Is it a good thing or a bad thing to argue? That depends on what you mean by an argument. If you define an argument as an angry exchange that produces more heat than light, then arguments can be bad. As a parent, I will say that I have observed many arguments between our children. But I will say that most of that is just bickering. Both sides are tired, annoyed, frustrated and they are really venting emotion more than anything. But this is not limited to children. I was once at a meeting and two deacons began to argue. It was not a rational debate, in fact they weren’t even talking about the same thing. The rest of us watched in shock as they yelled at each other.
But an argument doesn’t have to be that. Another definition of argument is “a reason or set of reasons given with the aim of persuading others that an action or idea is right or wrong.”
If we believe in something very strongly, whether it is care for the environment or adequate funding for education, we should be able to set forth our case. These are the reasons that this issue is important and these are the steps that need to be taken. People might disagree but it doesn’t have to end in a shouting match. I have had people try and convince me of something, I was not convinced, and yet we were able to walk away as friends.
The Apostle Paul believed strongly in the Gospel. He believed that Jesus was the Messiah and that Jesus had risen for the dead. Not only would Paul assert that these things were true, he would give reasons why it was true. That is what we are going to look at and we will try and learn from his example.
Paul in Thessalonica
Paul is known as the apostle to the gentiles, that is the non-Jews. He was called specifically to people who were non-Jewish. But his strategy when going to a new city was to go to the local synagogue and preach Jesus there first. There were two reasons for this. There was always the possibility that some Jews would follow Jesus and they would make a great core to the new church that was being planted. But also at the synagogue were gentiles, who were followers of the Hebrew God but who had not converted to Judaism.
We will get into the relevant principles soon, but what Paul was doing there was not the equivalent of us showing up at the local synagogue here and insisting that they believe in Jesus. What Paul did fit with who Paul was and the context of the synagogue. Paul came not as an outsider but as an insider. Paul was trained as a Pharisee and he could trace his Jewish lineage. Paul had every right to come into the synagogue and talk to them about maters of faith. Also, the synagogue was a place where people debated interpretations of Scripture. That’s what they did. They would pick a passage of Scripture and debate back and forth and people would decide who had the strongest case. This is the positive sense of argument and the rabbinic writings are filled with these conversations.
Paul didn’t come to tell them to leave one religion and join another, to leave Judaism and join Christianity. He wanted to show them from their own Scriptures that believing in Jesus was the next logical step from what they already believed.
How successful was Paul? Some got angry and there was a disturbance in the city. But there were others, both Jews and gentiles, who were persuaded and became followers of Jesus.
I have heard many times that you cannot argue someone into the kingdom of God. That may be true but God has used the arguments of people to help them on the journey of coming to faith. Paul’s experience at Thessalonica is an example of that.
Us and Our Friends
What does this mean for us? Should we argue with our friends and family? That depends on how we define argument. No we shouldn’t yell at them and attempt to badger them into becoming Christians. But we should put forth our case the best we can and pray for God to work through our efforts.
One of my favourite authors is C.S. Lewis. The reason for this is that identify with his journey from atheism to Christianity. How did Lewis go from being an unbeliever to a believer? Was it simply reflections by himself in his room? No, C.S. lewis had friends. One friend was Owen Barfield. Barfield had many discussions with Lewis, pointing him to a reality beyond this material world. Lewis described this as ‘the great war.’ Lewis came to see his atheism as false. But what the role of Jesus. One evening, Lewis went on a walk with J.R.R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings, and Tolkien gave him a rational way of understanding Jesus. Lewis had friends who were not afraid of an argument.
Please don’t visit your neighbour and say, “My pastor told me to yell at you.” I’m not saying that. But if you had to put forth the case for why Christianity is true, what would you say. You don’t have to have all the answers, but you should at least understand why you believe it.
However, setting forth the case is not just about providing intellectual reasons for the truth of the Gospel. There are non-verbal ways of arguing the truth of Christianity. We can do it by acts of kindness. We can do that by fighting for justice. We can do that by simply not being a jerk.
If Christianity is true, it should affect us in some way. It should also affect the way we treat other people. It doesn’t mean that we are perfect, but it does mean that people can see God at work in us.
I had a group of friends in late high school and early university. They were my drinking buddies. During university I became a Christian. I tried to share my faith but I will confess that I wasn’t good at it. We lost touch for a few years. Most of these friends ended up being faithful Christians. I won’t say that it was because of me. But one of my friends told me years later that they saw something in my life that spoke to them. That was one piece of their journey.
We need to reflect on what we are doing to shine both the truth and love of Christ into the lives of our friends and family.
Paul made it a habit to visit the synagogues and reason with them about Jesus. They were his people and he cared about them. Some responded positively and some rejected him. But he did it anyway.
We can do the same thing, not by visiting synagogues but by being with the people that are natural for us to be around. Our friends and family. We need to argue with them. Not by yelling and screaming but by putting together a compelling and attractive argument for why Christianity is true. It will include having intellectual reasons for the faith but it will also be by how we live out our faith. How Paul talked to the Jews in the first section of Acts 17 is different from how he talked to the Greeks in Athens later in Acts 17. What is important is that we are true to ourselves and our context.