How to Argue Like a Christian: Over-generalizing and Not Listening

It’s awfully easy to find in any group of people a few outliers — people identified with the group who aren’t really representative of the group. I mean, no group of human beings is free of sin or foolishness, and it’s easy to suggest that the positions or mistakes of a few represent the whole. Most people don’t feel the need to factcheck claims of ministers of God’s gospel, and so the tactic is often very effective.

A recent example may be found in one of the Gospel Advocate‘s November 2008 articles condemning the Emerging Church Movement by Dewayne Bryant, which states,

The ECM [Emerging Church Movement] de-emphasizes doctrine to the extent that one wonders why it should be considered relevant. Furthermore, postmodernism’s discomfort with absolutes has made for poor theology. [Mark] Driscoll, in his article “A Pastoral Perspective on the Emerging Church,” identifies eight discussions currently taking place, including whether the crucifixion was efficacious or merely an example of suffering and whether hell will be eternal, temporary or non-existent (91). Other doctrines such as sin, holiness, atonement and who belongs in the community of faith are met with equal uncertainty.

The article by Driscoll that Bryant cites actually says something quite different.

The Emerging church includes three distinct types of Christians. In a conversation with Dr. Ed Stetzer, a noted missiologist, he classified them as the Relevants, Reconstructionists, and Revisionists.

Relevants are theologically conservative evangelicals who are not as interested in reshaping theology as much as updating such things as worship styles, preaching styles, and church leadership structures. Their goal is to be more relevant; thus, appealing to postmodern minded people. …

Reconstructionists are generally theologically evangelical and dissatisfied with the current forms of church (e.g. seeker, purpose, contemporary). They bolster their critique by noting that our nation is becoming less Christian and that those who profess faith are not living lives markedly different than non-Christians; thereby, proving that current church forms have failed to create life transformation. Subsequently, they propose more informal, incarnational, and organic church forms such as house churches.  …

Revisionists are theologically liberal and question key evangelical doctrines, critiquing their appropriateness for the emerging postmodern world.

You see, the article cited does in fact point out the very flaws that properly concern Bryant, but those flaws only relate to the “revisionists,” which is but one of the three subgroups within the Emerging Church Movement. And yet, Bryant writes as though the entire movement were infected with these heresies. It’s just not true, and the very article he cites so states.

Similarly, Bryant refers to Dan Kimball’s book They Like Jesus but Not the Church as though Kimball does not consider homosexuality a sin, saying, “Scripture is clear about the sinfulness of homosexuality (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 1 Timothy 1:9-11).” But Kimball actually agrees with Bryant. He’s just arguing that the church should treat homosexuals with the compassion of Jesus rather than contenting itself with rattling off proof texts.

A similar over-generalization may be found in Neil Anderson’s editorial in the March 2006 issue of the Advocate. In opposing the reunification of the Churches of Christ and independent Christian Churches, he asserts,

We lack a commonality in doctrinal teachings regarding the inerrancy of Scripture. In addition to advocating the use of instrumental music in worship, this new digression also accepts the pious unimmersed as saved, perverts the sanctity of the Lord’s Supper, and promotes women in public leadership roles in worship.

Really? Do the independent Christian Churches, on the whole, reject inerrancy? No. Do they, on the whole, accept the unimmersed? No more so than Churches of Christ. Do they grant women public leadership roles? Yes, some do. And some don’t.

Is it fair to the Advocate‘s readers to speak as though the independent Christian Churches, on the whole, deny inerrancy, accept the unimmersed, and allow women to preach? No. If you doubt me, click over to the Christian Standard‘s web site and read what their most prominent periodical writes on these subjects.

Now, over-generalization is one example of a flawed argument called a “strawman.” In a strawman argument, the debater invents a claim by his opponent and then refutes that claim. When Bryant suggests that Kimball denies the sinfulness of homosexuality, he’s created a strawman argument that he can easily defeat. Kimball’s real argument is much weightier.

I do not suggest that Bryant or Anderson are lying when they create their strawmen. I seriously doubt that they intend any deceit. Rather, it’s much more likely, I think, that they are just not taking the trouble to listen to their opponents. And there are lots of examples of Church of Christ ministers mischaracterizing their opponents because they didn’t bother to listen to them.

To listen to someone is harder than we often imagine. Listening is hard work. It takes time. And it requires valuing what our opponent says.

Moreover, listening requires being willing to be persuaded. If you only read my writings to disprove me, then you’re not really listening to what I say. If you read with humility, willing to learn and perhaps be changed, then you’ll surely understand me, even if you ultimately disagree.

You see, we cannot ask our opponents to be willing to listen and perhaps be changed by what we say unless we are willing to afford them the same respect.

(Mat 13:16)  But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. 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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8 Responses to How to Argue Like a Christian: Over-generalizing and Not Listening

  1. I had heard of this series of articles in the GA and knew of no way to access them. Thanks. Properly describing what the emergent church folks are getting at is very difficult. But even so, I don't mind telling you that I am excited by some of the things that Brian McLaren and other emerging church writers have written

  2. mattdabbs says:

    That Gospel Advocate piece was a real hatchet job. They really needed a few more people who were actually informed of the broader scope of Emerging Theology and a little more balance than what was presented. That is a perfect example for what you are talking about here. Matthew Morine's article was better than the rest in the issue.

  3. Doug Young says:

    We seem to be notorious for "group think." We think in groups and feel as though those we give attention to must be lumped into groups. It seems to me, the ECM has become the group into which all "liberals" are to be dumped.

    FWIW, when I started researching the ECM, and started listening Driscoll on YouTube, I thought, "He's more radical than some of our brethren." He's out there alright, but he can in no way be classified as a theological liberal.

    That others can't see that is beyond me.

  4. Matthew Robert says:

    This is what drives me nuts. You hit the nail right on the head. So often we (and especially our more conservative brothers) don't give people a fair chance, and end up completely mischaracterizing them.

    I think I might have to disagree slightly with your claim that no deceit was intended. I've been on the more conservative side of arguments, and it is much easier to convince people of the horrors of another group or view when you paint a very deviant picture of them.

  5. Dewayne Bryant says:

    The tragic irony of your post is that you are guilty of the same overgeneralization you condemn. You paint me as an ignorant doctrinal headhunter without knowing anything about me. The sad thing is that you don't appear to realize that I quoted Driscoll with approval (and more accurately than you claim, I would argue) and have a very high opinion of both he and Dan Kimball. While I may disagree with them on particulars I have found both of them engaging, enlightening, and theologically astute.

    I spoke with another one of the authors from the Nov. 2008 issue of the Advocate and we both wished that we had said some things differently. Several of us have been on the receiving end of brothers and sisters in the Lord who have show us the love of Christ by calling us ignorant hatemongers, liars, and Pharisees trying to "stone anyone who doesn't hold to 'Church of Christ doctrine' ". Is this what we are to expect whenever we disagree with one another? I did not write the article with malice or any intent to paint any and every member of the emerging/emergent/missional movement as a deviant, as the above response claims.

    My intent was merely to identify several problematic features of the emerging church, not to characterize the movement as a whole. If that did not come across, then the mistake is mine and I rightfully apologize. If I am mistaken about the beliefs of the movement, then I apologize for that as well. But most of the criticism I've gotten has very little to do with particular points. It's usually just, "I figure you probably weren't being malicious or lying, but …." And then I get called a malicious liar.

    If I could have been clearer but wasn't, that is an error on my part. After much reflection, there are several points that I could have clarified, and wish that I could do so. While I disagree with several particulars of the movement, it is regrettable that my work was taken as polemic. It was not intended that way.

  6. I saw nothing in Jay's post that implied anything derogatory about your intelligence, focus on doctrine or hunting habits, Dewayne.

    He does, accurately I think, point out that your article treats the Emerging Church Movement as monolithic, which would be about as accurate as saying that everyone in churches of Christ believe exactly the same thing on every issue. If that's one of the things you would revise in the article, I'd say it's a wise choice.

    It is inexcusable for people – especially fellow Christians – to call you a malicious liar or an ignorant hatemonger. I hope you don't see that in what Jay wrote. It sounded to me like he just feels that you characterized the entire movement by the beliefs of a sub-group within it – which is over-generalization – and that damages the credibility of your article.

  7. Jay Guin says:


    I'm delighted to have you participating on this blog and hope you will comment further in the future.

    I do wish that you'd carefully re-read what I wrote. I didn't characterize you as "an ignorant doctrinal headhunter." Rather, my conclusion was that you were "not taking the trouble to listen to [your] opponents."

    I'm sorry if anyone has called the authors of these articles "ignorant hatemongers, liars, and Pharisees." But I specifically said I didn't think you were lying. And I meant it. I don't know why you'd think otherwise.

    I don't see where I accused you of painting "any and every member of the emerging/emergent/missional movement as a deviant". I did say you took Dan Kimball out of context, claiming that he condoned homosexuality when he in fact did not.

    Nor have I accused you of malice. Rather, I've accused you of not listening.

    And so, it appears to me that you have accused me of things I am not guilty of. Again, you create strawman positions to tear down. Again, I don't take you to be lying. And, again, you leave me with the impression that you don't listen very well to your opponents.

    Please re-read what I wrote and let me know whether, after having re-read the article, you still think it's fair to characterize my post as you have.

    I do appreciate your apologies. I've certainly written things at times I wished I hadn't.

    If you've been called a malicious liar by others, I'm sorry for it. I don't see where anyone commenting here has done so.

    Finally, I repeat that I'm delighted to have you commenting here and hope you will comment here often.

  8. Dewayne Bryant says:

    I want to begin by saying that in posts where every word is critically analyzed, scrutinized, and plumbed for meaning, it is far more difficult to take things the way the author intends than it is in a spoken conversation which has the benefit of inflection, tone, and subsequent explanation. Our "conversation" here appears to be the unfortunate result of a limited medium, and one that does not allow for quick qualifications or interruptions that help spoken dialogue go so much more smoothly. Since anything either of us says can easily be misconstrued as being accusatorial, let me preface my comments by saying that nothing in this post it intended to demean, criticize, or (mis)characterize. I will make my language as objective as possible (which, you might argue, is what I should have done to start with. And you'd probably be right).

    That having been said, if you will look more closely I didn't criticize you. Much of my commentary was about the treatment I've received in general, not about your post. (Re-read what I said with that in mind and see how it changes your perception) Only the first paragraph of my response deals with your article. But I can see how you would have (innocently) taken the entire post otherwise. Again, limited medium and limited ability to interact. By the way, the comment on the criticism of me painting the EMC as deviant comes from one of the respondents, not your post (that's what I meant by "the above response"). And as for Kimball, I did not say he condoned homosexuality, since toward the end of that chapter in his book he flatly states it is a sin. Still, he takes a "softly, softly" approach that some might mistake for sympathy, I think. Although I do agree with him that homosexuals have not been given proper treatment from Christians, who – of all people – should know better.

    In the end, I didn't actually accuse you of anything. You have restated your assertion that I have built strawmen, don't listen to opponents, and accused you of things of which you are not guilty. I would challenge all of those assertions. I should have made the comments about my general treatment more clearly separate from my response to you individually. My failure to do so is no doubt the cause of your misperception.

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