What Proverbs teaches us about civil debate

Mar 7, 2019

In elementary school, it was always necessary to enter the playground armed with insults and "your mama" jokes. You never knew when an argument would break out and you would need to tear down not only your opponent, but also his mama. As children, disagreements weren't solved by listening to an opponent's view and engaging their ideas with your own counterarguments. Rather, it was all about who could silence their enemy or get the most laughs from the crowd. If you were up against a kid especially good at dishing out insults, you could always resort to, "I know you are but what am I?" Repeating this statement would often annoy or frustrate your opponent and stop their attack. Worked like a charm!

It seems this type of arguing has become the norm in our day, even among adults. Our society simply hasn't grown out of our childlike ways of debate; we rarely engage ideas because it's easier to attack each other. It doesn't matter if you're watching a political debate or having an online discussion; we've simply lost the ability to think deeply, engage opinions that are different than ours, and do so in a civilized manner.

Sadly, this has crept into the church as well. We don't handle disagreements about doctrine or its application with healthy discussion and kindness. It seems we're unable to listen and try to accurately understand an opposing position. Rather than letting the love and kindness of Christ shine in the midst of a shouting, name-calling culture, we've too often emulated the tactics of the world. Yet, the book of Proverbs warns us against these hasty words, harsh tones, and hot tempers that have become the norm in our day.

Hasty words

The temptation to quickly speak our mind is powerful, especially when we think someone's wrong. Proverbs teaches this is the way of the fool:

This does not mean we shouldn't share dissenting opinions; it simply means we do so thoughtfully and intentionally. Taking time to slow down, listen, and think through our words before we speak is the way of wisdom.

Harsh tones

Proverbs not only addresses the power of words, but it also teaches that the tone of our words matter:

We are tempted to hasty, harsh words, but Proverbs tells us that not only is such speech foolish, but it actually doesn't influence anyone. How many times have you been convinced to change your mind about a theological or political issue by someone attacking your character and calling your opinion stupid? Chances are, most of us stop this kind of conversation because we realize there's no hope of a healthy debate. As the old saying goes, "You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." Even if we have the truth, we can communicate it in such a way that it does not garner a listening ear.

Hot tempers

Hasty words and harsh tones often come when we lose our temper. Proverbs warns against this as well:

Let's be honest, this is difficult. Speaking graciously and controlling our temper seems impossible, especially in the vitriolic culture we currently live in. Telling someone to do this is like telling a blind man to see better—it won't happen in our own strength. It’s yet another reminder that to live the life of wisdom is impossible if we're not walking in the Spirit.

Jesus teaches us that our words and the tone with which we speak them show the state of our heart (Luke 6:45). Paul Tripp provides a powerful illustration:

Pretend that I have a bowl of water in my hands and I shake it vigorously and water splashes out of the bowl. And suppose I ask you why water spilled out of the bowl, and you answer that it spilled because I shook it. It all sounds pretty logical, doesn't it? But the answer is only partially correct. Why did water splash out of the bowl? Because water was in the bowl. If the bowl had been filled with milk, you could shake it for an eternity and water would never spill out of it.

When we get angry, shout, gossip, or tear down others we disagree with, we are showing what's in our heart. Even if others "shake us" through their actions or words, only what's truly inside us will spill out. As our sinfulness is revealed, the gospel calls us to confess, receive the forgiveness of Christ, and strive to live in God's mercy and grace each day. As we do so, that grace will change us from the inside out, and we'll increasingly show graciousness in our speech and disposition.

Amongst all the yelling, flared tempers, and highly polarized “discussion” going on in our culture, may the church demonstrate hearts that have been radically changed. And may we shine brightly through our thoughtful words, gracious tones, and controlled tempers.

In a world torn apart by division, in a social media environment that dehumanizes rather than edifies, it’s time for Christians to show the world a better way. Join us for the 2019 National Conference, “Gospel Courage: Truth and Justice in a Divided World,” on Oct. 3-5. Register now to learn what the Bible says about how we should stand and speak and how we should lead our families and churches for the cause of Christ.

James Williams

James Williams has serve as Associate Pastor of First Baptist Church Atlanta, Texas, since 2013. He and his wife, Jenny, have three children and are actively involved in foster care. James has completed his M.Div and is currently in the... Read More