Careful Conversations: Focus on the Position, not the Person

Nov 19, 2019 | Apologetics, Article

Throughout my time in Christian ministry, I have yet to become known as an expert in any particular field.

That said, I have gained a reputation for being somewhat of a “peacemaker” in hostile waters.

Creationism and presuppositionalism, for example, are both hotly contested right now among well-meaning brothers and sisters in Christ, and discussion around them is even banned in some online communities!

Yet, it seems I’m able to extend an olive branch, make friends with people on all sides of such issues, and even facilitate candid but gracious discussion between them.

It’s not that I’m not argumentative or that I just don’t care; quite the contrary. I’m very passionate about the views I argue for and want to see biblical truth represented accurately by anyone and everyone who is committed to such a project.

So I decided to take a mental stroll back through some of the discussions I’ve had and report my observations. I’d like to share the five themes that seemed to recur over and over again in my personal discussions, which I believe make up the core of my own personal philosophy of interaction.

I’ll share these themes over the coming weeks, beginning today.

Perhaps you, too, will find it a useful framework for having more productive and careful conversations.

The first theme is avoiding the argument ad hominem fallacy—in other words, to attack a position rather than the person who holds it.

This admonition is not new or revolutionary, but it is sound.

And despite how obvious this might seem, few consistently observe this most important rule for productive dialogue. By overlooking this, two crucial mistakes are made.

First, to attack the person is to be logically mistaken.

To attack the person is to commit a textbook logically fallacy known as argument ad hominem. This fallacy occurs because the character of a person has no bearing on whether or not the argument they are making is sound.

Consider the example of a doctor who has diagnosed you with a life-threatening illness. Perhaps you cannot stand the tone or bedside manner of this doctor, but he’s considered to be a specialist in his field; one of the best in the area.

Would you disbelieve his diagnosis or even deny his treatment plan on the basis of his bedside manner? It would seem foolish to do so.

Second, and more importantly, to attack the person is to be biblically misguided.

Not only is it important that you learn to think carefully, but also that you learn to think biblically.

Interestingly, there is character criticism going on in the New Testament. We see Jesus constantly warning against and publicly scolding the hypocritical Pharisees, for example.

But there is a difference between rightly calling out false teaching (Romans 16:17) and thinking someone’s argument is true or false because of their character.

Since I also believe it’s a moral obligation to think logically, it follows that it would be sinful to intentionally attack someone’s character as the basis for rejecting their argument.

Therefore, we should always be careful to attack ideas, rather than persons. We’re better to pray for those whom we disagree with, especially if this is not a matter of serious doctrinal error and is merely a disagreement on secondary issues.

To learn more about how to become a strong witness for Christ and tell “the greatest Story ever told,” check out Steve’s book God, the Great Commission, and You.

Meet Steve

Meet Steve

Hi, I’m Steve, an author, speaker, and Bible teacher with a heart for exploring God’s Word and God’s world.

I’m interested in the surprising connection between creation, theology, business, and storytelling. We explore those themes and more on this blog.

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