If you’ve ever had an “intensely engaged” discussion with a friend in class, or on a Facebook thread, blog or Twitter-battle, you’ve engaged in polemics. Now, you needn’t worry that this is a particularly un-Christian activity.
A friend of mine recently pointed out that Christians have always argued and always will—for good reason. Thinking through history, some of the greats in the church have been polemicists: Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin and many others were willing to throw down over truth.
They were great precisely because they could argue, not despite it.
That said, it’s wise to think through our basic attitudes and approaches to polemics as a people, especially within the body. We should regularly ask ourselves “How am I going about this discussion? Is my attitude consistent with Christian virtue? Are my words in conformity with Jesus’ command to love neighbor as self?”
Here are three qualities or attitudes that should define our approach to whatever discussion we engage in, and one that shouldn’t.
One quality in short supply in our polemics today is playfulness, a certain amount of mirth and good humor. It’s that kind of light-hearted reasonableness that G.K. Chesterton embodies in his works like Orthodoxy and Heretics.
To say that his arguments are playful is not to admit they aren’t “serious,” dealing with significant issues. No, it is to recognize they are clearly not driven by fear or pride, but rather a humble self-forgetfulness and joy deeply rooted in the Gospel. His ability to sport and laugh at, and with, his interlocutors managed to communicate both disagreement with and real fondness for them.
This is not an excuse for being flippant, disrespectful or condescending.
When your heart is filled with confidence in God, it allows you to speak with humor and grace, knowing that whatever the outcome of the argument, you’re securely held in the arms of your Father because of the Son.
One of the benefits of engaging your intellectual “opponents” with this attitude is that it is attractive. So often, people are used to dealing with Christians arguing out of their insecurities or pride which drives them to be snippy, harsh, humorless and retaliatory. Nobody wants to listen to someone like that, or end up believing whatever they’re arguing for.
The Gospel should lead to a confident good-naturedness that, on the one hand, respects the other person, and at the same time, allows you to take yourself less seriously.