Must We Choose between Winning the Argument and Winning the Person?

If we understand arguing as offering reasons in support of one’s claims and assessing the reasoning put forth by someone holding an opposing position, I think we’ll see that to pit winning an argument against winning a person is unwarranted.

The word “win” together with the word “argument” evokes, in the minds of many, images of an adversarial, hostile, and competitive encounter, a fight to the finish with a victor and a vanquished, a belittling gloater and one shamefully gloated over. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

 

Some people are uncomfortable with the third use of the Columbo Tactic(using questions to help people see flaws and inconsistencies in their thinking). They might see it as being necessarily contentious, aggressive, and driven by a prideful desire to best the person with whom they’re talking.

Once, after I had finished teaching on the subject, someone who I could tell was wary of the tactic came up to me and said, “I don’t really agree with this approach; I’d rather win the person than the argument.” As we talked, it became clear that according to her, we either aim to lovingly win a person to Christ, which means avoiding confronting (no matter how gently) their faulty thinking, or we inquire about apparent incoherence and lack of correspondence to life, in which case we’re not genuinely concerned about the person but only about creating a “Gotcha!” moment to make ourselves feel superior and our conversation partner feel bad. This way of thinking assumes we must either love the person or challenge their outlook on life, but we can’t do both because they’re mutually exclusive.

I understand what’s behind such a stance. The word “win” together with the word “argument” evokes, in the minds of many, images of an adversarial, hostile, and competitive encounter, a fight to the finish with a victor and a vanquished, a belittling gloater and one shamefully gloated over. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we understand arguing in its formal sense—namely, offering reasons in support of one’s claims and assessing the reasoning put forth by someone holding an opposing position—andunderstand winning an argument as simply making a more compelling case, I think we’ll see that to pit winning an argument against winning a person is unwarranted. In other words, it’s a false dichotomy.

Wanting to win an argument isn’t necessarily wrong. It’s why I want to win that determines whether there’s a problem. If I’m motivated by a desire to display my cleverness and/or to demean or belittle the person with whom I’m speaking, or if I consider winning the argument as an end in itself, I’m out of step with the Holy Spirit and misrepresenting Jesus, whose truth I say I’m defending. Due to the reality of indwelling sin, this is a temptation we must always be prayerfully on guard against and repentant of when we recognize it in ourselves. Anyone engaged in apologetics to any degree needs to be asking the Lord to purify their motives so that we all increasingly desire to win arguments as a means (though certainly not the only one) of winning people to the gospel.

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