The recent Bill Nye-Ken Ham debate on creationism has sparked conversation over the value of public confrontations for Christians. How worthwhile is it to enter into such an antagonistic (and often sensationalized for media-appeal) arena?

While formal public debate over Christian doctrine is relatively rare today, this apologetic format has historically held an important place in the church. From Justin Martyr’s school of public debate in Rome to Martin Luther’s month-long Leipzig Debate against Johann Eck to G.K. Chesterton’s debates against Clarence Darrow, Bertrand Russell, and George Bernard Shaw, Christians have frequently argued various facets of Christianity in public forums.

However, many Christian thinkers today believe public debate serves little purpose anymore and that in our postmodern context, it may do more harm than good. After the Nye-Ham debate, for example, Randall Balmer, chair of religion at Dartmouth University, said he has “yet to meet anyone who was argued into the kingdom.”  Larry Eskridge of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals agreed that public debate is nothing more than “exercise in reinforcing already held beliefs.”

But I would argue it is precisely because of our cultural climate that Christians should learn the skill of public debate. Indeed, a formal dialogue may serve as an excellent counter to the often-impoverished conversations over faith in the frequently hostile online comment threads and social media forums we now prefer. We live in an age of drive-by apologetics, where posting a witty meme slamming an “unbiblical” political position, or hastily typing a sharp-tongued response to articles with which we disagree — with no intent of pursuing deeper conversation — are truly dangerous to our social engagement and cultural relevance.

But what might a revival of public apologetics look like? While the Ham-Nye debate received widespread media attention, another recent confrontation — the Ilyse Hogue (president of NARAL Pro-Choice America) vs. Lila Rose (Catholic founder of Live Action) debate on abortion hosted by CNN Crossfire last month — slid under the radar. Nevertheless, it is a useful example of how a Christian might publicly engage in a way resonating simultaneously of grace and truth, even while dealing with what the Crossfire announcer called “one of the country’s most explosive flashpoints.”

Rose’s rhetoric exemplifies several key tactics of Christian debate that the rest of us should learn.

  • Meet the other person where they are: When liberal host Sally Kohn and Hogue refuse to discuss the humanity of the unborn (Kohn saying “We’re not going to get into that right now”), Rose engages issues that do interest them: the rights of women and contraception laws. She is knowledgeable about both topics, asks questions to bring out inconsistencies in the pro-choice position (rather than attacking declaratively), and recognizes that — while the life of the unborn is perhaps the most compelling argument against abortion for pro-life advocates — the anti-abortion cause can be argued equally from historical, legal, medical, and statistical perspectives. This is Paul with the philosophers on Mars Hill; this is becoming a Jew to Jews, a Gentile to Gentiles, the weak to the weak (Acts 17; I Corinthians 9:20-22).
  • Realize that dramatic flourishes are unnecessary: Programs like Crossfire depend on drama; Kohn’s “gotcha” clip of Rose on Glenn Beck’s program is a prime example. But when expressing truth, this approach is not necessary. What Rose does especially well in this regard is recognize the distinction between simple truths (“What is the life in the womb? … Science says it’s a [human] life”) and complex truths (“Why are [women] in the position to feel like abortion is their only option? Could it be because a boss didn’t want to promote them? Because a boyfriend was going to leave them? A university professor said, ‘We’re not going to be flexible with our class schedule?’ “). This is the biblical message to “Gently instruct those who oppose the truth,” the reminder that even those who embrace wickedness can recognize truth (2 Timothy 2:25; Romans 1:18).
  • Offer a vision: Christians can uniquely offer the world a grander, more perfect vision of the future. Rose prods listeners to look beyond the immediate context of a heated debate to what life could look like for women: “[W]e should dare to have a better view for America and our women … [We shouldn’t] have to think that women need abortion and that we have to kill our children to achieve the dreams and the careers and the families that we want.” By offering a vision, she plants the seeds of hope and possibility. This is the reminder to the Philippians that “God will supply every need,” God’s declaration to Jeremiah that his plans are “plans for welfare and not evil, to give you a future and a hope,” and Jesus’s offer of rest to “all who labor and are heavy laden” (Philippians 4:19; Jeremiah 29:11; Matthew 11:28).

Ultimately, public debates over issues like abortion offer an opportunity for Christians to show grace, an interest in alternate voices, and a worldview that can cover and account for all challenges, even the ugly and seemingly insurmountable. The public debate is a valuable part of our history and should not be rejected. We do, however, need to adapt our approach to our postmodern context. We should be grateful for the model offered by Lila Rose of what this might look like.