Tom Gilson

Your Online Apologetic Debate Approach Isn’t Christlike

We’ve got a problem, folks. You and me both.

I hate to have to say it so bluntly, and maybe you’re the exception to the rule, but honestly, I’ve hardly ever seen anyone on Facebook following Christ’s example in the  way they debate unbelievers. Our debate approach just isn’t Christlike.

And I’d like to mount a campaign to put an end to it. Because we’re doing it wrong everywhere, and it’s not doing the cause of Christ any good.

I realize that’s a strong statement, but I think it holds up to examination.

Defining the Problem

I’m not saying we’re always unkind or unloving. That’s not the problem I’m talking about.

I’ve seen fellow believers treating adversaries with great patience. I’ve seen Christians using sound, rational arguments. I’ve even seen something that looks a lot like love, as well as it could be expressed via social media. That’s partly Christlike, and it’s commendable, but it’s still not the way Christ modeled for us.

I’ve done a very careful study of how Jesus engaged with his adversaries. I wrote it up in a short book titled How Would Jesus Blog? Answering Online Adversaries Jesus’ Way (Kindle; Nook; Paperback). I just lowered the Kindle price to just $.99, and I dropped the paperback price by $2.00, too, because I want the word to spread: We’re going about this online debate thing the wrong way.

How It Goes Wrong

I think everyone who tries online debate knows it usually goes wrong. Quick answers get quick retorts, it turns snarky, no one budges an inch, much time is wasted, and it all just ends up looking like nasty.

It’s easy to blame the other side: They won’t listen, they won’t see how uninformed their arguments are, they parrot one another’s talking points without understanding. All of this is generally true. But we’re as involved in the mess as they are, and we can’t shrug off our own responsibility for it.

So how do we avoid it? Do we retreat and yield them the field? No, not at all! Jesus never retreated. But he never took part in any long, drawn-out arguments with adversaries, either.

For Example:

Here’s one example of us getting it wrong. Over at the Apologetics Academy Facebook page, which is open to both Christians and non-Christians, a member named Ragnar posted a question: “Why do many christians [sic] seem to hate the idea of gay marriage? Surely two consenting adults in a loving relationship can’t be that bad.”

Within an hour there were 200 comments in reply, all of them seeking to answer his question or to answer the answers. All of them missed the one point that Jesus always started with: Who is asking? Why? What do they want out of this interaction?

I watched that debate, looking for some sign that Ragnar really wanted to know the reasons Christians oppose gay marriage. I didn’t see any. Instead I saw him loading the question from the start with the word “hate.” I noticed he had asked the question on Facebook, where no one can honestly expect to hear a fully reasoned and thoughtful answer.

I saw him delivering pokes like, “So everyone who has ever been drunk won’t get into heaven? Why are Christians not out trying protecting bars and liquor stores?” The main problem with that, by the way, isn’t that it’s uninformed (which it is), but that it masquerades as a knowing rebuttal, thus preventing Ragnar himself from catching on to how little he understands so far.

We Don’t Have To Accept Their Ground Rules

What I saw most of all was what was missing, not just from Ragnar’s participation but everyone’s. I never saw anything like this: “I want to know why Christians feel about gay marriage as they do, so please help me understand.” There was no evidence of his interest in true understanding. To be specific, I saw no sign that the person who asked  the question really wanted an answer. Even though he sort  of pretended he did.

What there was instead was his quick easy question, provoking a prolonged fight. I can’t prove it, but I suspect that’s what he wanted. If that’s not true of Ragnar this time, it’s certainly true of a lot of skeptics and atheists a lot of the time.

So the question set the stage and virtually defined the ground rules: “Hey, y’all, lets pretend I want to know something while I start another Facebook fight. Ready? Go!”

Discovering Jesus’ Way

And we Christians accept the ground rules, and we fight. Maybe we fight cleaner than they do, but we still fight. Jesus didn’t fight that way. Again I remind you, he didn’t retreat. He engaged, but not according to the ground rules his adversaries tried to set for the debate.

And we can do the same. We can engage without accepting un-Christlike conditions for the interaction. We can do it Jesus’ way.

Let’s Put An End To Un-Christlike Debate!

How do we do that? Several weeks ago I started out trying to write the answer to that question on the form of a blog post. I couldn’t do it; I couldn’t compress it into that short a format. So I made it into a book. I still can’t write it in short form. Here’s the shortest possible preview, though: For Jesus, when the questioner wasn’t serious about the question, the questioner became the question.

I’ve made the book extremely affordable. I urge you to read it, heed it, and spread the word. Because the way we’re doing online debate isn’t Christlike, and it’s hurting his cause on earth. Let’s get that stopped. Let’s start doing it his way instead.

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12 thoughts on “Your Online Apologetic Debate Approach Isn’t Christlike

  1. Jesus certainly did not retreat. We need to remember that Jesus was a very controversial and even revolutionary figure. “And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple.” Christlike debate is mild only to a certain extent. It does get violent and can lead to martyrdom too.

  2. I suspect you’re not likely to get a great influx of purchases, in part because you take such a long time to tell us all that you can’t tell us briefly what your blogpost suggests you’re going to tell us. In other words, and I write this as one who has taught and excelled at composition, while suggesting you would tell us what we are doing wrong [sic], you did so incorrectly.

    Go back, and re-write your pitch. Waste less time on the anecdotes, and get to the meat. If you need help editing down the above post to something that will then allow you the space [an almost unlimited resource in the blogosphere, by the way] to write a few brief points outlining your basic suggestion for improvement.

    If that is good, and you keep the book you’re pitching similarly focused, word will spread, and the buyers will come.

  3. Gosh, Tom, it looks like this so-called “Jean-Marc Cowles O’Connor” might be a spammer, seeing as how he’s off-topic and all. He could even be a software thing, since the AIs are getting so much better these days.

    It’s sad because you used to have dozens of good commenters on this site. Where did they go?

  4. I’m not a spammer, nor am I a “software thing”, whatever that means.

    The site is “Thinking Christian”, correct? Does that mean we only think about Christian stuff, or are things like effective composition and communication important, also. Because if they’re not, well, then why would anyone care if their apologetics debate is Christlike, let alone effective?

    Perhaps other “good commenters” have been driven away by folks who flame and troll them, but don’t actually contribute something meaningful to the dialog. Perhaps some have left because other compositions have not been effective or inspiring enough to stick around.

    I’m not a quitter — I can’t honestly say I have ever quit anything in my life … anything — but if contributing in good conscience and in an effort to help a brother out is going to generate reponses akin to Mr. Moore’s, then I will not stick around, either.

  5. I think what is “off” about Christians’ apologetics is our putative epistemology — we try to convince (or convict) others based on rational evidences, etc. However, Jesus said that the words he spoke were spirit and life. There’s an epistemological gap there that is little discussed, and, perhaps, little understood. I do know that Wm. Lane Craig said we know Xy is true via the Holy Spirit, but we show Xy is true via reason and evidences. At any rate, this is perhaps another way in which our approach is not “Christ-like”.

  6. @#3 John Moore

    It’s sad because you used to have dozens of good commenters on this site. Where did they go?

    I think that there was a pretty long leave of absence by Tom. Because of the way that the site seems to be structured I don’t think there was previously a way to get an e-mail notification for new posts (perhaps I am wrong or just couldn’t figure it out though). Having a leave of absence, without an easy way for commentators to stay plugged in without checking in manually, probably is the reason that the conversations aren’t as lively. There was also a post a bit further back where Tom talked about changing the way that he engaged with antagonists. That change seems to have removed much of the controversial long comment chains, which probably contributed further.

    I honestly don’t see it as really a problem because there are other ways to view engagement apart from the ol’ combox.


    I think that there might be some truth to what O’Connor says, though I would have put it in a different tone. I’m very much used to the “bottom line up front” style of writing. I consciously thought through the first two subsections that I was being teased to keep reading. When I got to “How it goes wrong” I felt like I was finally getting to the point of the post and when I got to “for example” I felt like I understood the point that you were making. Far be it for me to tell you how to write your blog, but it felt like your post could have been a bit more meat and potatoes.

  7. I actually agree with O’Connor too. And you as well. I’ve been meaning to do a re-do of this blog post, but publishing my latest book kept me preoccupied.

    Your analysis of what happened to the commenters agrees with my own explanation for it, too. I used to write here all the time. I’m about to post another entry here today, keeping the blog alive at a slow pace, but I’m spending 90 to 95 percent of my writing energy on The Stream.











  9. Tom,

    Two goals. First, the topic is not as uncommon as I had initially thought, with Christian sites leading the way. A bit better formatting with a few extra links (…eight in all instead of five…) is at

    Second, the content there along with also looks at a sort of false identity claim with respect to the term “Proselytizing” as it seems that the goal of posts like the OP here can be misconstrued by others into something it isn’t, namely the goal of getting better at “proselytizing” …and with all the baggage that comes with that term. When, in fact, the goal is something quite different, especially with respect to said baggage.

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