I still remember hearing in childhood this fable of Aesop: One day, the sun and the wind got into a debate as to who is more powerful, so the story goes. Seeing a lone man walking down a path, they chose to settle their dispute with a little contest. The one who successfully got the man’s coat off his back would be the more powerful. The wind went first and blew harshly at the man’s coat with all its might. But the stronger it blew, the more tightly the man held on to his coat. Then it was the sun’s turn. The sun shone its gentle warmth, and before long, the man voluntarily took his coat off. The story’s moral: a gentle approach is often more effective than a harsh one.
These days, most Christians seem to have learned how to argue from Twitter rather than Scripture. That’s a problem. How we argue matters to God as much as what we argue about.
Arguing about theological differences seem to be about as old as the church itself. But we tend to argue badly with each other, especially on social media. We tend to mimic the world’s ways of arguing—with outrage, marked by arrogance, full of implied superiority and put-downs. Everyone wants to land the verbal knock-out punch or the mic-drop moment. People seem bent on winning rather than learning—and on defending their egos while carelessly bruising others.
Drawing from Scripture, I suggest that gentleness is key to “arguing Christianly.”
In 2 Timothy 2:24-25, the apostle Paul instructs Timothy, “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth” (NRSV).
It is important to remember that Paul was talking to Timothy about false teachers who were “upsetting the faith of some” by undermining a core Christian belief, the resurrection (2 Tim. 2:18). Hence, even when arguing against false teachers who are leading people’s faith astray, Christians are to correct “with gentleness.”
Gentleness, also translated as “meekness” (Matt. 5:5), is not optional for Christians. It is part of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). We are called to live our lives “with humility and gentleness (and) with patience” (Eph. 4:1-2).
This does not mean being a doormat or weak. But it certainly means we cannot be angry, arrogant, and antagonistic, as is so often seen today—not even when we are arguing about important doctrinal matters.
What about Tough Love?
But what about “tough love”? Don’t we sometimes need to use harshness to get through to people for their own good? Didn’t Paul tell Timothy to rebuke as well? True, in 2 Timothy 4:2, Paul tells Timothy to “convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.” But note the context of “utmost patience” and encouragement. Too often we are prone to convict and rebuke without encouraging—and with very little patience.
Furthermore, Paul told Timothy to be kind and gentle to everyone (2 Tim. 2:24-25). The original Greek word for “kind” (epios) in verse 24 has only one other New Testament occurrence, in 1 Thessalonians 2:7. There, it was translated as “gentle”—“we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children” (NRSV). This tender image does not square with “tough love.”
We just cannot get around Paul’s emphasis on gentleness. There is very little room for harshness.
Furthermore, tough love is only genuinely loving when it is in the context of a loving, trusting relationship, such as a parent-child relationship. Harsh words between strangers over the internet is not tough love; it’s just an excuse to act like jerks.
What about Jesus?
But, some may argue, Jesus was harsh with his opponents, denouncing the Pharisees as hypocrites and a “brood of vipers” (Matt. 23:33). How does this square with Paul’s instructions?
Firstly, Jesus did this only rarely, and almost always against those in power, especially the religious leaders. We have to be very careful not to elevate these rare cases over the very many more instances where Jesus was gentle and kind, especially to sinners. When Paul appealed to the trouble-ridden Corinthians, he did so by “the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:1).
Perhaps, in his divine wisdom and knowledge, Jesus thought it was necessary to be harsh toward the Pharisees because of their self-righteousness and pride. Even if this is true, it is difficult to emulate Jesus in this without his wisdom and his insight into people’s hearts.
Jesus’ rare use of harshness should not overshadow the consistent and repeated teachings on gentleness found not only in 2 Timothy, but throughout the New Testament. Titus 3:2, for example, asks us to “speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone” (NRSV). 1 Peter 3:15-16 tells us to defend our faith “with gentleness and reverence.” James 3:17 says that God’s wisdom is “peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits.”
In addition to gentleness, here are some other guiding questions for how to argue Christianly:
Have I Truly Understood?
St. Francis of Assisi’s famous prayer suggests that we should seek first to understand, then to be understood. We must take time to carefully read or listen to properly understand what the other’s point is. Rather than reading for faults and preparing a response, read charitably to truly understand. We may find that we are actually not that far apart. But too often we rush to judgment and argument based on just a few disagreeable words or sentences.
One of the best ways to see if we have properly understood what the other is saying is to repeat, in our own words, what we think they are claiming. Ask questions, rather than make assertions: “Am I right to understand that you are saying …?” If the person agrees with our restatement, then we have understood correctly. Then we can offer accurate critique.
All of this, of course, presumes that we ourselves are fully immersed in Scripture and correctly understand biblical truths before we go around pointing at others’ faults. We need to be an approved worker, able to handle God’s word correctly (2 Tim. 2:15). So we need to ask ourselves: have we truly understood not only our opponents, but also the Scriptures?
Am I Humble and Honest?
We will not be taught by Scripture if we are not humble enough to learn. That humble posture carries over into our disagreements with others. Do we have logs in our own eyes before we start pointing out specks in others (Matt. 7:3)? Is our way of thinking off? God might use a disagreement to teach us something and help us grow.
Our goal should be to find truth, not win arguments. That means we must be humble and honest enough to recognize when we are mistaken or wrong. We cannot be so arrogant as to assume that we are always right and have nothing to learn or change. Humble approaches tend to be better received anyway.
We should never aim to change someone’s mind immediately to totally agree with us—least of all in just one conversation! That is an arrogant savior complex. Remember that it is God, not us, who will convert people’s minds (2 Tim. 2:25).
Rather, our immediate aim should be to teach and to explain as clearly and patiently as we can what our viewpoint is so as to be understood. Whether the listener agrees is up to the Holy Spirit.
Am I Kind and Fair?
Kindness is more effective than harshness. We need to check our tone, especially in writing. Are we being sarcastic? Are we passive-aggressive, using phrases that imply insult?
For example, phrases such as “only by capitulating to secular culture can we ignore the Bible’s clear teachings” are insulting to your opponent and not being kind. Far better to make the same point by asking questions rather than making assumptions: “How do we guard against misreading Scripture through cultural lenses?”
Being fair to our discussion partners means that we should not jump to conclusions or assumptions about them. We should not stereotype them. It also means we need to truly understand their arguments and not turn them into straw man fallacies for us to knock over.
In fact, it is probably best to start by finding what we have in common. What did they say that we can affirm and agree with? In the process, we might even find that we differ only in degrees rather than in kind.
Ultimately, we need to use our words to heal rather than harm, to draw people closer to God instead of turning anyone away from God.
Why Do I Want to Argue?
Perhaps the first question to ask ourselves should be “Why do I want to argue now?” Avoiding arguments altogether seems to be Scripture’s preferred first recourse. Paul cautioned Timothy not to be quarrelsome (2 Tim. 2:23-24). We need to humbly and honestly ask ourselves: Why do I want to argue? Why am I so worked up about this particular issue? Is it worth arguing over?
It is good for our spiritual lives to examine ourselves when we feel angry about something. Perhaps there is some unresolved pain, hurt, or even sin that is triggering my fight-or-flight emotional defensiveness. It is better to deal with our personal issues rather than projecting them onto our arguments. Otherwise, arguing becomes an unhealthy way of avoiding the hard work of spiritual growth and sanctification.
We must also ask ourselves what our motives are for correcting the other. Is it to further God’s kingdom or mine? Am I trying to be helpful, or am I being prideful? If our desires are to boost our egos or our social status among friends, or to score brownie points with God, then we are correcting for the wrong reasons. These desires might be part of the youthful desires or passions that Paul warned Timothy to shun (2 Tim. 2:22). Instead, we are to “pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace” (v. 22).
Speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:15) means you cannot use harsh words, implied insults, or unfair straw man arguments for the sake of defending God’s truth. Gentleness is not optional even when arguing over important doctrines. You should be “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness” (James 1:19-20, NRSV). How we argue is a spiritual matter.
Speaking of “slow to speak,” there is a time for everything, including “a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Eccles. 3:7). Jesus advised us not to throw our “pearls before swine” (Matt. 7:6). We need wisdom to discern when and with whom we should engage. I have found social media and online forums to be generally bad places to engage in arguments.
However, when I was a campus pastor, I followed a student-run atheist Facebook group, mostly to listen in and learn what young atheists today are thinking and feeling. Once, someone argued that God is cruel, because how could Adam be held responsible if he didn’t know the difference between good and evil, right and wrong, before eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?
Despite his sarcastic tone, I chose to comment, gently explaining that Christian theologians taught that “knowledge” in Hebrew Scripture often meant experiential, even intimate knowledge rather than simply theoretical understanding. That is why it used “know” as euphemism for sex—“the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived” (Gen. 4:1). It is similar to the difference between someone theoretically knowing that getting addicted to drugs is bad versus someone who actually lived through and recovered from drug addiction. The latter knows that truth experientially and intimately. Christian theologians, therefore, believe that Adam theoretically knew right from wrong, good from evil, before his act of disobedience made him know it experientially.
I did not seek to disparage the student or try to convert him with that one Facebook comment. I limited my arguments to just one point of teaching and explanation, and I prayed for the Holy Spirit to work. The conversation thread ended with one of the atheists thanking me for my comment. She encouraged me to comment more often in the future.
When your “opponent” thanks you and invites you to speak further, that is a sign you have been gentle, kind, and fair in your arguments. Although arguing might not be the best word to describe it, this is arguing Christianly.
- From your experience, have you seen examples of a gentle approach being more effective than a harsh one? Share that experience.
- Do you think there is more anger and outrage these days? Why or why not?
- How often have you heard a sermon or read a message on “gentleness” as a Christian virtue? How high a priority do you think our churches currently place on gentleness for Christians?
- What does “speaking the truth in love” mean to you? Have you seen it abused? Read Ephesians 4:14-16 for the context of that phrase and discuss what insights you gained.