As someone isn't often lacking for passion in debate, I have had to learn (and am still learning) to continually be asking myself this question: "What is my goal in this debate?"
The goal of my life and hopefully of my church, as I often state it, is to glorify Jesus Christ. I want to love Him above all else and make Him look good to the world. It is true that at some point, loving and living for Jesus Christ - especially as a pastor - will mean that I engage in some form of debate on His behalf. Whether it is the reality of the resurrection or an inner-church struggle on a doctrinal issue, the New Testament is plain in stating that we will have to "contend for the faith."
But what is the goal in that debating? Here is reality as I see it: as wicked sinners it is almost inevitable that EGO will slime its way into our motivation and method in debate; revealing itself in poor logic, name-calling, and a general sense of malice.
Is the goal of a debate to win? I suppose that depends on how we define "winning." Is it a "win" to make the other person look stupid and to make ourselves look smart? Is it to feel dominant and powerful? Is it to shame the other?
If my goal is truly to glorify the Lord Jesus in my debate, my greatest goal will be to have, in as much at it is up to me, my "opponent" and "audience" seeing the truth and beauty of the gospel as expressed in Scripture and moving towards glorifying Jesus Christ in their own hearts and lives.
I am thankful that the Apostle Paul spoke to this kind of thing in 2 Timothy 4. He wrote,
24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.
A few observations:
1. We must argue for the pure gospel in whatever forum is required. We are to correct our opponents. It is not loving to allow for false doctrine for the sake of a semblance of "peace." If they are advocating some sort of false gospel they are advocating the devil.
2. We must argue with kindness, patience, and gentleness. Jesus did command us to love our enemies. Presumably, they ought to be able to tell that we love them. If I had my druthers, I would want an "opponent" who left disagreeing with me to think, "I hate what he thinks, but I now see why he thinks it, appreciate his passion for it...and he sure was a nice guy."
3. We must argue humbly. There is no room for self-righteousness in the Christian. And there is no benefit in overestimating our skills. The hope Paul gave to Timothy was, "perhaps God will grant repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth." This means that if we know the truth, it is only because God was gracious to us. If others come to know the truth through our correction, it will only be because God was gracious to us and them. That kind of humility needs to come through in our debating. "Were not for grace so would I be."
I do think we ought to debate for pure gospel on a public forum whenever necessary. But I also tremble at the danger that unbelievers will observe our arguments, see malice and pride, and be further repulsed at the gospel of our Lord. When that happens, we have not achieved our goal of glorifying Christ. Rather, we have shot ourselves in the foot with our love for self.
Let's correct our opponents. But let's do so with obvious love and humility so that, whether we win or lose the argument, we will have glorified the Lord Jesus. That's the real victory anyway.