Francis D. Nichol was editor of the Adventist Review. This article was taken from his book Answers to Objections, pp. 352-353.

To many people, the thought of engaging in argument or controversy on any subject is a distressing one. And if the subject be religion, the distress is heightened by a feeling that sacrilege will be committed. Now it must be admitted there is some good ground for this feeling, for certainly through the years the name of religion has often been outraged by the strident voices of its would-be defenders. Often has it been true that counsel has been darkened with words, and heat rather than light produced by verbal exchanges.

But despite all this, the fact remains that in the promoting of religious beliefs, controversy and dispute cannot be wholly avoided. We are still the church militant, and must fight many battles. We may well strive to live peaceably with all men, but the first business of an army is not to sign peace treaties but to fight. Christ never started a quarrel in all His public ministry, yet how frequently was He engaged in dispute with the scribes and Pharisees. A reading of the history of the Reformation period shows how inevitable was vigorous discussion in the setting forth of the truths of Protestantism. And an examination of the early literature of our denomination reveals again, the distinguishing marks of fearless contending for the faith, even when it involved militant discussion.

The history of most religious movements, shows that they began amid controversy and debate, the ministers of the movement feeling that they must ardently defend the truths they considered vital, and promote them even at the expense of peace. But as the denominations grew older and became well established in the religious world, the crusading fervor generally cooled. Peace with their religious neighbors began to seem more important than the promotion of their distinctive truths. The price of respectability in the religious community is too often silence on distinctive doctrines.

That religious organizations generally have paid this price today is evident by the fact that we hear little or no discussion any more of the particular reasons why one is a Methodist, or a Baptist, or a Presbyterian, or a Congregationalist. Rather we do hear a great deal about church unity, getting together, forgetting differences. This would seem like a beautiful objective were it not for the fact that this forgetting of religious differences, which lies at the bottom of church unity and so called peace, requires the submerging, if not the repudiation, of the distinctive Bible truths which gave rise to these movements. The whole plan of confederacy between denominations seems to be built on the principle that everything else is secondary to peace and harmony.

Doctrines a protection

That there is any great danger our movement will proceed in this matter along the line of other movements, we do not believe. We are in a real way protected from this temptation to consider peace the most important thing in our lives, by the fact that some of our doctrines for example, the Sabbath are so different from those of all other denominations that we could hardly be drawn into any confederacy. And for this we may thank God.

Our great need is to make certain that we carry on our discussions in such a manner that not only the truth will be made plain but the name of God will also be glorified, and, if possible, the hearts of the hearers be convicted as well as convinced. This is oftentimes a hard thing to do. But it is a worth-while goal to set before ourselves in the matter of contending for the faith. A few primary rules, if followed carefully, will aid one greatly in reaching this desired goal. These rules will apply to a discussion on the public platform, through the press, or over the back fence.

1. Impute good faith and sincerity to the one with whom you are disputing.

Sincerity may be possessed by one who holds the most preposterous opinion. It may be hard to keep from revealing irritation and impatience at the absurd views set forth. But remember that the one who is setting them forth is doubtless troubled with a similar temptation in listening to your views, which he may sincerely consider preposterous. Some of us often have occasion to make close and friendly contacts with certain ardent Sunday advocates, thanks to our being on the same side of the prohibition question. These contacts have not made us any less certain that Sunday legislation is evil and should be militantly fought, but they have given us a clearer realization of the sincerity and good faith of these Sunday reformers that should enable us to differ with them in a more Christian spirit.

2. Keep calm.

If you cannot fight for the faith without displaying an unseemly rise of temperature, do not fight. Stay by the stuff, and let others of more equable disposition, or those who have gained the victory over anger, carry on the active warfare for the faith.

3. Do not use hard words; and be sparing of anything that approaches ridicule or irony.

This is hard counsel for some of us. There are doubtless times when strong language, even as strong as that of Elijah on Carmel, may be in order, but those occasions, we believe, are rare. We who have the assurance in our hearts that the truth and the evidence are on our side can well afford, not only to be calm and cool, but kind in our language. The spectators, if there be any, will measure our argument, at least in part, by our form of speech, even if the one with whom we are differing does not. How great is the temptation sometimes to ridicule openly and badly an absurd argument hurled against the truth! But how much better it is to discover by the grace of God some form of expression that will enable us to make the necessary exposure of the foolish argument with the least injury to the man's feelings! This gives us the greatest hope of winning him and those who listen.

When Mary anointed Christ, Simon the leper was indignant. Doubtless he revealed his feelings plainly on his countenance. What an excellent opportunity, we would say, for Christ to rebuke him directly and unmercifully; for his hypocritical indignation was unpardonable. But the record tells us that "Jesus answering said unto him, Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee." And then is recorded the appealing story, with its obvious lesson, of the creditor and his two debtors. When Simon had himself been led to answer Christ's question as to which of the debtors would love the creditor the more, then, and not until then, did the Savior administer any rebuke.

This incident is one of the choicest lessons in the fine art of how to set before a man the proof of the unreasonableness of his attitude or arguments. In fact, a study of all the Gospel narratives of Christ's discussion with His enemies makes helpful and profitable reading for all those who fight for the faith, and that should include in one sense or another every one of us.

4. Reveal a spirit of great seriousness.

Let it be evident that your contending for your religious views is not to satisfy any unfortunate desire for wrangling or controversy, but is prompted by a solemn conviction that the beliefs you hold are of most serious importance. In fighting for the faith, we are always under the handicap of the mistaken charge that we are debaters and disputers, who like to engage in controversy because we are simply a contentious crowd. Nothing can do more to neutralize this charge than a serious, solemn manner in every discussion of truth.

5. Appeal to the heart as well as to the head.

It is one thing to convince a man; it is another thing to convict him, and create in his soul a desire to obey the truths you have set forth. It is not simply a question of what to say, but how to say it, if you would bring conviction. Endeavor to lift the discussion, as it draws toward its close, above the level of a mere question of facts and evidence, to the plane of the relation that these facts bear to the hearer's heart and eternal destiny. It is not enough simply to pyramid evidence to convince a man that the second advent of Christ is near; we should strive to show the great importance of this fact to a man's heart and to his future life. It will not profit us simply to close the mouths of disputants so that they will no longer attempt to set forth their erroneous beliefs; we must strive to open their hearts to receive the truths we have so earnestly been endeavoring to prove by our array of evidence.

These few suggestions are not offered with the thought of promoting either public or private disputations regarding the truth. It is not for us to seek out opportunities for controversy. Rather should we strive to avoid, as far as consistent, any discussion that partakes strictly of the nature of debate. Yet, after all is said and done, there arise from time to time, and often in the most unexpected manner, situations in which we must defend the faith against erroneous arguments. For such occasions these suggestions are offered.

Francis D. Nichol was the editor of the Review and Herald (Adventist Review) when he wrote this article.

Francis D. Nichol was editor of the Adventist Review. This article was taken from his book Answers to Objections, pp. 352-353.