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by Jacob Ninan

Arguments are a part of our day to day life, in fact, an inevitable part of our life, but the sad fact is that there are really very few arguments that are carried out in a decent, fair manner. Arguments come about naturally since we people are all different from one another and we see things differently, and an argument is our attempt to persuade the others of our views or opinions by giving reasons or evidence for accepting them. It is therefore not wrong to argue our points in the form of discussing our ideas with others, and it is unrealistic to demand or expect an absence of arguments in life. What we can aim for is to be able to argue our case with one another without being argumentative about it. What can be unpleasant about arguments is the way it is done. The better we are able to do it, the more we can influence others with our ideas and also learn from them.

Arguments are usually carried out with passion when one is convinced about what one is arguing about, and passionate arguments need not necessarily be argumentative. Passion also adds to the ability to influence others, whether the occasion is a political speech aimed at winning votes or a sermon from the pulpit meant for exhorting or challenging the listeners. But when we allow passion to cloud our thinking it disrupts the healthy flow and may take us to places we never intended to go in the first place.

For many people winning an argument is more important than arriving at a valid conclusion or increasing in understanding. This stems from a lack of maturity and being unrealistic in one’s view of life. In this case the motive itself is not pure, and invariably there is also a strong likelihood of arriving at false conclusions. For people of the world this distinction is not important, and their sole aim seems to be to win at any cost, and the more capable and accomplished a man is in twisting and turning things with cunning and shrewdness, the greater he is considered to be. But can Christians use the same tactics without compromising on honesty and integrity?

When a criminal lawyer argues for the defence of a suspect the minimum duty he has to perform is to ensure that his client gets a fair trial. But the lawyer usually does all he can to acquit his client, using the common tactics of not disclosing all the information he has received from his client and arguing in such a way as to create doubts about the evidence that is being presented against his client. The question which many lay people ask is whether the lawyer is justified in defending a client who he knows to be guilty from the information he has with him. The justification which the lawyer presents is that he is not falsifying evidence or telling any blatant lies, but only doing everything he can in the interest of his client for which he has been hired. What should be his approach if he was a Christian?

When a salesman presents his arguments in favour of a product he is trying to sell, he tends to exaggerate the good qualities of the product and play down or hide the negative aspects. This is what is expected of him by his company and this is what he has to do in order to meet his sales target. More and more there is also pressure from the advertising agency to present false attributes and statistics regarding the product. Will not a Christian salesman have problems with this approach?

In a debating competition both sides argue furiously in order to win the prize, sometimes putting up arguments which they know in their heart are not true, and rebutting arguments they know are true. But this is just a ‘game’ and both sides know that they are only acting things out and really not meaning what they present ever so emphatically! But does this affect their conscience in any way?

In a political debate the opposition party does its role, of opposing the ruling party, even when they know the ruling party is proposing something which is good for the country, something they themselves would have done if they were in power.

There could be many other examples of this nature. Parents argue with teachers in favour of their children, and families support their members even to the extent of telling lies on their behalf. Questions like these involve ethical values and practices of a profession or a system but also a person’s integrity. A simplistic approach would be to prescribe that a Christian should always raise his witness in such situations and be willing to face the consequences, and others may advocate an approach that a Christian who considers himself to be unable to deal with such situations should avoid getting into them in the first place. But at a broader level, is not there a need to debate such issues by Christian leaders in order to help their brothers and sisters who face such challenges in their daily life?

Consider a different type of example where two Christians are arguing about a certain doctrine where they are starting from opposite positions. The pressures these people face are from the possibility of having to acknowledge that they were ignorant or wrong about some of their assumptions or that their denomination would not support them any more if they agreed in any way with the opposition! What do they do when they discover that there is some truth in what the other person presents? When the other party quotes a portion of Scripture which appears to contradict one’s own position, does one simply sidestep that point and go on to quote other parts of Scripture that are more favourable to one’s own position? How different it would be if both sides were willing to give a higher preference to knowing the truth than to their own positions concerning those truths! Then there would be more growth towards maturity and breadth of understanding and less denominationalism.

Coming to the other side of the argument, we can also make mistakes when we are listening to arguments. Dr. Michael C. Labossiere has conducted a study on the many fallacies which people assume regarding the validity of arguments. “A fallacy is an ‘argument’ in which the premises given for the conclusion do not provide the needed degree of support.” For example, when we are listening to a famous preacher we may accept some teaching just because it is coming from a famous preacher! We may think he is a well-known expert in his field, and that we don’t know enough to judge what he is saying. But though the famous expert is more likely to be correct in his field than others who are less knowledgeable in that area, there is still no validity in assuming that every statement he makes would be correct. On the other hand we may reject a teaching because we think the expert has some character flaw, even though he may be factually right as an expert in that area!

How many times do we hear the argument that something is OK because ‘everybody does it’? This is fallacious, but the one who uses it is convinced that the majority opinion cannot be wrong. (Jesus has warned us that the ‘majority’ is going in the wrong direction, towards destruction, but still we find it difficult to reject a majority view.) Someone ‘feels good’ about a certain action and assumes that the good feeling is a sufficient proof of the rightness of the action.

The prophet Jeremiah has well said that our heart is deceitful above all things (Jer.17:9). We can deceive ourselves and others with arguments, and we can justify our arguments with further arguments. But let us not ignore the voice of conscience, and let us not shut out the voice of the Holy Spirit trying to lead us to the right path from where we have gone astray. Let us not imitate the ways of the world and follow their ways to ‘greatness’. We are the salt and light of the world, and it is our responsibility to model for the world the right attitude and practice in every area of life (Mt.5:13,14).

-- Published in the Light of Life magazine, September 2012

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