Here’s something that struck me this morning:
Writing to Timothy, Paul commands him to actually “avoid” getting into debates with certain people, which we’d easily (and rightfully) refer to as heretics.
O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called “knowledge,” for by professing it some have swerved from the faith. – 1 Tim. 6:20-21
But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. – 2 Tim. 2:16-17a
Why did it strike me, I hear you ask. Well, think about how often we get into debates that easily qualify as “irreverent babble” and we persist on them as if the future of God’s very redemptive plan depended on it.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Christian apologetics, and even though I don’t go looking for a scrap, I try to take to heart Peter’s famous exhortation:
…but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense (Gr. “απολογία” = apologia) to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect… – 1 Pet. 3:15
But there comes a time when we need to draw the line, and remember what Christ Himself instructed us:
Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces. – Mat. 7:6
Convincing an atheist of theism or a scientist that evolution has holes may have its place, but ultimately it is only the gospel that saves. No-one ever came to Christ only because they found Anselm’s Ontological argument (+/- Alvin Plantiga’s modifications) sound. They had to hear of their sin. They had to hear of the Cross. There is more involved in salvation than mere intellectual assent – it is God’s work and not of humans:
So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. – Rom. 10:17
So, Timothy, draw some lines. In fact, don’t even get involved. Don’t even give them a platform. But how do I know when?
Well, how about when the “debate” degenerates into a mudfight? Or when the other party is arguing just to sound their own trumpet? Or when the debate starts to look like a dog chasing its tail? Or when it’s blatantly obvious that even if one of the dead rose they wouldn’t be convinced (cf. Luke 16: 31)? Or when it damages the souls and minds of those involved, including the audience? Or when it compromises Christian character? Or when it’s, well, pointless?
We’re not called to win debates. We’re called to win souls. And there’s no PhD that can do that.