Christians have had their share of social media successes in over the past few years, many of them related to identifying theological error and defending theological truth. This work has been carried on through blogs, of course, but also through Facebook and YouTube and other forms of digital communication. But for all of the success, there have also been a lot of failures. Many of the most egregious failures have been in discussing or debating controversial topics. As we learn to engage controversy using these new platforms, we do well to consider how to we can speak with equal parts truth and love—love that is strengthened by truth and truth that is softened by love.
Robert R. Booth’s Children of the Promise, a book on the always-controversial subject of baptism, offers the kind of challenge we need. He says
We know we understand an opposing view only when we are able to articulate it and receive the affirmation of our opponent that we have accurately represented his position. Only then can we proceed to argue against it. It does not take a big man to push over a straw man—little men are up to this simple task. Nor is it enough to say that our brother is wrong, or silly, or that his arguments make no sense; we must be prepared to demonstrate such claims. Some argue that they do not need to demonstrate such claims. Some argue they do not need to understand opposing views. But they cannot expect to engage people who disagree with them.
This applies to discussions far beyond baptism. Tony Payne once turned to football (soccer) to provide the helpful illustration of playing the ball rather than the man.
As in football, so in debates and arguments, we should strive to play the ball not the man; to discuss the issue itself rather than attack the person presenting the issue. This is not easy. It requires the ability to separate the pros and cons of a particular argument or issue from the personality who is presenting them, and to subject your own arguments to the same honest scrutiny that you bring to bear on the alternative view.
You know you’re dealing with someone who is playing the man not the ball when he makes a straw man of your view; that is, when he presents your side of things in an extreme or ugly light, or describes or illustrates it in such a way as to make it unattractive. By contrast, a ball-player endeavours to describe and present the opposing view as fairly and reasonably as he would like someone to present his own view.