholars of the Hebrew Bible; Pharisees, for example, typically memorized the five books of Moses in their entirety. However, Christ denounced many of them as being utterly void of love for God.
Believers who love philosophy and history and theology will find that Christ is the ultimate meaning and fulfillment of all these areas of life. For those who don't much care for philosophy or theology, they will find that they are no less welcome in Christ's kingdom. The important thing is to love God with all of one's mind. Not everyone's aptitude is equal, but aptitude isn't what God is primarily concerned about. The near genius who can pontificate for hours on the finer points of theology may still, considering the brain God has given him, be intellectually lazy, exercising only half his muscles. The person who can't rattle off names, dates, or long theological terms and who may appear "simple-minded" may, from God's vantage point, be acting as a far better steward of the mind God has entrusted him. It's not so much what we have that matters, but what we do with what we have that matters.
Another danger of living in debate mode is that it can lead us to overvalue our own arguments. The gospel isn't true because we can effectively contend for it; it's true independent of anything we do on its behalf. A proposition's truth or falsehood doesn't hinge on how well it's debated. A poor debater may actually be in the right on any given topic, but appear to be wrong because his opponent is more intellectual. God doesn't "need" our arguments.
Living in debate mode also leads one to approach Scripture not in a devotional manner, but in a quarrelsome manner, not looking to it to feed one's soul, but looking to it for proof verses to defeat one's opponent. It can make a person overly defensive, which is dangerous in the long run. As C.S. Lewis, who engaged in many apologetics debates himself, said, a person cannot always be defending the truth; there must be to time to rest and simply feed on it.
2. Two errors to avoid
Within Christianity, there are two opposite errors to fall into. The first error error reduces Christianity to something only for the academically trained. "Ignorant laypeople" who can't even read the Bible in its original languages aren't intelligent enough to glean the deeper things of God during their own Bible study, so they may as well leave it to the "professionals".
Evangelizing simply means sharing yout faith in Christ, talking non-pretentiously about good things Christ has done in your life; it doesn't mean being a philologist or a trivia buff who has a pre-planned answer for any theoretical objection that could ever be raised against the faith. Just like you don't need to be an electrician to know how to turn a light switch on, you do not have to be a theologian to know how to read a Bible and hear from God in the process. Just as people who aren't scientists and who cannot explain the intricate details of the human digestive system are still able to eat food and be nourished by it, believers can trust in Christ and receive and share the blessings that come from knowing him without understanding exactly how it all works.
Skepticism tempts us to disbelieve in what we cannot fully understand, but if we applied this logic in spheres of life other than religion, how could we function? People are usually more than willing to get behind the wheel of a car and drive even if they are not trained mechanics. People are willing to buy a house and live in it even if they are not trained architects or construction workers. Let us then be rid of this notion that following Christ requires some kind of elitist training or insider information.
The second error says that scholarship, seminary, sermon preparation are "unspiritual". This error asserts that the truly godly pastor would just rely on the Holy Spirit to supply the words of the sermon at the moment. Preparing ahead of time looks like self-reliance, rather than reliance on God. The Holy Spirit illumines the reader, so striving to learn to read Hebrew and Greek is a waste of time.
Let us beware of error, remembering that though you don't have to be a mechanic to drive, it's a mighty good thing that there are mechanics out there. Similarly, it's good for the church to have scholars and pastors who are well-versed in theology and the ancient tongues in which Scripture was written. Yes, the Holy Spirit can spontaneosly inspire a preach with extemperaneous words from the pulpit, but he can also inspire a theologian as he labors long hours over his textbooks.
If you're a person who has a natural inclination towards a good debate, be careful. A true point argued in an unChristlike manner can be detrimental to the kingdom of Christ. Our motives should be examined. Of course, as long as we live in a fallen world and have sinful natures, our motives will never be utterly pure, and if we waited until they were to try and spread the gospel, we would never get started. However, it's important to strive to talk of our faith winsomely, not argumentatively, charitably, not haughtily. May God help us all.