Prior to his decades-long ministry, Luke reports in the book of Acts that St. Paul (who was then called Saul) hunted and persecuted people of “the Way,” which he considered to be a false and blasphemous movement against the God of the Jewish people, whom he dutifully worshipped. He stood at the feet of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, as his fellow persecutors stoned him. He was granted permission to arrest and imprison people of the Way as he began his journey to Damascus, “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (Acts 9). But Jesus had other plans for Saul, so Saul’s mission skidded to a halt when Jesus suddenly appeared to him, causing him to fall to the ground.
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?”
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
Saul was blinded and went into fasting. After a few days, a messenger of the Lord came to Saul and his sight was returned. At that point, he began his brave ministry as a newly inducted member of the Way and the one who would be called Paul. Christians who were aware of his old ways were at first skeptical, but after hearing about his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, he was able to earn their trust.
Over the coming decades, he endured multiple beatings, imprisonments, stoning, snake bites, and a hurricane and shipwreck before being beheaded by Nero between 62 and 64 A.D. He persevered, despite persecution, traveling all around the Roman Empire visiting churches, spreading the Good News, encouraging his fellow Christians, and working with God to multiply the Christian community.
His letters to the church detail his instructions to Christians who want to spread the Good News of Jesus today. The intention of the rest of this writing is to offer some of his tips for encounters or debates with non-believers.
1. Be an example of Christ. We’re to model our behavior after Him in all we do.
Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1)
2. Show humility. Pride always leads to a fall, so being prideful and smug in encounters with nonbelievers leads to failure.
“Therefore, if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2: 1-4)
3. Be obedient. Let the Lord work within you.
“ Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (Philippians 2: 12-14)
4. Be courageous and leave your comfort zone.
“When we suffer for Jesus, it works out for your healing and salvation. If we are treated well, given a helping hand and encouraging word, that also works to your benefit, spurring you on, face forward, unflinching. Your hard times are also our hard times. When we see that you’re just as willing to endure the hard times as to enjoy the good times, we know you’re going to make it, no doubt about it.
We don’t want you in the dark, friends, about how hard it was when all this came down on us in Asia province. It was so bad we didn’t think we were going to make it. We felt like we’d been sent to death row, that it was all over for us. As it turned out, it was the best thing that could have happened. Instead of trusting in our own strength or wits to get out of it, we were forced to trust God totally—not a bad idea since he’s the God who raises the dead! And he did it, rescued us from certain doom. And he’ll do it again, rescuing us as many times as we need rescuing. You and your prayers are part of the rescue operation—I don’t want you in the dark about that either. I can see your faces even now, lifted in praise for God’s deliverance of us, a rescue in which your prayers played such a crucial part.” (2 Corinthians 1: 5-11)
5. Capitalize on your spiritual gifts. The Lord has positioned you well to glorify Him.
“ There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.” (1 Corinthians 12:4-11)
6. Be kind, not quarrelsome. Never debate people whose intentions seem dubious or who want to be quarrelsome to make Christians look bad. Yet answer the questions of those who honestly wonder about your faith, in the spirit of 1 Peter 3:15.
“Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart. Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.” (2 Timothy 2:22-26)
7. Be grateful for the Lord’s discipline. It shows He loves you.
“ In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says,
“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:4-11)
8. Love. Love covers a multitude of sins.
“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13).
“ Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)
10. Let’s keep our eyes on the unseen prize: Jesus.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”(Hebrews 12:1-4)
Thank you for your time. May God richly bless you in your mission.
4 Replies to “10 Tips from St. Paul for Christian Debates with Nonbelievers”
Great advice. Thanks!
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Such a good post! Great thoughts. You do an excellent job in your debates by the way SJ. 🙂
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Thank you! That’s very kind.