On Dealing With Opposition

We all have opposition. Here I mean primarily intellectual, theological or ideological opponents. How are Christians to respond to them? What is the right way to respond? Should we always respond? Is it better to sometimes just ignore our opponents?

This has become all the more of an issue I suspect with the rise of online debate forums, social media, blogsites and the like. Now everyone everywhere seems willing to offer their two cents worth on all sorts of issues. When it comes to defending biblical truth in public, and especially online, we need to have some clarity as to how best to respond to those who take opposing views.

I had a concerned believer recently ask me about this very thing. She said she felt obliged to answer all her critics, even if they were obvious trolls with no interest in truth. She felt she had to deal with all opposition and intellectual sparring partners. She asked me for her views on this, and I said that we need to be discerning here.

opposition 1Should we be always ready to give an answer to those who ask of us, as 1 Peter 3:15 says? Absolutely. But how and when this is done is another matter. Having been involved in these sorts of debates and discussions and arguments over many years now, I have learned that it is important to discern what is going on – and who you are dealing with.

The truth is, we really do need to discern those who are just argumentative trolls who want to waste our time, and those who are in fact asking honest questions deserving of honest answers. If you have determined that someone is simply a troublesome troll who only wants to argue for argument’s sake, then it may be best to just give him the flick.

But to those who are genuine, who really do seem to want to learn and are actually open to instruction and correction if need be, then we can give them all the time in the world. But as I say, we must prayerfully and carefully seek to ascertain just who is who.

Scripture in fact speaks to all this. The biblical balance lies in a doubled-edged set of verses. I refer to Proverbs 26:4-5 which says:

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you yourself will be just like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.

This may seem like a confusing and contradictory set of verses. But it actually makes the case I have tried to offer above about the need to discern. Tremper Longman comments on this passage:

This proverb pair is prime evidence leading toward the proper understanding of the proverb genre. Proverbs are not universally true laws but circumstancially relevant principles. In short, the answer depends on the nature of the fool with whom one is engaged in conversation. In other words, the wise person must assess whether this is a fool who will simply drain one’s energy with no positive results or whether an answer will prove fruitful to the fool or perhaps to those who overhear. The wise not only know the proverb, but also can read the circumstances and the people with whom they dialogue.

Or as Bruce Waltke says about this passage:

Without lowering himself to the fool’s level in a debate, but by overcoming evil with good (25:21-22), the wise must show the fool’s folly for what it is. The wise do not silently accept and tolerate the folly and thereby confirm fools in it…. To be sure, there is a time to be silent and a time to speak (Eccl. 4:5), but one must always, not in only certain situations, answer a fool to destabilise him, but, always, not sometimes, without becoming like him.
The rationale for the admonition not to answer a fool according to his folly (v. 4a) is to avoid the negative consequence of becoming like the fool (v. 4b)…. The rationale for answering a fool according to his folly (v. 5a) is to avoid the negative consequence that the fool arrogantly replaces the Lord’s heavenly wisdom with his own (v. 5b).

We find similar thoughts elsewhere, as in Proverbs 9:8: “Do not rebuke mockers or they will hate you; rebuke the wise and they will love you.” And we get other warnings along these lines, such as Proverbs 23:9: “Do not speak to fools, for they will scorn your prudent words.”

Jesus also addressed this issue. For example he told us not to cast our pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6). The whole verse says this: “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.”

So what exactly did he mean by this? This speaks about those who are especially hostile to the gospel. Michael Wilkins comments:

Jesus next addresses a problem at the opposite extreme of judging hypocritically: naive acceptance. He calls for the appropriate discernment of right and wrong or good and bad (7:6, 15-23), because in their everyday world disciples will have to make regular evaluations. . . . “Pearls” symbolise the value of the message of the kingdom of heaven (see 13:45-46). Something so valuable should not be given to those who have no appreciation for such precious truths, their nature is demonstrated by their rejection of that message.
Jesus’ disciples are not “judging” people to be beasts but are simply taking them at face value. By their actions these are people who have demonstrated themselves to be enemies of the kingdom of heaven. Dogs and pigs are linked elsewhere in Scripture (Isa. 66:3; 2 Pet. 2:22) as dangerous and ritually unclean animals. The bizarre behaviour of these wild animals produced fear, because their often-intense hunger could cause them to attack and eat humans (cf. Ps. 22:16–17). The image here warns disciples of the danger of those who have rejected the message of the kingdom of heaven. It is a warning against mistaken zeal in proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom to those whose only intent is mockery or ridicule, or worse.

Or as David Turner remarks, “Jesus’s disciples should be neither inquisitors (Matt. 7:1-5) nor simpletons (7:6). Neither censoriousness not naiveté helps the church.” Martyn Lloyd-Jones spends a fair amount of time on this one verse, and offers three principles to be gleaned from it:

1. We must recognise the different types of persons, and we must learn to discriminate between them…
2. We must also become expert in knowing what to give to each type….
3. We must learn to know which particular aspect of the truth is appropriate in particular cases.

Much more can be said about learning how to deal with others, and to deal with opposition. But other biblical principles obviously come to mind here, such as “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). We also have Colossians 4:5-6: “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”

That is what we all need: wisdom as we deal with others. So if you are involved in any kind of apologetics ministry, or just like to stand up for your faith in the social media, remember to pray for discernment and wisdom. Who should I reply to? When should I reply? How should I reply?

If we take a moment to pray before we engage with any of our opponents, we will be far better equipped than if we had not prayed.

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8 Replies to “On Dealing With Opposition”

  1. So true Bill. The Lefties are often more sophisticated in social media than we conservatives realize. Plus they are relatively unencumbered by the concepts of conscience and morality which we tend to presume guides everybody’s actions. I recently read a piece by Samuel James on patheos.com who posted a piece called “The Case Against Comments” where he says that he takes comments by e-mail only, to avoid trolls using his blog as a platform for THEIR ideas instead of his. He says he has better conversations this way and it is more productive. Reminds me of your very wise comment policy, which I like very much too. But he has found that people who take the time to e-mail him personally are more likely truly interested in honest dialog. He makes some other very wise points too, and notes that more and more corporate websites are disabling comments to avoid all the ugliness that so often ensues.

  2. This is so true. If I am talking to someone who GOD tells me is just a troll, I say what I need say and do not come back to them.

  3. Social media tends to provoke the quick and thoughtless criticism. We can easily judge a person too quickly as ‘against’ us, and thrash back.

    So I’ve found the best thing to do is to assume the best of a person, and ask them to clarify their position – often by personal message/email rather than in front of everyone. It is much less of a situation when you tackle differences personally.

    Assuming the best inculcates the principle of peacemaking (blessed are the peacemakers, Matthew 5), rather than adding a blessing for peacebreaking. We are given a mandate to rebuke, yes, but that’s not a license for quick and thoughtless criticism.

  4. Thanks Nathan. But we have no biblical warrant to simply “think the best of a person” when Scripture time and time again warns us about false teachers, false shepherds, those who seek to destabilise the faith, deliberate fools, and so on. Please read the article above, including the harsh words of Jesus on this. Being naive here helps no one, as I wrote in my article. The truth is, we are told quite clearly sometimes not to answer such people or waste time with them. These are biblical commands which we should not ignore. My whole piece was about the need to have discernment on these matters. And yes, it is always nice if you can have a friendly cup of tea with folks to discuss things (I do this myself at times) but of course that is not possible when you are dealing with hundreds, even thousands of people. So what I wrote above still stands I believe.

  5. The’ pearls before swine’ teaching is not very popular for sermon material– ditto ‘shake the dust off your feet’. Hard teachings of Jesus, that conflict with the Luv and tolerance, that is rampant in the Churches. Has the West become like Capernaum,? Having had Jesus and his teachings and largely rejected them. Will it suffer the same fate?

  6. Great article and a needful one.

    Jesus examples are very good in how He dealt with those who were not interested at all in getting an answer, rather just to gain an opportunity to get at Him. He told them parables, or verbally abused them truthfully, or just walked away.

    Should we answer everyone? No of course not, as many don’t seek an answer, they are Christophobes, they seek to find ways against us.

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