Asking before Answering (and Arguing)

I’ve been trying to keep the discussion at the level of general ideas and only use specific examples where it seemed helpful to illuminate a point. I have no problem with giving specific examples, but it seems to me that when used too frequently they end up focusing attention on the example rather than the idea of which it is an illustration. I can imagine, based on past experiences, someone reading my reference to the choice of a mate in the last post and getting distracted into a mental debate about dating and courtship. If they did, they missed the point I was trying to make. Ditto regarding the stuff about dress standards. I think the aphorism we use to describe that is “missing the forest because of the trees.”

As I’ve said, my objective is to get us to think about principles before we move to application because that enables us to make sure we’re grounded in Scripture (vs. tradition) and equips us to engage in constructive, open debate with one another. The reason I think this is important is that I’ve seen too many discussions terribly hamstrung by the assumptions that people bring into the conversation.

None of us are free from assumptions—it’s a natural part of life that the pattern by and in which we live forms the starting point for how we view life. Even something as simple as seeing a piano in the church for all of our lives produces an assumption that this is and has always been the way churches have operated. Or, since we’ve always used a hymnbook, we assume that this has always been the practice of God’s people. I am not suggesting that assuming these things is sinful, but I am saying that given those assumptions, a discussion about whether pianos and hymnbooks should be used in church is going to be hampered. There is a lot that could be said about assumptions that hurt effective debate, but I’d like to highlight only two that seem more common and particularly unhelpful. One in this post, then another in a later post (DV).

The first is assuming something that really needs to be substantiated. I imagine nobody reading this doubts that the validity of an argument depends on the truth of its premises, but everybody reading this has probably also seen discussions that go nowhere because one or both parties falsely assumed that their premises were true. Sometimes this is rooted in simple misinformation, but it also can be the evidence of prejudice. Because misinformation can be corrected by the facts, we should be able to work through it. Assumptions rooted in prejudice, however, are much more stubborn. It is important, therefore, to determine if you’re engaged in a conversation with someone genuinely interested in the truth or simply committed to advancing their view on the matter. The best way to surface that, I think, is to ask questions that help you understand their thinking. If they can explain their view and have reasons for holding it, then you can discuss those. If they dismiss your questions, then it often (if not usually) means they have made up their minds and there really isn’t much point in going back and forth about it.

An example might be helpful. Recently I read a description of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary as “the most liberal Southern Baptist Seminary (sic) in America.” Now, that’s a pretty strong accusation that needs to substantiated, not just assumed, if any meaningful discussion is going to take place. So, my first move would be to ask something like, “Help me understand why you think that is true?” Perhaps I’d also ask something like, “How are you using the word ‘liberal’ in that description—what do you mean by that?”  If the person who made the statement offers some evidence for his assertion, we can evaluate that and draw conclusions about its accuracy. If, on the other hand, he dismisses the questions, then there’s really not much point in trying to talk about it since either his assessment is rooted in prejudice or he is simply an arrogant man. Neither option suggests the likelihood of a helpful conversation.

Another example—the claim is often made that Calvinism kills missions. If someone makes that claim, you can dismiss them as a fool or you can ask them questions in order to understand why they think that. If the person offers evidence and explanation for his claim, then you can debate the merits of that evidence and, therefore, of the claim. If the person offers nothing, then you know you’re dealing with prejudice and you may want to consider moving on to another topic.

Just a reminder, I’m trying to make the case for more constructive decision-making and leadership in these posts. We live in challenging times that call for biblical discernment, and as leaders we need to think and communicate clearly. We also live in a day where the level of public discourse is dropping rapidly to shout at each other mode. Everybody wants to make their own points, not understand anybody else’s. The Word is clear that “He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him” (Proverbs 18:13). Ask some good questions before you answer so that you know you are talking about the same thing and talking with someone who is genuinely interested in the truth.

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