Among the many denominations and divisions of the Christian faith, debates arise. There are disagreements about church polity, six-day creationism, mode of baptism, and eschatology. There are differences of opinion about social drinking, the gifts of the Spirit, and what makes clothing “modest.” Some of these issues are more important than others, and it is good, to prevent unnecessary clashes and divisions, to distinguish between what is worth debating and what is not.
The Bible is clear that some things are worth fighting for. Truth, by definition, is separate from falsehood. We are to take a stand against false teachers and “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 1:3). Issues that introduce “another gospel”—a message of salvation other than what the Bible teaches—must be denounced (Galatians 1:7; 2 Corinthians 11:4). Revelations, writings, or opinions that are presented as infallible or on par with the Bible must be rejected as heresy (Revelation 22:18; Jeremiah 14:14). We are also to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). We do not compromise God’s Word or water-down the gospel. If it is a matter of salvation or holy living, we should take a strong stand. Other matters may be handled differently. First Timothy 1:4 instructs Christians not to “devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith.” So the Bible gives us some guidelines about what is worth debating and what is better left alone.
Is the matter of Christ’s resurrection worthy of debate? Yes. The resurrection is foundational to the gospel. As long as the debate is civil and aimed at presenting the truth of God’s Word, the resurrection can and should be defended. How about the issue of eternal security? Yes, it is worth debating, to a point. One’s view of eternal security is important and is related to one’s views of salvation and the grace of God. At the same time, if the debate veers into acrimony or threatens to separate brothers in Christ, then it is probably better to table the debate in the name of love. Is it worth debating the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin? Probably not.
Keep in mind there is a vast difference between a friendly debate and a bitter war of words. Verbal assault, slander, accusation, and perverse speech have no place in the body of Christ (Colossians 3:8; 1 Peter 2:1; Ephesians 4:31). What must unbelievers think when they see Christians slinging verbal mud at each other over minor doctrinal differences? Ephesians 4:29 says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” So in our consideration of this topic, we must rule out the name-calling and slander that sadly typifies some Christian debate.
Second Timothy 2:15–16 has this instruction: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness.” We are expected to study God’s Word for ourselves, not just talk about it or take the opinion of someone else about what it says. Simply because a speaker is famous or popular does not mean he is accurate. God has given His Word to us, and He expects us to use it. An example of this kind of spiritual diligence is found in Acts 17:10–12. The Bereans heard the gospel preached by Paul and Silas, and they “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” They did not merely take Paul’s word for it but compared everything to the Word of God. Only when they found his gospel was supported by Scripture were they willing to be taught by him.
When we believe someone is in doctrinal error, we can humbly and respectfully point it out. But we have to remember that others with equal reverence for God’s Word may read it differently. Such discussion is healthy if approached with the right attitude and a teachable spirit. We learn much from the input of others and may even change our viewpoint when presented with a new perspective. Some topics have challenged sincere believers since the early church. Respectful debate on important issues is beneficial to everyone involved, if it is done in the spirit of Christ without ego or personal agenda. Colossians 4:6 gives clear instruction about how we should conduct ourselves in debates: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”
Jesus wants His children to “be one.” His impassioned prayer to the Father just before His crucifixion reveals His deep desire for us: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20–21).
We can “agree to disagree” on issues that do not involve salvation or godly living. Our ultimate goal should not be to prove our point but to model the kind of love and acceptance that Jesus showed His disciples (John 13:34–35). No human being has all the answers on every subject. Our goal should be to immerse ourselves in God’s Word so that we recognize error when we hear it. But we must also purpose to approach every non-essential issue with a teachable spirit so that we can best fulfill God’s desire for unity in His church (1 John 4:12). In the words of 17th-century theologian Rupertus Meldenius, “In the essentials, unity; in the non-essentials, diversity; in all things, charity.”