Many in Christian circles today, be it in the church or on the internet, enjoy finding topics to debate. These debates can grow quite heated. Lines are drawn from the Scripture, and then logic, reason, philosophy, theology, etc. Then the lines are defended to the death! Sometimes the arguments are civil, at other times they are less than civil and even unbecoming for believers.

Having participated in or witnessed my share of these kinds of “discussions”, especially on internet forums, I have been convinced that we must pause and take a look at the Scriptures and evaluate the difference between discipleship and so-called debate.

Discipleship is the process whereby we obey the Great Commission and teach disciples all that Christ has commanded (Matt 28:18-20). It is teaching and being an example, but it is also a reciprocal relationship where both parties teach and learn. Of course, one will be “older”, more mature in the faith, but those who are older do still have things to learn from the younger.

I must be clear that the kind of debate I am addressing and comparing to discipleship is not the debate of the legitimate ministry of Christian apologists (James White or Ravi Zacharias come to mind). No. Instead it is the kind of debate engaged in by those I refer to as “keyboard theologians.” These are debaters who have definite opinions on everything, spend lots of time talking (or typing), lots of time arguing, lots of time trying to tear up or tear down both the argu-ments and the argu-ers from the “other” side, but if they are examined closely, their lives are apparently just as void of real true Christian ministry and fellowship as their arguments are void of charity (or any of the rest of the fruit of the Spirit).

These kinds of debates and discussions are supposed to aid the reader or the participant in coming to a better understanding of a text of Scripture or a topic in theology. However, often it seems there is more concern that a debate be won and an “opponent” convinced so that “my side” is vindicated and advanced. There is little concern for the fall out, little care given when we wound those we argue with, and little thought given to the message that is sent to the rest of the watching world – not that the world cares nearly as much as some would lead us to believe.

So what are the basic differences between discipleship and debate? Which is commanded for us in the Scriptures? Which is the God ordained means of assisting others as we all grow strong in grace?

Iron Sharpens Iron

Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.” This verse has been used time and again to defend the practice of believers engaging in heated debate in order to knock the rough edges off of each other. However, in examining the truth here, in looking at the way this verse is written, we might learn a few things about the difference between discipleship and debate.

What Does It Mean to Sharpen?

What does this verse mean when it says that just as iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend? What is it to “sharpen?” The word means to cause to grow sharp or keen. So as iron will cause another piece of iron to grow sharp, able to cut or pierce, so too a man can sharpen the countenance of his friend.

Who is Sharpened – A Friend

The next thing we notice from the text is that a man sharpens the countenance of his friend. The sharpening, the removal of rough edges, the refinement, the growth in grace that results from diligent discipleship occurs between friends. In the Body of Christ we see that much is required of us as we relate to one another. Fellowship, an act of worship toward God and an act of love and service towards each other, finds us in a loving, deep, and even spiritually intimate relationship with our “friends.”

A brief summary of what the Bible says about the relationship between friends is also summed up in a Proverb. Chapter 17 verse 17 begins, “A friend loves at all times.” So the very relationship necessary for “sharpening” is a relationship built on unconditional love. That means that 1 Corinthians 13 applies specifically to how friends interact with one another. Let’s look at these verses:

1 Corinthians 13

1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; 5 does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; 6 does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never fails.

So when we take a look at discipleship and the love that is required of us by our Lord for one another within His Body (1 Peter 1:22; 1 John 3:14), and when we see how serious the presence of love is in our relationships (without love, we are nothing!), and when we evidence Biblical love as is described above in our friendships, then we see what it means to sharpen the countenance of a friend.

We disciple friends, fellow members of the Body of Christ. This is fundamentally relational. We are motivated by love for them and for Christ. And we show by our actions, words, thoughts, motives, and attitudes that this is genuine, patient, longsuffering, gentle, well behaved love.

If we engage in theological discussions with any other motive or outlook then we are not dealing with a friend, nor are we being obedient to the Scriptures.

But now let us take the examination a step farther. Since we know who is sharpened, let us ask next:

What is Sharpened – His Countenance

We sharpen the countenance of a friend. What does this mean, to sharpen his “countenance?” The Hebrew word here means literally, “face” and it is used throughout Scripture to refer to a person’s presence or bearing. This includes his ability to think, discern, respond, and act.

So this means that a man who is sharpening the countenance of his friend is working within a relationship based on unconditional love to refine and polish who he is, how he thinks, what he says, and how he behaves. Sharpening a man’s countenance is to work to refine who he is in every part of his being. It is indeed nothing short of teaching a friend how to avoid being conformed to the world while instead teaching him to be transformed by renewing his mind in the Scriptures (Rom 12:1-2).

How do we Sharpen – like iron on iron

It is often believed that this sharpening is heated confrontation, even to the point that friends or fellow believers will offend one another in the process. But if we remember that this is all taking place within the context of a relationship based on unconditional love, then will this sharpening ever be offensive? Will it draw out the depravity in all of us? Will it hurt our pride or cause us to rear up in defensive anger toward the one sharpening us?

To understand and answer these questions we must ask, “Why is this process one of iron on iron?”

In order to make a cutting tool or a weapon effective, it has to be sharp. At the time this verse was written workers, weapon makers, and soldiers would use a piece of iron to sharpen another piece of iron. The goal of the process was to take off the blunt, rounded edge along with any burrs, bumps, or irregularities in the metal. The end result, after pressure and friction, was that the edge was not round or jagged, but smooth and sharp. The point was to make a point!

I think that often the focus is set on the friction and pressure instead of on the goal. The goal is not to pressure one to become sharp, nor is it to create friction, confusion, or agitation. The goal is to remove those things that keep us dull and unusable.

Think of it this way, this word picture (iron sharpening iron) can just as easily be restated in another form. In fact, the writer of Hebrews does just that. Let’s look at Hebrews 12:1-2.

Hebrews 12

1 Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

There it is. In order to run a good race, to compete with any skill, the athlete must “lay aside every weight” that would slow him down. Can you imagine running a race, be it a sprint or a marathon, with a heavy weight chained around your neck? It would definitely slow you down, hinder your progress, and probably would even injure you if you continued to run without taking it off.

So if we are to run the race skillfully, to compete, to finish the course, then we must first remove every weight, anything that might ensnare us, slow us down, and hinder our progress. And the Scriptures are quite clear – the weight that slows us down is sin.

The task of laying aside the weight, of being sharpened so that the rough irregular blemishes are honed off, is the task of removing sin. It is repentance and confession. If we want our countenance to be sharpened, our presence and being to be keen and useful, then we must get sin out of the way.

The Word of God

This can be applied as we see that a man sharpens the countenance of his friend by aiding him in the battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. It is using the Word of God as it was meant to be used.

The Word is the tool we use to sharpen one another with, set in a relationship of love and concern for spiritual growth and effective service to our Master. It is the Word that is “inspired” and useful for “doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17).

Doctrine – the Word is used to teach us what to believe.

Reproof – the Word is used to confront sin and error in our life and our belief system.

Correction – the Word is used to give us steps of correction, a remedy for what has been reproved.

Instruction in Righteousness – the Word is used to show us how to be right with God and how to grow in our fellowship with Him. We are taught, instructed, in how to be right with Him.

There is no anger here. No animosity. No pride. No condescension. No irritation. No impatience. No harshness. No rudeness. No temper, wrath, or ill esteem. Because the Word, when used rightly to disciple one another, is used in the context of a relationship built on unconditional love. There we are again, back to love.

The Plank and Speck

Now some might say that removing the speck from a brother’s eye can be hard work. There are some, especially on internet forums, that are professional speck removers. In their opinion, they are right and we are wrong. They will expose the error of our ways, tell us how ignorant and naive we are to have fallen for such a false piece of doctrine, they will reprove us for not being as wise as they, they will correct us with harsh impatient unkind words, and then they will insist that to be instructed in righteousness is nothing less than embracing their point of view without question.

Here we have a brother, though not necessarily a friend, running straight for us, tweezers in hand to pluck the speck out of our eye. But as they get near suddenly we are bludgeoned by the telephone pole sticking out of their head! Can you imagine this zealot trying to remove a speck of dust from someone’s eye all the while a utility pole complete with garage sale flyers attached is protruding from their eye socket?

But these pole bearers and speck removers forget what the Bible says. While the Word of God never condemns removing a speck from a brother’s eye, it is absolute in giving us this instruction: first remove the PLANK from your own eye! In other words, be ready to deal with your sin and your pride and your false beliefs first, then seek to assist others in the pursuit of right living and right belief.

It is also interesting to me that the difference between a speck and a plank is simply perspective. If a speck is in your own eye, it appears as a plank, obscuring much of your field of vision. But if it is another’s eye, at a distance, it is but a speck.

Sharpened Iron

So to conclude this portion of our article, the iron that is sharp and the runner that is fast, the eye that can see without obstruction, is the iron, the runner, the eye that is consistently and continually being rid of sin. It is an application of Romans 6. It is aiding one another in the pursuit of holiness. It is becoming more and more like Christ, by the power of the Spirit through the application of the Word of God to our daily lives.

Debate – the right way and the wrong way

In the arena of debate then, we ask what role iron sharpening plays? Often, in a true debate, the sides are opposed to one another. One side affirms a positive the other a negative. But in the task of iron sharpening iron we are on the same side! It is not a confrontation with an opponent but an exercise in striving to understand, apply, and obey (to hear and to do) the Word of God.

But in many debates, the sides that disagree on points of doctrine or practice often fail to view one another as friends, as co-citizens of the kingdom of God. They really do view each other as opponents.

Debate that Destroys

When the view is skewed, and heat and friction seems to be the tool of choice, when one is trying for all he is worth to change another’s mind, then we see that debate does not edify, it does not build up, it does not lead to growth. No. Instead it often leads to ruin. This kind of debate destroys. It tears down people and their ideas. It belittles, derides, and holds in contempt. It is surely not loving or compassionate, but proud, puffed up in a sense of superior knowledge and a more progressive state of sanctification. It builds up the individual putting forth the argument instead of building up the Body.

Often too we find that people in this category of debaters usually have very narrow views on many things. If you disagree with them in any one single point, no matter how minor, then they are ready to disown you, amputate you from the Body, and cast you aside to the condemnation they are sure that you deserve and have coming. And they do so all the while believing that God has used them to proclaim to you the very truth by which you will be judged!! What love is this??

Debate that we are commanded to avoid

In truth, the simple Scriptural fact of the matter is that as believers, as followers of Jesus Christ, we are given some very pointed, specific, and clear commandments in regard to this kind of debate. The Bible says:

1 Timothy 6

3 If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, 4 he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, 5 useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw yourself.6 Now godliness with contentment is great gain.

If the doctrine being taught, insisted upon, or pushed is not a doctrine that leads immediately to godly living, then that is a presentation of unwholesome words! And that person is then labeled by the Word of God as, “proud, knowing nothing, obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wranglings.” What is produced by Biblical discipleship? The fruit of the Spirit. What results from improper debate? The works of the flesh! (see Galatians 5:16-26). And the command here is that we are expected, yes ordered to withdraw from such a one! We break fellowship.

2 Timothy 2

14 Remind them of these things, charging them before the Lord not to strive about words to no profit, to the ruin of the hearers. 15 Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. 16 But shun profane and idle babblings, for they will increase to more ungodliness. 17 And their message will spread like cancer. 23 But avoid foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they generate strife.

And here we are charged before the Lord not to strive about words to no profit. Not to argue about those things which RUIN the hearers. We must be careful not to put forth doctrine in the form of argumentation that will ultimately lead to the destruction of those who hear us. Rightly handling the Word of God means that we shun profane and idle babblings, arguments that lead not to godliness but to godlessness. These ideas, these false doctrines, these false teachers are infecting the Body like CANCER. So we are to avoid foolish and ignorant disputes, those discussions that promote strife instead of harmony.

Closing: Responsibilities to the Weaker Brother

We must be reminded that the liberty, the freedom we have in Christ is never to be used in any relationship to further indulge our own flesh or draw others, especially weaker Christians, into disputes. The whole point of Romans 14:1 is that we must not engage in disputes over doubtful things with weaker Christians.

Yes, we must teach truth and help others grow in grace. But we must do so with pastoral concern and care for souls. Arriving at the truth is important, but the process to get there is even MORE important. To arrive at truth through violence means one might believe rightly, but they will carry scars and be hard pressed to lead others lovingly into that same truth. To arrive at truth through loving discipleship and shepherding will mean that we appreciate both the truth and the journey. We will have enjoyed the Pilgrim’s Progess.

For those who debate, who fight to win, who are making the narrow way more narrow than it is – for those who are so theologically ingrown that they cannot even see where the plank is protruding from their own eye – for them I have two words. Stay away. And take heed – when you think you have it all figured out, when you think you are standing – it is then that you will fall.

My desire is to promote growth, edification of the Body for the work of the ministry (literally, “the work of service”), by means of Biblical discipleship. I am beginning to believe that this goal is rarely to be achieved by participation in debates or involvement with internet forums. Too many keyboard theologians, with no accountability, no wisdom, no humility, no pastoral heart, no care and concern for the weaker brothers, no love for their “opponents”, no discernment, no understanding, and no obedience (“be slow to speak, quick to hear”), are ruining the faith of others. They are spreading like cancer. They may even seem to be right in some areas, but their attitude, their language, their words, their demeanor, their tone, even the way they think things through all points to one huge unmistakable red flag. They have no real ministry, no real love, no real heart for God, and no fellowship in the Body. It is all about the promotion of self. Of course they would deny this, but a the heart of the matter, this is the truth – to them the gospel is a means of gain, be it in reputation, prestige, the appearance of intellect, etc. For them, it is all about self promotion.

The bottom line is that as we are sanctified, as we walk in the light, we have this guarantee – we will have fellowship with one another. (1 John 1:7). And any doctrine, any agenda, any system of theology, any point of debate that leads to a break in fellowship between fellow believers must be carefully examined in the light of Scripture. We should be Christians first and foremost, laying all other titles, categories, and denominators down at the foot of the Cross. Yes, there are times to withdraw, but if we are forcing schism at every turn then we have fallen into a category that is truly frightening. For of all the things that God tells us in His Word that He hates, near the very top of the list is one who would cause division among brothers (Proverbs 6:19).

Be sure to read the follow up to this article:
A Shocking Truth about the Making of Disciples