In political discussions “winning at all costs” is called “mud slinging”. If one candidate cannot meet the other candidate’s position, the losing candidate with jump ship and attempt to salvage a win by attacking the other candidate’s reputation, shortcomings, or intelligence. Unfortunately, the tactics employed by political candidates often mirrors those used by people claiming to be Christians in “defending” the truth.
The following list, though by no means complete or exhaustive, exposes several deceitful tactics used in religious discussions.
It seems that any time a person cannot produce Scripture to back their position they immediately start calling anyone who disagrees with them a Pharisee. First of all, calling someone a Pharisee does not make it so. Secondly, and more importantly, calling someone a Pharisee does not answer the argument.
Here are two misconceptions about Pharisees that need to be cleared up:
First, Christ condemned Pharisees for breaking the commandments of Moses; He did not condemned them for teaching that all of Moses commandments must be kept (Matthew 23:2-3, 23).
Second, requiring people to keep the “small parts” of the law is not what condemned the Pharisees (Matthew 23:23). If keeping or requiring the “small parts” is what condemned the Pharisees, then Christ would also be condemned since he kept even the smallest parts of the Law (Matthew 5:18-19).
In short, not only does the Pharisee name calling tactic fail to answer arguments, it is also factually wrong in most cases.
Another name often thrown into the fray is “Legalism” or “Legalist”. This name is used almost synonymously with Pharisee and presents the same tactic. Rather than answering an argument a person will merely label it and assert that they have answered it by so labeling it.
Question: What is the difference between legalism and obedience? The answer: attitude. Legalism has nothing to do with how “big” or “small” a commandment is, but rather the attitude behind keeping the commandment. When the two men went up to pray in in Luke 18, what made one’s prayer acceptable and not the other’s? Attitude was everything. If a person keeps all of God’s commands, yet has the wrong attitude (that of legalism), then he will be lost. However, a prohibition against a false attitude should not be confused with the forbidding of obedience.
There are two ways to be lost when it comes to keeping God’s laws: If a person keeps God’s laws, yet possesses the wrong attitude, and believes he is meriting his salvation, he will be lost (Luke 18:9). Yet, if a person fails to keep the Law of Christ (James 1:25), he will also be lost (John 14:15).
So, the next time someone calls you a “Legalist” or a “Pharisee” realize they are probably trying to avoid an argument that they cannot answer and prepare to have a discussion about the interrelationship of grace, faith, law, and works.
2- If you can’t meet the argument, change the subject.
One of the most frustrating things about having a Bible discussion is that as soon as you start to make progress on a subject, the topic up and changes.
Recently, in an informal debate about communion, the young man I was debating suddenly brought up Matthew 16:18. Not understanding why he was referencing the passage I asked him what it had to do with communion. The young man ignored my question and continued to lecture to me about how Jesus gave Peter the keys to the kingdom, and that Peter did not unlock the gates to the kingdom until Acts 2. Again, puzzled as to why he was bringing such material into a discussion about communion, I again asked him how the two topics were connected. He finally replied by stating, “Well, I figured there was nothing I could teach you about the communion today, so I thought I would teach you something about a different subject so you could at least leave here having learned something!”
The young man with whom I had my discussion was at least honest about what he was trying to accomplish in changing the subject; most will not be so bold. While some people wander from topic to topic out of curiosity and ignorance, many do it on purpose in an attempt to avoid truth. Try your best to refocus on the truth and do not let them get away so easily. When you begin to realize a person is wallowing in the mire (2 Peter 2:22), it’s time to move on to someone else rather than getting dirty (Matthew 7:6).
3- Get angry or begin mocking.
Proverbs 29:9 states, “If a wise man contends with a foolish man, Whether the fool rages or laughs, there is no peace.”
Several years ago I was in a bible discussion with a friend and his youth pastor. My friend had assured me that if I would study with his youth pastor I would be forced to give up my beliefs regarding the necessity of baptism and my opposition to the doctrine of once-saved-always-saved. The discussion went on for a short while until I finally asked the youth pastor, “What would the bible have to say for you to believe a person can fall from grace?” “Well” he replied, “It would have to say, ‘ye have fallen from grace.’”
I asked the youth pastor to turn and read Paul’s words in Galatians 5:4. Upon turning to the passage the youth pastor stared at his bible for several moments of awkward silence. Finally he replied by standing up, getting in my face, yelling at me, calling me a heretic and a Pharisee (there’s that name again), and informing me that I was lost. When he had finished his judgment he walked out the front door of the house, slamming it behind him.
I’m not sure how the youth pastor felt about his “victory” that day, but I can assure you I was unfazed and my friend disappointed.
When people get angry at you, count it as joy. The Lord said, ““Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. 12 Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12).
Men have always raged against truth. Be sure to keep you emotions in check lest you too be perceived as having nothing else with which to defend the truth.
4. Act arrogantly and rudely.
Proverbs 14:16 states, “A wise man fears and departs from evil, But a fool rages and is self-confident.”
From the days of Jesus until now, men have always allowed pride and arrogance to take the place of truth in a discussion of truth.
In the religious circles of Jesus day, the scribes prided themselves because of the knowledge that they had attained, yet such knowledge was foolishness in the eyes of Christ (Matthew 23:5-10).
Fancy titles such as Reverend, Father, Senior Pastor, or Dr. are not only baseless from a standpoint of authority, but are also sinful (Matthew 23:9-10). When men begin to throw around their titles, rather than quote the word of God, they have become greater men than Paul (1 Corinthians 2:5-7; 2 Corinthians 4:7). When men begin to tout their religious training, attaining, and knowledge rather than pointing people to the Scriptures, they should be ashamed (Matthew 23:12). Never allow men to teach as doctrine the commandments of men (Matthew 15:9), no matter what their education or title might be.
The words of Jeremiah from of old still ring true today, “How can you say, ‘We are wise, And the law of the Lord is with us’? Look, the false pen of the scribe certainly works falsehood. 9 The wise men are ashamed, They are dismayed and taken. Behold, they have rejected the word of the Lord; So what wisdom do they have? (Jeremiah 8:8).
5. Quote false authorities as if they mattered.
How many times have you been in a bible study with a friend only to have them tell you, “But my pastor said…”? May we never fall into the same trap by quoting our favorite preacher, or a group of preachers, as proving something to be true. May we rather “speak as the oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11).
PhDs and other certificates of learning cannot replace the authority of God’s word for in the final judgment the “books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books.” (Revelation 20:12).
I attended a debate one time in which a man of great learning and title attempted to prove that the church of Christ was a denomination by reading a definition out of an elementary school history book. Unfortunately for that gentleman, the people gathered together that night were not interested in elementary school history books but rather wanted the Word of God. Though such a scenario may seem ridiculous, it is no more ridiculous than any other situation in which the word of man is elevated higher than the Word of God.
6. Change the meaning of a key word.
In many discussions the problem boils down to people not wanting to accept the true definition of a word because it does not fit their preconceptions. Thus, in an attempt to “win at all costs” they deceitfully attempt to change the meaning of a word. For example, many people do not like the definition of the word “eis” meaning “for” in Acts 2:38 where the bible commands “be baptized for the remission of sins”. Many people stumble at the word “for” in this passage and attempt to change the definition of “eis” to mean “because of” rather than “for”. Linguists simply do not allow such a change to occur, yet people have tried for centuries to change the meaning of “eis” simply because of a preconception. (For deeper discussion of the use of the word “eis” in Acts 2:38 consult the Handbook on Baptism by J. W. Shepherd).
On other occasions people take a word such as the Greek word “psallo” and ignore the etymology of the word to arrive at the conclusion they seek. Etymology has to do with how the definition of a word changes over time. For example, the word “gay” in today’s usage has quite a different meaning that it did 200 years ago. It would be wrong to argue that men were discussing the topic of homosexuality when using the word in the days of Columbus. Some words do change over time and thus etymology of a word does come into play when trying to understand what it means. When the word “psallo” is used in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 the word simply means “to sing”. Though hundreds of years prior to its usage in the New Testament the word “psallo” meant “to pluck or to play”, by the time the New Testament was written it simply meant to sing. Thus, arguing that “psallo” authorizes playing instruments in worship to God is a false argument founded on a misuse/misunderstanding of a word’s definition. One is not allowed to go to a lexicon, survey the various meanings of a word, ignore the etymological history provided by the lexicographer, and choose the definition he or she wants (or make up their own). (For further study of the use of the word “psallo” in the New Testament consult the Boswell – Hardeman discussion).
Sometimes people want to take a word and use it in a figurative sense because they do not like the implications of a passage if the word is taken literally. There are several things to keep in mind when discussing figurative language. First, what genre of writing is involved? History should not be interpreted in the same way as poetry or apocalyptic writing. Secondly, the rule of thumb is that in non-figurative genres of writing a word is to be taken literally unless it makes no sense to take it literally. Third, if a word is being used in a figurative sense, the type of figurative language being used should be identifiable; i.e. is the word being used metaphorically, metonymically, hyperbolically etc. Forth, even when a word is used figuratively, its figurative meaning does not detract from it’s literal meaning but rather enhances it. E. W. Bullinger states it this way:
"Applied to words, a figure denotes some form which a word or sentence takes, different from its ordinary and natural form. This is always for the purpose of giving additional force, more life, intensified feeling, and greater emphasis. Whereas today "Figuratively language" is ignorantly spoken of as though it made less the meaning, and deprived the words of their power and force. A passage of God's Word is quoted; and it is met with the cry, "Oh, that is figurative" - implying that its meaning is weakened, or that it has quite a different meaning, or that it has no meaning at all. But the very opposite is the case. For an unusual form (figura) is never used except to add force to the truth conveyed, emphasis to the statement of it, and depth to the meaning of it. When we apply this science then to God's words and to Divine truths, we at once that no branch of Bible study can be more important, or offer greater promise of substantial reward." (Bullinger, op cit, p. v‐vi.)
Here is an example of how people often substitute a figurative meaning for a literal meaning because they do not like the implications of a passage if the literal meaning is applied. In Matthew 26:27 the Bible states, “Then He (Jesus) took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you.” Thayer’s lexicon, Louw and Nida’s lexicon, Arndt and Gingrich’s lexicon, and any other lexicon all denote that the word “cup in Matthew 26:27 is a literal drinking vessel. In other words, Christ to a singular drinking vessel, blessed it, gave it to the disciples, and told them to drink out of it. Though the passage is clear and simple, and even though all lexicographers are agreed on its meaning, people often cry, “That’s not a literal cup! Jesus is speaking of the fruit of the vine!” No friend, Jesus was not speaking of the fruit of the vine on this occasion and no matter how much one might want it to be so, it simply is not the case. Saying Jesus was using a figurative term, when there is no supporting evidence whatsoever, is a deceitful debate tactic.
Again, advocates for individual drinking vessels mistakenly suppose that when metonymy is used it subtracts from the meaning of "cup." They assume that no drinking vessel is involved at all and only the liquid is envisioned. However, when "cup" is used by metonymy, lexicons list such usage under "literal" usage because a literal container is being named to suggest a literal liquid. Notice the following definition according to Thayer’s lexicon:
Thayer, p. 533
Literal - "a cup, a drinking vessel" Mt 26:27; Mk 14:23; Lk 22:17,20; 1 Cor 10:16; 11:25,28 metonymy - …of the container for the contained, the contents of the cup, what is offered to be drunk Lk 22:20b; 1 Cor 10:21; 11:25sq.,27
Thus, when Jesus tells his disciples to drink the cup in 1 Corinthians 11:25 & 27, he is using metonymy in which he names the container for the contained, while still speaking of a literal cup (singular). How does one drink the cup? By drinking out of it. How does one divide the cup Luke 22:17? By sharing it. The use of metonymical language does not destroy the literalness of a single drinking container in any of the passages in which metonymy is employed. (For further discussion about the use of the word “cup” in the observance of the Lord’s supper consult The Cup of the Lord by J. D. Phillips.)
Literal words must be understood in their literal sense when used literally, just as figurative words must be understood in their true figurative useage when used figuratively. It is just as wrong to interpret a figurative term literally as it is to interpret a literal term figuratively. As with literal words, figurative words also have linguistic rules that apply to them and must be interpreted in light of those rules (i.e. you can’t come to a figurative word and give it whatever meaning you desire just because it is figurative).
Premillennialists, for example, pride themselves on interpreting the book of Revelation literally when they ought to be ashamed for ignoring the literary genre of the book. The book of Revelation was written in apocalyptic language which was a highly symbolic form of literature peculiar to the Jews. Within the first chapter the writer (John) teaches that the books will make use of symbolism (Revelation 1:1-2, 20). To interpret the book literally is to completely destroy the purpose for which it was given. (It should also be noted that Premillenialists cannot consistently interpret the entire book of Revelation literally. For further study consult Biblical Figures of Speech by Wayne Jackson.)
7. If all else fails, question the other person’s motives.
When Jesus had cast out many demons and performed other signs and wonders, his enemies stooped so low as to accuse him of being in league with the devil (Mark 3:22). Motives and facts are often misconstrued. Keep the facts clear as Jesus did (Mark 3:23-27) and don’t allow people to turn a discussion about truth into a discussion about what you may or may not want.
If the reader will observe the advise provided in this article, he or she will not be guaranteed victory in every discussion, but they should be well on the way to discovering truth. Discussing the Bible is not about always being right and winning an argument; it’s about ending up with truth. Sometimes arriving at truth means one has to admit having been wrong in the past. Those who are able to admit error in the face of truth are to be commended for their honesty. Brother Gene Grant used to always say, “There are a lot of people who are honestly mistaken, but when the truth is presented they are either no longer mistaken, or no longer honest.” May truth always triumph and may the Lord’s people always share the sentiment of David when he said, “Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way. (Psalm 119:104)