10 Rules for Arguing

We can Disagree Agreeably

Maybe the word argument is too strong. What I’m talking about are those discussions in which your beliefs or strongly held opinions are challenged. By the way, if you find that your ideas are never challenged and your words are always readily accepted, you’ve probably become too isolated.

Sometimes our disposition diminishes our position and invalidates in the hearer’s mind a truth that might have been supported quite well had we not presented it so recklessly. Here is some advice about how your argument can be strengthened, if indeed its truth is worth fighting for.

1. Count to 10

Many of the dumb things we say and do in life are knee-jerk reactions. Anger always seems to grab the microphone first. Perhaps this is why James reminded us that the wrath of man and the righteousness of God are typically mutually exclusive.

The whole “count to 10” thing is attributed to Thomas Jefferson. He added advice to those very angry by suggesting they “count to 100”! Far too often I’ve created a world of hurt for myself by spouting off in those first 100 seconds. But holding one’s tongue is more than human effort alone can muster. On purpose, and by the empowerment of God’s Spirit, we must be slow to speak and slow to wrath.

Holding back words is difficult; taking back words is impossible.

2. Listen First

A great principle to remember is this: seek first to understand, then to be understood. Many arguments are simply competing monologues. Neither party is actually listening. He is simply waiting for a pause in the action in order to insert his next jibe.

One of the reasons it is so frustrating for me to listen to talk radio or watch television news personalities conduct their programs is because they simply talk over each other. They don’t even hear each other’s questions! Too often we become the Rush Limbaugh or the Sean Hannity of the Baptist world, where everybody who already agrees with us still does, and where those who disagree are merely talked over.

3. Agree on the Definition of Terms

When God wanted to separate people, He confounded their language. A people group simply cannot be unified if they do not speak the same language. Often when we discuss issues we use the same terms but affix different definitions to those terms. For example, I use the word liberal to describe those who reject the Word of God as authoritative or who suggest that Jesus was not virgin born. Others use it more broadly to describe those who have adopted a different preference on dress or music.

Speaking the same words but assigning to them different meanings is a sure way to confound language and confuse any conversation. When inevitable disagreements arise, we must seek clarity by first agreeing on terms. In this way, at least semantic arguments can be averted.

4. Avoid Name-calling

The discussion should remain centered on the topic of discussion. When it devolves into an ad hominem clash of acerbic comments and sarcastic digs, emotion tends to stifle any ability to rationally continue the conversation. Better just stop there.

Name-calling is a clamorous way of declaring, “I am now bankrupt of any more substantive argumentation!” Labels and stereotypes are the verbal weapons of lazy-minded people.

Another principle to consider here is that of a soft answer. Volume often invites volume until the decibel level accomplishes nothing more than the deafening of any intelligent apprehension. Truth is just as weighty when you use lower case letters, and much more likely to be received. So speak softly and type small.


5. Put it in Perspective

When I attended college many years ago, I worked for a short time as a security monitor (two steps lower than a security guard!) in the convention center in Chicago. My job was to ensure that nobody entered the particular door I was monitoring. It was to be an “exit only” door. Having been assigned this incredibly important mission, and with all the fervor of Barney Fife himself, I hunkered into position and readied myself to repel any would-be entrant.

And I didn’t have to wait long. Soon an executive from the General Motors Corporation entered my door and made his way toward his convention display just a few feet away from my position. It made sense for him to do so because the door was located so close to his display. On the other hand, I had my orders! Summoning the most ominous voice my tenor voice box could muster, I commanded him to cease and desist.

“Step away from the door and nobody gets hurt!”

Predictably, he laughed and walked on. Now incensed by such blatant impudence (didn’t he know who I was?), I shouted, “Buddy, you just made the biggest mistake of your life!”

Really? Of course not! But we all tend to overplay the disagreement of another.

The issue about which you’re arguing is probably not worthy of nailing to the door of the Wittenberg church, and it’s typically not something for which you’ll endure the martyr’s flame. In fact, in many cases, if we’ll be honest with ourselves, it’s a matter of personal preference.

Hey, I’ll argue till I’m blue in the face about the superiority of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee over Starbucks. But at the end of the day, it’s just my preference. (Did I really just say that?)
Let’s be a little more passionate about defending the deity of Christ than we are about whether or not somebody uses a screen in his church or has different preferences than we do.

6. Ask Questions

Sometimes what we think we’ve heard is not what the other person actually said. As someone once wisely observed, “A question stirs the conscience while an accusation hardens the will.” Learn to ask questions like these:

  • Would you mind defining what you mean by the word you chose? (Define terms.)
  • Is this issue one of conviction or preference to you? (Clarify the nature of the argument.)
  • Would you mind sharing what you believe to be the strongest biblical argument for your position? (Cite your source.)
  • I hear your position to be [fill in the blank]. Am I correct in my understanding? (Don’t assume.)
  • Have you always held this position? If not, why? (Relate to his story.)

7. Stay on Topic

Many people have “default issues.” What do I mean by that? With certain individuals, it seems that all conversational roads lead to the same topical destination.

Years ago I knew a college student who subscribed to what seemed like every conspiracy theory in existence. Innocent conversations about the day’s events became (in his mind) diabolical schemes hatched by the illuminati. A nonchalant comment about the rising price of the cheeseburger at Burger King would inspire a lesson about how the Federal Reserve was enslaving the populace. Blah. Blah. Blah.

These self-proclaimed experts of their one area remind me of the guy who bench presses 500 pounds and has legs the size of a pencil. Let’s learn to humbly address every biblical topic with a spirit of humility and the desire to grow in knowledge and discernment about it.

8. Don’t Assign Motive

As much as we sometimes think we know why others do what they do and say what they say, we simply do not. Only the Lord does. Our job is to prove all things and hold fast that which is good. We can try the spirits by their doctrine and practice, but only God can know the heart and try it.

I don’t know why we assign motives, but we all seem to at times, to some degree. It’s part of the human condition, I guess. Paul had a sneaking suspicion that some were preaching the gospel just to spite him. He was careful not to make the indictment though. In fact, he declared that, whatever the motive, the gospel was being preached, and he would rejoice.

Perhaps the more important point is this: the person with whom you are disagreeing can be just as sincere, loving, and devoted as you. Let’s keep the discussion on the high ground of mutual respect.

9. Resist the Urge to Gang Up

I’ll never forget what my friend Louis told me back in the sixth grade. In guarded tones, he informed me that a big fight was going to take place in a nearby wooded spot just after school dismissed. He told me I should come. I did.

Pitted in the fight that day were two eighth graders who had been verbally sparring all year long. This would be the day when the grudge would be settled, once and for all. As the rather large crowd of fellow middle schoolers watched, they began to duke it out blow by blow. For a short while it appeared that they were pretty evenly matched.


Until a group of buddies suddenly joined the milieu and ganged up. The rest was not for the faint of heart—at least the part I saw before I ran. How unfair! And I’ve seen the verbal equivalent time and time again. Sometimes Facebook comment sections become cage matches in which words are hurled like punches. That’s why formal debates have such stringent ground rules. Otherwise they’re not fair. As a general rule, let’s hash out our disagreements in private places without ganging up.

10. Don’t Be Passive Aggressive

Social media is a growing repository of cryptic comments. You know the ones I’m talking about. The comments where you know that some person or situation is being referenced and rebuked, you’re just not quite sure who or what—passive aggressive.

Passive aggression and its verbal cousin—innuendo—are powerful weapons. One can toss them like hand grenades, watch them explode, and then deny any responsibility for the damage! In the spirit of Christ’s teaching, we must learn to approach brethren:

  • Individually
  • Meekly
  • Lovingly
  • Restoratively
  • Honestly

But that’s an entirely different blog post, isn’t it?

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