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Should Christians Try to ‘Own’ the Other Side?

It began, as these things typically do, with a time-wasting scroll down my Facebook wall. A video clip, already liked and commented on by thousands, caught my eye. A well-known conservative personality was speaking on a campus. The headline: “_______ Totally Owns Liberals at ______.” I watched the clip and nodded along with the person’s arguments.

I thought about sharing it. But then I thought about my Facebook friends who might identify with the movement this person was critiquing. Would they appreciate being “owned”? Would his tone and approach change their thinking? Most of all, would they be interested in hearing the gospel from me after being digitally punked?

I resisted the urge to share the video.

Offending and Yet Not Offending

Several times in 1 Corinthians 9–10, Paul speaks of his willingness to set aside his personal preferences for the sake of the gospel and his desire to serve those around him. For example:

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. (1 Cor. 10:31–33)

Some might read this and conclude that Paul is seeking the approval of his peers by constantly changing his opinions. It may sound like he’s more interested in being loved than being truthful.

But we know this isn’t true, since in other places he rebukes a people-pleasing lifestyle (Eph. 6:6–8) and exhorts believers to be faithful truth-tellers, helping them to avoid the lies that lead to death (2 Cor. 10:5).

So how do we square unapologetic truth-telling Paul with “I please everyone in everything I do” and “give no offense” Paul? Put simply, he is willing to find common ground with people he might disagree with, both in and out of the church, for the glory of God and that many may be saved.

Whenever Paul spoke truth he knew would offend, whenever the gospel presentation was a “stone of stumbling” (Rom. 9:33), it was not delivered for the sake of offending, nor for the selfish satisfaction of crushing someone intellectually.

Paul wasn’t ashamed of the gospel—not because delivering an offensive message made him feel better, but because this offensive message was, and is, the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16).

Distinct Message for a Distinct People

But often we are tempted to make knowingly offensive arguments—not because they are the power of God unto salvation, but because “owning” the other gives us credibility in the eyes of the right peer groups. We dismantle the ideology and wait for the retweets and likes. We post the awesome clip, not to win over our atheist neighbor, but to further ingratiate ourselves to our tribe.

Paul was less concerned with getting back-pats from his peer group and more interested in making Spirit-empowered arguments that both deconstructed falsehoods and opened up hearts and minds.

Paul was less concerned with getting back-pats from his peer group and more interested in making Spirit-empowered arguments that both deconstructed falsehoods and opened up hearts and minds.

This is why he sought common ground with his hearers on Mars Hill, even while pointing them to the real end of their philosophical longings. This is why he found different ways to appeal to Jewish and Gentile audiences. This is why he asked believers to pray that he might have clarity when preaching the gospel (Eph. 6:19; Col. 4:4). Paul didn’t depend on his own rhetorical skills, though his were likely formidable. He came to God in weakness, depending on the Spirit to make arguments that would provoke a response but not needlessly offend.

With Gentleness and Respect

Peter had a similar approach. He urged God’s people to be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15). This last part, with gentleness and respect, is the part many of us edit out.

Respect means we consider the best arguments of those we are engaging. It means we don’t seek to crush the other side. You can’t respect someone if you’re trying to score cheap partisan points at their expense.

Of course, kindness won’t always yield success. Jesus, who never committed a single rhetorical sin, was crucified. Paul, who worked hard not to offend, was martyred. Peter, who cautioned against sinful speech, was also executed for the gospel’s sake.

Jesus promised that his message would divide, bringing not peace but not a sword (Matt. 10:34). If we mold truth around public opinion, we’ll quickly lose the gospel. But there is a way to stand up with courage while still recognizing that our battles are not pedestrian skirmishes against image-bearers, but part of God’s long and victorious war against an invisible enemy (Eph. 6:12).

In our public witness, we must constantly, like Paul and Peter, watch our hearts to make sure the point of offense is a bloody cross and a vacant tomb, not our selfish aims and sinful talk. Peter said it is better to suffer for doing good than for doing evil (1 Pet.  3:17). He knew that even with the right message, the messenger can sin in delivering it.

If our public theology is defined only by making the right people mad, we will end up caring more about arguments than people.

We don’t need more straw arguments against mythical conversation partners, but real discussions with real people. Airtight YouTube arguments are often of little use beyond the backyard fence.

If our public theology is defined only by making the right people mad, we will end up caring more about arguments than people. But when we see as Paul sees, as Peter sees, as Jesus sees—that our mission is to not to own ideological opponents but to lovingly offer the good news of God’s kingdom—we will be less interested in the social-media smackdown and more interested in leading fellow sinners to Jesus.

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