How to Argue Like a Christian: Judging Motives

To combat the divisions within the Churches of Christ, our first and most important task is to press for a change in the tone of the conversation among the factions. Things have gotten so emotional that all sides are increasingly guilty of actions that are simply unjustifiable — and often very un-Christian.

For example, Paul Clements writes in the February 1999 issue of the Firm Foundation,

What about the music issue? It isn’t an issue for one who accepts the Bible as God’s Word. So, what’s the problem? It’s the same problem that has troubled the church from the start. Man wants to take liberties where God has not allowed. Maybe we have some who are assuming “apostolic privilege” and binding or loosing on earth when they want to set aside those doctrines that distinguish the church from the denominational world.

It’s certainly fair to argue that instrumental music violates the scriptures, and if Clements had left off at that point, I’d have no criticism. But he instead insists on claiming that if you accept the authority of the Bible then instrumental music “isn’t an issue.” Really? Is the Bible so plain regarding a cappella music that it’s impossible to accept the Bible as authoritative and yet believe the scriptures authorize instrumental music? Do all who use the instrument claim the authority to re-write scripture?

It’s very convenient to assume that those who disagree with us necessarily do so with bad motives, but it’s just not true. And we have no right to make accusations with no factual basis. I know a great many people who are persuaded that the Bible authorizes instrumental music, and not a one of them denies the authority of the Bible or claims the apostolic authority to set aside scriptural teachings. Not a solitary one.

This sort of argumentation is known to debaters as an ad hominem attack, that is, an attack on the person rather than the argument being made. After all, if we are truly convinced that the Bible demands a cappella singing in worship, why isn’t it enough to make the argument from scripture? Why stoop to attacking the motives of our opponents?

Now this is no trivial matter. Indeed, critics of the Churches of Christ have used our tendency to stoop to such tactics against us. More importantly, it’s just wrong — for at least three reasons.

First, to attack the motives of one’s opponents is to argue an irrelevance. If even a convicted child molester, thief, and murderer finds a sound argument for or against instrumental music, the argument’s soundness has nothing to do with the character of the man making it. This should be obvious. Therefore, when we use an ad hominem attack, we are missing the point and we demonstrate that we are unskilled thinkers.

Second, most of the time, such arguments are untrue. It’s just not true that all who argue for instrumental music in worship do so by denying inspiration. Anyone who has friends among denominations that use instruments will know this. In fact, if we intend to persuade those outside of our circle that they are wrong, we hardly do so convincingly if we begin by insulting them and compounding the sin by falsely accusing them of denying inspiration!

Third, we aren’t mind readers! How dare we presume to know the motives of our intellectual opponents? Are we the only people who want to obey God? Are our arguments so incredibly persuasive — and so well known — that all who disagree deny the inspiration of scripture? If we think this, we are truly deluded.

Now, removing the judging of motives from the debate has consequences. It makes it much harder to condemn those who disagree with us, because we can’t presume that they disagree from a rebellious, impenitent heart. And that means we can’t declare them damned for being hard-hearted. Thus, we are forced to contend with their arguments — which will be good for us.

Therefore, while I am pleased to publish views contrary to mine on this web site, I do not allow ad hominem arguments.

(Titus 2:7-8) In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.

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About Jay Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m an elder at the University Church of Christ in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (I'm on a leave of absence for health reasons.) I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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6 Responses to How to Argue Like a Christian: Judging Motives

  1. Robert Baty says:

    "Ad hominem" arguments do have their place in legitimate discourse/debate/argumentation. For example, lawyers, I think, quite commonly and appropriately use it to impeach the credibility of testimony. In fact, my critical thinking textbook so teaches in the context of a legal framework. Too often, I think, folks invoke "ad hominem" labels in order to try and deflect what might be a legitimate "ad hominem" arguments. I'm not intending to be critical of this article; just pointing out that an argument that is appropriately labeled as "ad hominem" might be a quite appropriate argument.

  2. Maybe I'm missing your point, Robert, but I hope our standard is higher than what is generally acceptable in the legal profession. Further, what might be an acceptable ad hominem argument in a court room — where the attempt is to sway judgement — seems a poor basis for considering what the Text actually mean.

    Can you provide an example of an ad hominem argument that would be appropriate for a doctrinal debate?

  3. Robert Baty says:

    David, As my text proposes, "when we draw from testimony, it is essential that the testimony be reliable. Judging the reliability of testimony requires consideration of the source…is this source of testimony trustworthy, honest…is the source really knowledgeable about the topic…ad hominem arguments against testimony do not commit the ad hominem fallacy…similar care is required in deciding whether to accept or reject a special kind of testimony: the testimony of a special authority, or the testimony of an expert witness". Application to a doctrinal discussion would, of course, depend on the circumstnaces. My reference is "Critical Thinking" by Bruce N. Waller.

  4. Robert Baty says:

    David, here's an excerpt from an Internet site I found which is on point and interesting: Henry Coppee, page 147, says: The argumentum ad hominem is not a fallacy when the design it to teach pure [p. 66] truth, and when no unholy passion or emotion is appealed to. In this application it was used by our Savior himself to the Jews on many occasions with great force and beauty…Other instances could be given, but these are sufficient to show that the Savior frequently used a form or argument that is now condemned by some Christians. And yet some who condemn it use it in its fallacy form. To create the impression that all ad hominem arguments are fallacious, and then to seek to create prejudice against an opponent by calling his argument ad hominem, is an argumentum ad hominem fallacy.

  5. Joe Baggett says:

    Traditionally in the churches of Christ if you found yourself loosing a doctrinal arguement on pure merit basis this was the Ace in the Hole. Just indicate that the reason they disagree with you is because their motives or sincerity is wrong. I think that this did the most damage for the image of the churches of Christ. When I was growing up I can't tell you how many times I heard well if the Baptists had the right motives then they would agree with our doctrine. This is the worst way to have a dialogue because it shifts the focus from the merit and logic of ideas to personal character. Even a worthless no good liar should be able to argue a valid credible idea. I can remember many debates where

  6. Robert Baty says:

    Joe, certainly a "worthless no good liar should be able to argue a valid, credible idea". However, he might as easily argue an invalid, incredible idea. For those asked to give credence to his testimony, which is what us auditors are asked to do, it might be legitimate to note that the testimony is coming from a "worthless no good liar".

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