Why I Would Never Debate an Unbeliever

The main reason I shy away from debating anyone about the Christian faith is that if I did a poor job—and knowing my limitations, I can almost guarantee that would be the case—I’d hate for spectators to believe Jesus was no more than my poor representation of Him.

The Truth is far greater than my understanding of it or my ability to articulate it.

It’s possible to lose a debate and still be right.

As a young pastor, I was sandbagged into a debate. A young man in his late teens told me how he had been dallying with the Jehovah Witnesses and that his parents were concerned. He wondered if he and his father could meet me in my office one evening to talk. I agreed.

They showed up that night, accompanied by two Jehovah Witnesses, men loaded for bear. They were itching for a fight and mistakenly thought I was ready to take them on.

Looking back, what I should have done was inform the father and son that I had not agreed to this situation and wished them a good night, and gone home. As it was, I meekly brought the four of them into our church conference room where we sat around a table and I became the sacrificial lamb.

Nothing about it was fun. The JWs spouted verses I’d never heard of, giving them strange interpretations and scoffing at me for not knowing these things. They were completely obnoxious.

If a spirit of Christlikeness is any indication of truth, that alone should have done those guys in.

I learned an important lesson that night.

The lesson was reinforced a couple of years later when I was in Cincinnati for a weekend of leisure. After watching the Big Red Machine play championship baseball in the afternoon, I took in a religious debate at the downtown convention center that night, in which notorious atheist Madalyn Murray-O’Hair was debating a Church of Christ minister.

I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

The Church of Christ denomination (I’m aware they do not consider themselves a denomination, but by any measurement, they are) routinely puts forth its ministers to debate “unbelievers, atheists and so-called believers with aberrant doctrines.” In their bookstores, they often display entire collections of verbatim accounts of debates. So, I figured this would be fascinating and even educational.

It was awful.

Mrs. O’Hair lived up to her reputation as a playground bully, a name-caller, a fighter and a slanderer of the first order. She was obnoxious.

The minister was a classic debater. He would speak on his position for the assigned quarter hour, and leave questions for Mrs. O’Hair to answer. When she rose, she ignored him. It was as though she were the only one in the room.

She would open the Bible to some story she found ridiculous—Noah and the ark, Jonah and the whale, Elisha the bald-headed prophet, etc.—and read it to the delight of her supporters who filled the first two rows. They hooted and hollered, scoffed and laughed.

At the end of her time, she sat down and the Church of Christ minister rose. Once again, he stayed on script.

I sat there for nearly two hours with one thing in mind. The program indicated they would take questions from the audience at the conclusion. I wanted to rise and pose a question—any question—to Mrs. O’Hair, so for the rest of my life, I could work into sermons how “I once asked the famous atheist Madalyn Murray-O’Hair” such and such.

Finally, I grew tired of this early version of a Jerry Springer Show and retired to the hotel.

No one won that debate that night. In fact, I’d say that everyone lost.

Each year, our New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary sponsors the Greer-Heard Debates on campus when they bring in some well-known person, either an unbeliever or someone calling themselves a believer with unorthodox beliefs, and an articulate believer for a full-scale debate. Dr. Bob Stewart is the director of these debates. He ensures that everything is done respectfully and that no one party brutalizes the other. The academic community in New Orleans has gained a new respect for NOBTS as a result of these debates, and I hear that professors from Tulane and other colleges are often in the audience. (The seminary’s website is www.nobts.edu.)

I’m not against a debate when done right.

I’m just not the one to do it.  

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Joe McKeever
Joe McKeever has been a believer over 60 years, has been preaching the Gospel over 50 years, and has been writing and cartooning for Christian Publications over 40 years. He lives in New Orleans.