A friend of mine will be hosting a discussion night on the topic of the roles of men and women. But whether you’re debating egalitarianism vs complementarianism, believer’s vs child baptism, or contemporary choruses vs traditional hymns, you need some basic rules of engagement to ensure that you have a clean (dare we hope fruitful?) fight.

My go-to guidance comes from Roger Olson. In the conclusion of his book Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, he includes some basic rules on how Arminians and Calvinists ought to debate. Here’s a summary of what he suggests:

  • Understanding and Fairness: Before speaking or writing about another theology, we must be sure we have read it and are able to describe it as its own best representatives describe it. In short, before saying “I disagree” we must be able to truly say “I understand.”
    • Critics should always be sure they are not assaulting a strawman. That happens whenever Calvinist critics of Arminianism aim their polemical weapons not at real Arminianism but at evangelical folk religion, which sometimes vaguely resembles Arminianism in a very distorted way. Such clichés are unworthy of Arminianism and of critics who charge them to Arminianism’s account. Calvinists bristle when detractors describe Calvinism as stoic fatalism. They should avoid doing the same kind of thing to Arminianism. [Another person speaking on interfaith dialogue says that we should always avoid comparing our best case to their worst case].
    • Strictly avoid attributing beliefs to adherents of the other side that those adherents explicitly reject. This often happens because critics think they see where certain beliefs of the others must logically lead and then attribute the “good and necessary consequence” (as they see it) of a belief to the others even though the others deny it. Both sides should learn to say, “This is the logical consequence of their belief,” and follow up with, “But they don’t follow the logic there.”
  • Humility: Both parties should admit the weaknesses of their own theologies and not pretend that the other one alone contains tensions, apparent inconsistencies, difficulties explaining biblical passages and mysteries. We should strictly avoid double standards. If we point out apparent inconsistencies in the other party’s theology and argue that inconsistency shows weakness, we should not pretend our own theology is free of such flaws.

Since my presumption knows no bounds, I would add two other suggestions to Olson’s advice:

  • Come prepared to learn something or even have your mind changed. If you could not be convinced of another way of reading Scripture, your interpretation has occupied a status of authority higher than the Scriptures themselves. So if you are a dyed-in-the-wool egalitarian and cannot countenance the Bible saying that men and women are not equal in every way, then your egalitarianism is now dictating to the Bible what it can and cannot say. A Christian’s starting point should always be Scripture, not a prior position.
  • Learn to acknowledge that, for many issues, there are merits on both sides (even if you find one position more convincing). You should be able to recognize that the other party includes people of great holiness, who love God and who are reading the Bible attentively and thinking carefully.

So when you engage in debate, remember these four rules and you’ll be able to follow the old saying: In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas (In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity [or love]).