Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
January 31, 1957
NUMBER 38, PAGE 2-3b

"Is Religious Debate Authorized Or Condemned?" (III.)

James E. Cooper, Campbellsville, Kentucky

In our previous two articles we have noticed how Brother Harry F. Roberts goes about trying to establish his contention that religious debate is condemned in the Bible. He first takes the archaic definition of "debate" (to engage in strife or combat), and tries to make his readers believe that is the connotation of the word today. He then tries to establish his proposition through artful maneuvering of synonyms. In his booklet he also realizes that he must say something about passages commonly thought to encourage debate. We shall now review his treatment of those passages.

He admits that "contend" means "to strive in opposition or rivalry, to strive in debate," but Brother Roberts thinks it is wrong to argue or dispute. With his prejudice against contending for the faith in the sense of debating, he tries to explain Jude 3 in the sense of "to strive for the faith lest they be destroyed." This is not the reason given by Jude. Jude says, "For there are certain men crept in privily . . ." (v. 4.) Jude exhorts "contend earnestly for the faith" against "certain men who have crept in privily." How can that be done? Brother Roberts says "work hard." In what way? We infer from Jude 3-4 that the hard work is to be in disputing and refuting the "certain men."

The word translated "contend earnestly" occurs only here in the New Testament. It is epagonizesthai, the present middle infinitive of the deponent verb, epagonizomai. Thayer says it means "to contend for a thing." He cites an example in Plutarch (Fab. 23,2) where it is used in the sense of "to contend with, or against, Hannibal." The context of Jude 3 suggests that it is to contend "for" the faith, and in so doing it will be "against" the "certain men."

A kindred word, agonizomai, is found several times in the New Testament. In I Corinthians 9:25 it has the sense of "to enter a contest; contend in the gymnastic games." In John 18:36 it means "to contend with adversaries; fight." The other citations find it used in a figurative sense, "to contend, struggle, with difficulties and dangers antagonistic to the gospel" (Col. 1:29; I Tim. 4:10; 6:12; II Tim. 4:7), and "to endeavor with strenuous zeal, strive." (Col. 4:12; Luke 13:24.) The entire word group comes from agon, "a place of assembly" referring specially to the place where the Greek games were held, and thus came to mean "a contest, struggle, etc.," whether physically or with words. Hence, the entire background of the word translated "contend earnestly" in Jude 3 suggests a struggle, in rivalry with, or against something else. The reference, or course, must be to contention by argument, by reasoning, etc., and does not justify contention by arms, by violence, or by persecution, etc. In religious debate contention is by words and arguments. Hence, to debate is to do what Jude says. This debating may be done under an orderly arrangement, a private discussion, or through the written page, etc. A regulated public discussion is not the only way to "contend earnestly" for the faith, but is one way to do it. If a person refused to engage in a regulated public discussion, he would be refusing an opportunity to "contend earnestly for the faith."

Did Stephen and Paul debate? With regard to this question, Brother Roberts quotes Acts 5:42, emphasizing "ceased not" and asks, "If they ceased not to teach and preach, when could they have debated?" If "ceased not" here means they never stopped preaching or teaching, I might just as appropriately ask, "When could they have eaten?" or "When could they have slept?" The passage affirms that they never missed a day in preaching Christ publicly and from house to house.

In Acts 6:9 we find that the Jews disputed with Stephen. Brother Roberts asks, "Did Stephen debate the scriptures with them? No, he disputed, he denied what the Jews believed by preaching Jesus Christ to them." But notice, (1) Stephen preaches, (2) the Jews dispute what he says, (3) Stephen rebuts, and (4) the Jews were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spake. Point three is necessarily inferred from the context. So, we have here at least two affirmative and two negative speeches. Still, Brother Roberts says, "nowhere does the record say they debated about it." It is quite possible to debate without calling it debating. When Brother Roberts wrote his tract, he did not say, "I'm going to debate whether it is right to debate," but that is what he does. Stephen debated the Jews, but Luke doesn't have to pronounce it a "debate" for most people to understand what it is.

Concerning Mark 16:15-16 Brother Roberts comments, "The Lord did not say go into all the world and defend the gospel and he that believes not, contend, argue, and debate with him and try to make him believe. No, he said, 'he shall be damned'." Of course, Mark 16:15-16 doesn't say debate, nor does it say to worship, or provide, but is it wrong to worship and provide for the needy just because we don't find it commanded in the Great Commission?

Brother Roberts finds Paul "disputing daily" in Corinth (Acts 19:9-10) and disputing in Athens (Acts 17:16-18), but contends that he was not debating, just preaching. "If a servant of the Lord is preaching that gospel every day, that gospel is disputing daily those very people . . . . No, Paul was not debating, he was preaching the word of the Lord Jesus every day." (p. 12.) Brother Roberts has evidently forgotten his definition of debate, "to engage in . . . . dispute" (p. 4), and where he uses "dispute or controversy" to mean debate. (p. 5.) He has been telling us it is wrong to dispute, and now finding Paul disputing, he must change his definition of "dispute." If dispute means debate in the first part of his tract, why can't he let it mean debate in the last half? Because he can't consistently do so and maintain his position. If it is right for Stephen and Paul to dispute, why isn't it right for us to dispute? He finds them disputing, and according to his own definition, they were debating. I fear that he understands neither the meaning of "dispute" nor "debate." Webster defines "dispute' 'as "to contend in argument, to debate; often, to argue irritably; wrangle. — v.t. 1. To make a subject of disputation; to argue pro and con. 2. To oppose by argument, or assertion; to deny the truth or validity of. 3. To contend about; contest. — n. 1 Verbal controversy; controversial discussion; also a quarrel." Thus, neither Webster nor the Bible uphold Brother Roberts in his contention that the Bible condemns religious debate. It does not condemn it, but rather exhorts that it be done, and gives us examples of Stephen, Paul, and others who did it.

On page 13, Brother Roberts says, "The Church of Christ, to which I trust I have been added, teaches, and rightly so, that it is wrong to use mechanical instruments in connection with church work and worship. Why? Because the scripture says to sing and make melody in your heart to the Lord — and nowhere does it authorize instruments. Now, the comparison. Debate — the Bible nowhere authorizes it, but does condemn it. Why do some practice it?" We have seen that the Bible does authorize debate in Jude 3, as well as in the examples of Stephen and Paul. The reason, then, why some still practice it is to do what the Bible teaches. Again, we remind Brother Roberts that "debate" no longer means "to engage in strife or combat." It now denotes a "regulated discussion of a given proposition between two matched sides." Any "strife" in such a regulated discussion would be condemned, as "strife" and not as "debate."

We have considered all pertinent arguments presented by Brother Roberts and find that his contention is false. Religious debate is authorized in the scripture!