Tip #6: Seek Out A Good Debate

[for context, see the original post Ten Tips for Becoming a Better Pastor]

Tip #6 for becoming a better pastor is to seek out a good debate: not to win, but to learn.

The word “debate” likely causes you to think of presidential debates, which are not debates at all. They are more like playground fights for big boys. Don’t seek out a debate like that. In fact, avoid them. “Keeping away from strife is an honor for a man, but any fool will quarrel” (Proverbs 20:3).

I’m talking about debate in the classic, liberal-arts tradition: a robust, thoughtful clash of ideas. It’s a skill that’s been all but lost in our postmodern world, where nobody is right but nobody is wrong either. It’s part of your calling to keep the discipline alive for the next generation.

After all, the Christian faith as we know it wouldn’t exist without debate: Paul vs. the Judaizers, Augustine vs. Pelagius, Luther vs. Erasmus. Debate helps clarify what really matters. It makes us think through the implications of our position, and it forces us to examine the best and most challenging arguments from those who disagree. If you’re looking for a prime example of respectful, earnest, engaging debate, check out the documentary Collision. It’s a series of debates between Douglas Wilson and Christopher Hitchens, two of the finest gentlemen and most thoughtful scholars in recent decades. They passionately, provocatively disagree with each other. And then they go out for beers. The moral of the story: every pastor should have an atheist drinking buddy.

So, if you want to be a better pastor, seek out a good debate. Find people who disagree with you and are thoughtful (the latter is harder to find than the former). Invite them to sit down with you in an unhurried, informal setting, and agree on some ground rules. Then let ‘er rip. Remember, the goal isn’t to win (more on that below). The goal is to gain practice in loving your enemies, speaking the truth in love, and being ready to give an answer to those who ask. If you get intellectually dominated by a thoughtful atheist, have the humility to acknowledge it, and thank her for her sharpening influence (Prov. 27:17). Chances are you’ll make a new friend. Everybody loves a Christian who’s humble enough to admit defeat.

For the best growth and development, you ideally want three different debate partners: an evangelical Protestant who disagrees with you theologically, a Catholic or Eastern Orthodox friend, and an agnostic or atheist. The evangelical will help you hone your theological convictions, the Catholic/Orthodox friend will force you to reckon with a different view of history and authority, and the agnostic/atheist will challenge you on the big metaphysical questions.

Your goal is not to win, but to learn. This will be difficult: because Truth matters, and because debates are by nature competitive. There are winners and losers. You are, after all, trying to persuade. But here we encounter one of the side-benefits of debate: it reinforces your gospel identity. You aren’t righteous because of your right answers. You aren’t justified by correct theology. You aren’t a good pastor because you can dress down the village atheist in front of a live studio audience. You are righteous by the merits of Christ alone. You are one of God’s elect, and God is sovereign in salvation (which means he will convert agnostics by something other than the sheer force of your argument). It’s OK to lose a debate. It’s also OK to win every once in a while. Especially if you have the character to do so charitably and humbly. “Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice” (Philippians 1:18).

Next month I’m participating in a debate with the Secular Student Alliance at the local university. Why? Because I want to become a better pastor.

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