Is Debating a Good Thing?

As many of our readers know, on September 29, 2011, I debated Blair Scott, the Director of Communications for American Atheists, Inc. About two and a half years earlier I debated Dan Barker, the co-president from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. In both debates, I defended God’s existence, while the atheists argued that God does not exist. At both events, the venues were packed with people and video live streams of the events were watched by tens of thousands of others.

The primary reactions we have received from the two events have been overwhelmingly positive. Countless e-mails, calls, notes, and personal comments have come into our offices commending us on the work that was done in the debate. [NOTE: Please understand that I write about these events not in any way to brag or boast. To God be the glory for anything good that was accomplished. The reason I relate the events is only to explain the catalyst for this article.] On rare occasions, however, we have had a few individuals express their concern that public debating is not good for the cause of Christ and is ineffective in reaching those who do not believe in God. While many of these people believe that God exists, and that His existence should be taught, they believe that public debate is inappropriate.

We, at Apologetics Press, take such feedback very seriously. Even before agreeing to these debates, we considered whether the debate format is an effective way to teach truth. Having given the issue much thought, we believe there are several good reasons for Christians to be involved in public debate.

First, the New Testament shows that Jesus was often involved in debating His teachings in a public manner against those who taught error. In Matthew 22:15-22, the Pharisees attempted to catch Jesus in His words. They questioned Him about the rightness of paying taxes to Caesar. They thought that they had Him in a trap. They were wrong, and His answer: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” silenced their quibbles. But His willingness to publicly answer their questions, as well as those of the Sadducees and Herodians (Matthew 22:23-40), showed the errors of those groups. In addition, by publicly defending His teachings, the multitudes who were listening to the exchange “were astonished at His teaching” (22:33). From this fact, we can glean that such public exchanges not only confront the error being taught, but also have an impressive impact on those in the audience.

Second, the early church often engaged in public debate. In Acts 18:24-28 we read about a man named Apollos. Aquila and his wife Priscilla heard Apollos preaching John’s baptism, and they took him aside and explained “the way of God more accurately” to him. After this teaching, Apollos wanted to go to Achaia and encourage the church in that area. The text explains that when he arrived there, he “greatly helped those who had believed through grace, for he vigorously refuted the Jews publicly, showing from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ” (18:28, emp. added). Notice that the inspired text explains that Apollos helped the Church by vigorously refuting error in the public forum. In addition, numerous other examples from the book of Acts show God’s spokesmen defending the Gospel publicly against naysayers. In Acts 13:45, Luke wrote: “But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy; and contradicting and blaspheming, they opposed the things spoken by Paul.” In Athens, Paul “reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and Gentile worshipers, and in the market place daily with those who happened to be there” (Acts 17:17). Public debate was an effective avenue through which New Testament Christianity spread in the book of Acts.

Third, publicly defending the truth against error, even in the Old Testament, has historically been integral in the ministry of God’s people. God’s prophets often found themselves in public settings being called upon to defend the God of the Bible. One memorable example is Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18). Elijah met with the wicked King Ahab and instructed him to “send and gather all Israel to me on Mount Carmel,” including the 450 prophets of Baal (18:20). Notice that it was God’s prophet who called for the public showdown. When the assembly was gathered, Elijah proclaimed to the people: “How long will you falter between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, then follow Him” (18:21). The public contest between God and Baal was to be decided by whichever deity sent fire from heaven. Of course, since Baal was an idol, and had no real power, his prophets called in vain for his aid. But God answered Elijah’s prayer and sent fire from heaven. “Now when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, “The Lord, He is God! The Lord, He is God!” (18:39).

From these examples in Scripture, it is clear that public debate is a format of discussion that definitely has a place in encouraging the Church, refuting error, and influencing the lost for God and His Son Jesus Christ. When Peter explained that Christians are called upon to “always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear,” that certainly would include the public defense of God and New Testament Christianity in the debate format (1 Peter 3:15). The Proverbs writer explained: “The first one to plead his cause seems right, until his neighbor comes and examines him” (18:17). If atheists and others are going to publicly teach error, then it is our responsibility to publicly “examine” that error and expose it for what it is. Ironically, some of those who are opposed to public “debate,” stand up publicly, or write on public forums, that such public discourse is unproductive. Yet they are using public discourse to argue that such public discourse is unproductive! They are actually involved in the very thing that they are speaking against.

Public debates are an excellent way to teach the truth. They are sanctioned by Scripture and were used by Jesus, the apostles, and the prophets throughout human history. In every format in which we impart God’s Word, we must “preach the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), and let our speech “always be with grace, seasoned with salt” so that we may know how we “ought to answer each one” (Colossians 4:6). And we must “always be ready to give a defense” even in the public forum, and that defense needs to be presented with an attitude of meekness.


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