What Ever Happened to Civil Debate?

In elementary school, it was always necessary to enter the playground armed with insults and “your mama” jokes. You never knew when an argument would break out and you would need to tear down not only your opponent, but also his mama. As children, disagreements weren’t solved by listening to an opponent’s view and engaging their ideas with your own counter-arguments. Rather, it was all about who could silence their enemy or get the most laughs from the crowd. If you were up against a kid especially good at dishing out insults, you could always resort to “I know you are but what am I?” Repeating this statement would often annoy or frustrate your opponent and stop their attack. Worked like a charm!

It seems this type of arguing has become the norm even among adults in our day. Our society simply hasn’t grown out of our child-like ways of debate; we rarely engage ideas because it’s easier to attack each other. It doesn’t matter if you’re watching a political debate or having an online discussion, we’ve simply lost the ability to think deeply, engage opinions different from ours, and do so in a civilized manner.

Sadly, this has crept into the church as well. We don’t handle disagreements about doctrine or its application with healthy discussion and kindness. It seems we’re unable to listen and try to accurately understand an opposing position. Rather than letting the love and kindness of Christ shine in the midst of a shouting, name-calling culture, we’ve too often emulated the tactics of the world.

The book of Proverbs warns us against the hasty words, harsh tones, and hot-tempers that have become the norm in our day:

Hasty Words

The temptation to quickly speak our mind is powerful, especially when we think someone’s wrong. Proverbs teaches this is the way of the fool:

  • “The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things” (Proverbs 15:28).
  • “Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Proverbs 29:20).
  • “Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin” (Proverbs 13:3).
  • “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Proverbs 18:2).

This does not mean we shouldn’t share dissenting opinions, it simply means we do so thoughtfully and intentionally. Taking time to slow down, listen, and think through our words before we speak is the way of wisdom.

Harsh Tones

Not only should we carefully consider our words, but we should also be considerate about our tone:

  • “With patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue will break a bone” (Proverbs 25:15).
  • “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body” (Proverbs 16:24).
  • “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).
  • “A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit” (Proverbs 15:4).
  • “He…whose speech is gracious will have the king as his friend” (Proverbs 22:11).
  • “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11).
  • “The wise of heart is called discerning and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness” (Proverbs 16:21).

Harsh words are not only foolish, but Proverbs shows they actually don’t influence anyone. Think about it, how many times have you been convinced to change your mind about a theological or political issue by someone attacking your character and calling your opinion stupid? Chances are, most of us stop this kind of conversation because we realize there’s no hope of a healthy debate. As the old saying goes, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Even if we have the truth, communicating it harshly will ensure we do not garner a listening ear.


Hasty words and harsh tones often come when we lose our temper. Proverbs warns against this as well:

  • “A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention” (Proverbs 15:18).
  • “A man of wrath stirs up strife, and one given to anger causes much transgression” (Proverbs 29:22).
  • “Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense, but a man of understanding remains silent” (Proverbs 11:12).
  • “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly” (Proverbs 14:29).

Let’s be honest…this is difficult, isn’t it? Speaking graciously and controlling our temper seems impossible, especially in the vitriolic culture we currently live in. Telling someone to do this is like telling a blind man to see better…it simply won’t happen in our own strength. Yet another reminder that living the life of wisdom is simply impossible if we’re not walking in the Spirit.

Jesus teaches us that our words, and the tone with which we speak them, show the state of our heart (Luke 6:45). Paul Tripp provides a helpful illustration:

Pretend that I have a bowl of water in my hands and I shake it vigorously and water splashes out of the bowl. And suppose I ask you why water spilled out of the bowl, and you answer that it spilled because I shook it. It all sounds pretty logical, doesn’t it? But the answer is only partially correct. Why did water splash out of the bowl? Because water was in the bowl. If the bowl had been filled with milk, you could shake it for an eternity and water would never spill out of it.

When we get angry, shout, gossip, or tear down others we disagree with, we are showing what’s in our heart. Even if others “shake us” through their actions or words, only what’s truly inside us will spill out. As our sinfulness is revealed, the Gospel calls us to confess, receive the forgiveness of Christ, and strive to live in God’s mercy and grace each day. As we do so, that grace will change us from the inside out, and more and more we’ll show graciousness in our speech and disposition.

Amongst all the yelling, flared tempers, and highly polarized ‘discussion’ going on in our culture, may the church display hearts that have been radically changed and may we shine brightly through our thoughtful words, gracious tones, and controlled tempers.

James Williams

Trying to live this life to the glory of God and help others in the process. Only by His grace!


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