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Must I Tithe 10% of My Net or Gross Income?

How To Debate Your Non-Christian Friend

Posted March 6, 2024

Very few of us like to debate our non-Christian friends. Such debates are often unproductive and there are better ways of getting to the heart—both of our friend and of the gospel—than a debate. But let’s be realistic, we all have a friend whose love language is debating, and he or she really wants to debate us about this whole Christianity thing.

So, let’s concede. If a friend wants to wrestle with the Christian faith, we’ll happily play a part. But in an age where disagreements can become heated and divisive quickly, how can we engage these friends lovingly and effectively? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Set the terms of the debate.

Does your friend have pent-up anger they want to vent? Then you would rather hear them out in an informal counseling session than get pummeled while trying to have an honest debate.

Are they using arguments to keep you away from their heart? Relationships undergird healthy debates. A friend who wants to debate without investing in the relationship is being disingenuous. You must insist that you can invest in the relationship, even as you’re debating.

2. Ask plenty of questions.

Have you ever noticed how often Christian apologetics feel defensive in nature? It’s easier to attack than defend, so people will happily attack your faith and force you into the tougher defensive position. You should be allowed to ask questions and challenge their belief system. What do they believe about God, man, salvation, morality, etc.? More importantly, why do they believe that?

Questions will keep your friends honest about their own biases, and they will also give you time and information to think out a thorough, helpful response. In an age of fast-paced cable news punditry, people expect quick and witty retorts. Taking time to think looks like weakness. Questions slow the pace and allow you time to get your thoughts in order. And just like attacking is easier than defending, questions are easier than answers. Consider the following examples:

  • “How can you possibly believe in a God you can’t see?” / “Why do you think sight is the best way to understand truth?”
  • “Doesn’t science prove that God can’t have created the earth?” / “What type of science are we referring to? The natural sciences? Are the natural sciences a proper tool for assessing supernatural concepts?”
  • “How can you deny people a right to love?” / “What do you mean by ‘love?’ How did you arrive at such a definition? Is such ‘love’ all there is?”
  • “How can you believe in God when we really can’t know anything as true?” / “How do you know that we can’t know anything as true?”

3. Be charitable and winsome.

It’s tempting to be haughty and to engage in low blows. Being dirty in our debates can make us feel safe and superior. In some Christian circles today, we even applaud the use of such tactics. Desperate times call for desperate measures! Fight fire with fire! But these tactics are dishonoring to God and destructive to relationships.

Acknowledge when your friend makes a good point. Let them know if you struggle with a particular issue too, and explain why you still hold to your position. Commend something true in their argument even as you critique the rest. A man once got tongue-tied while debating Pastor Tim Keller about the Christian faith, so Keller made the argument for the man. He didn’t pounce, he put his opponent in the best possible light before engaging.

When we dignify our friends in this way, they become more receptive to our arguments and more grateful for our friendship. How we argue is just as important as what we argue. As the apostle Peter once wrote, “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense 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, italics mine). This approach mirrors that of Jesus, who so often looked upon his opponents with love and compassion before piercing their hearts.

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Stephen Roberts

Stephen Roberts is an Army chaplain and also writes for Modern Reformation and The Federalist. He is married to Lindsey—a journalist—and they have three delightful and precocious children.