How Do I Keep a Discussion with an Unbeliever on Topic?

red herringAnyone engaged in apologetics will understand how difficult it can be to stay on topic. Depending on who you are talking with, the conversation can go in a number of directions. Christians engaging with Jehovah’s Witnesses for instance, tend to make the mistake of focusing on non-essential issues that have no ultimate significance as it relates to where the JW and the Christian disagree. This same mistake is done when talking with atheists. The Christian can chase red herrings and run-down rabbit holes while missing key points and opportunities throughout the course of the discussion. It is for this reason that the apologist must learn to stay focused in his or her discussions.

First, the Christian needs to understand the pillars of his own position and the position of the person he is engaging. For example, it does nothing to debate a Jehovah’s Witness on your front door step on why you have no problem celebrating Christmas and birthdays (The JWs celebrate neither). Bypass those unimportant and non-essential differences and go straight for the core differences. When I speak with JWs, I am quick to bring up the Person and work of Jesus Christ, for it is on this very point where our strongest disagreements will be. I will ask: What do you think of Jesus? They will respond with their standard answers, to which you will need to highlight and focus in on the point where you disagree. Christians believe that Jesus is God in flesh (John 1:1, 14). Jesus is eternal and uncreated, while the JWs believe that Jesus was created by God. They believe along the lines of the ancient heretics the Arians, who affirmed that “There was a time when he was not” (referring to Jesus, hence denying the eternality of the 2nd Person of the Trinity). And of course, they deny the trinity and other important and essential features of orthodox Christian faith. In light of this, the Christian will want to be sure to always bring the discussion back to these essential areas of disagreement. When the JW jumps around from text to text, always be sure to patiently draw them back to the specific scriptures pertaining to your main points of contention and disagreement.

The same principles apply when engaging with atheists and other skeptics. Atheists, when engaging Christians will often bring up the “Problem of Evil” (If a good God exists, why is there evil in the world)? This is a good and valid question to ask and the Christian needs to be prepared to give an answer (1 Peter 3:15). But what is often the case in these kinds of discussions, things will move from (Why is there evil in the world) to (Christians are hypocrites and have committed all sorts of evil throughout history). At this point, the apologist should not take the bait. While it is true that there have been Christians throughout history who have done all sorts of bad things, this point is irrelevant to the truth of the Christian position. When the skeptic brings this point up in the discussion, I quickly admit: Yes, there have been a lot of folks who acted inconsistently with the teachings of the bible, but what does that have to do with the truth of the Bible. This is a bad argument: Christians have been hypocrites; therefore, Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. When you put it this way, such argumentation does seem quite silly and misses the real important issues. Once this fallacious tactic is exposed, be quick to move the discussion back to where it belongs (Why think Christianity is true)?

More can be said concerning how to keep a discussion focused but I think enough has been said to understand the importance of staying focused and keeping a discussion where it belongs. Christians need to think logically so as to recognize illogical thinking in themselves and others. They need to also learn to avoid the temptation to go off topic and justify every attack the unbeliever throws at them. Stay focused, ask questions, and point out faulty logic. Learning to do this well is a good start in engaging meaningfully with unbelievers.

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