How to Make Better, More Careful, More Persuasive Arguments

It’s not that we can’t ever generalize, lump people into groups, or argue from specific examples to broader themes, but if we mean to indict a whole group, we must show that the indictment is largely true of the whole group. Otherwise, we are just signaling to our in-group that we are against the correct out-group.

Of all the memorable statements uttered by Charles Spurgeon, this advice from Lectures to My Students has stuck in my head as much as anything the great preacher said or wrote:

The sensible minister will be particularly gentle in argument. He, above all men, should not make the mistake of fancying that there is force in temper, and power in speaking angrily….Try to avoid debating with people. State your opinion and let them state theirs. If you see that a stick is crooked, and you want people to see how crooked it is, lay a straight rod down beside it; that will be quite enough. But if you are drawn into controversy, use very hard arguments and very soft words.

So many wise sentiments in these few sentences. We could talk about how “the Lord’s servant,” even as he rightly contends for the faith, “must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Tim. 2:24–25). We could talk about the folly of mistaking forcefulness for true spiritual power. We could talk about the wisdom of avoiding protracted debates, by stating your opinion and then moving on. All of that is pure gold.

But I want to focus on the last sentence in the paragraph above. I want to suggest two ways we can make our arguments harder, which in this case means better, more careful, and more persuasive.

First, we can make our arguments better by focusing on the what instead of the why.

Let’s suppose your church is divided over what kind of new flooring to get in the fellowship hall. One side wants to continue with carpet, but you are on the side that wants hardwood. You might argue that the hardwood costs less, or is easier to clean, or fits with the look and feel of the rest of the church. Those are what arguments. The other side might not agree with your reasons, but they are rational, objective arguments to consider.

But suppose you make the case for hardwood flooring in a different way. You insinuate that the only reason some people want carpet is because their grandparents own a carpet company, and they are hoping to get a financial windfall from the church’s decision. Or you suggest that the pro-carpet side has always tried to control the church, and this is about holding on to their power. Or you insist that non-Christians are repelled by carpet in the fellowship hall and that the pro-carpet side doesn’t care about reaching unbelievers with the gospel. These are all why arguments. In this second scenario, you are arguing that the other side is motivated by greed, by a love for power, and by an indifference toward evangelism.

We can see in this (hopefully) absurd example that why arguments can easily create more heat than light. This is not surprising because why arguments tend to be more personal, more ethically charged, and more difficult to prove. Of course, why arguments are not always wrong. Maybe the pro-carpet folks really are in cahoots with Big Carpet, maybe they really are a cabal of old-time powerbrokers, maybe they really are gospel-less infidels. Sometimes the why arguments are important arguments to make. But—and here’s the key—those things can’t just be asserted or insinuated. Arguments must be made. They can’t just be thrown out there because you’ve decided to connect the dots in one way, when those same dots could be connected in several other ways. If the pro-carpet ringleader has a grandparent in the carpet industry, he could be scheming for a kickback, or he could be trying to care for his aging grandparents, or it could be that he grew up familiar with all the benefits of carpet, or the connection could be a pure coincidence because the man hasn’t talked to his grandparents in years and they sell a different kind of carpet anyway.

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