How to discuss controversial cultural issues

Greg Strand – August 7, 2012 Leave a comment

This is a helpful discussion tip from Greg Koukl*, Founder and President of Stand to Reason, an apologetics ministry, about how to discuss “the most controversial issue of our time”: same-sex marriage. You will find that Koukl’s brief steps are also applicable for other controversial issues you must address. Please note: though Koukl is committed to the inerrancy and authority of the Bible, how he leads or uses it either directly or indirectly is determined by the audience to whom he is speaking. But even if he does not directly lead with the authority of the Bible with non-Christians, it still frames everything he believes, says and does in these discussions/debates.

Here are Koukl’s five “steps”:

First, I need to have a basic grasp of the issue itself.  I need to survey the thinking so I know “the lay of the land.”  How have others approached this question?  What objections have been raised?  How have the challenges been answered?  Are the answers good ones?  I’m not trying to be an expert here, just informed on the fundamentals of the controversy.

Second, I need to state the essence of the issue simply and clearly.  How would I sum up the core consideration, the hinge-pin concern, in unambiguous language?  The goal at this stage:  Simplify the issue.  Remove the distractions.  Since the same-sex marriage dispute pivots on the meaning of marriage, I simplified the issue this way: 

  • There are only two kinds of answers to the question, “What is marriage?” Either marriage has a fixed, natural purpose, or it does not. Either marriage is something particular, or it is nothing in particular and therefore anything we want to make it.

This step is critical. It gives me a starting point that cuts through the distractions and cuts to the chase immediately.

Third, I need to make my argument. How do I answer the basic issue?  What is my rationale?  Where is my evidence? Again, clarity is key here. I spend a lot of time working with the words, removing the ambiguities to make my case forcibly and persuasively.  Here is the basic view I defend in the key-card:

  • Marriage is a natural, long-term pairing between a man and a woman that is protected, privileged, and celebrated by culture because of the unique and vital role it plays in civilization: As a group, as a rule, and by nature, marriage relationships produce the next generation.

Then I carefully articulate my reasons, defending this view so that a fair-minded person will think, “I may not agree just yet, but those points make a lot of sense.”

Fourth, I need to answer objections.  These must be objections actually being raised and must be addressed reasonably and fairly, but with as much economy as possible.  If I get too wordy, the response will be harder for me to remember, and won’t have as much impact on others.  If I can work in simple, common-sense illustrations, all the better.

Finally, with cultural issues (as opposed to in-house, theological issues) I try to take an “external” approach.  I don’t base my argument on the Bible, but on a rationale that those outside Christianity can relate to, regardless of their attitude towards Scripture.

Yes, on this key-card I start with a quote from Jesus, but I do not appeal (directly) to Him as an authority.  I appeal, rather, to a common-sense observation He made.  I invoke an authority figure who is almost universally respected, but my rationale does not trade on any religious doctrine.  This makes my argument attractive to the largest audience.

Remember, I’m not coming up with all the content on my own. I don’t have to be inspired with clever responses or creative insights when people smarter than I have already done the heavy lifting.  Instead, I collect the good stuff and condense it into something handy that I can use.  With a little practice, you can do the same.

Koukl received his Masters in Philosophy of Religion and Ethics at Talbot School of Theology, serves as an adjunct professor in Christian apologetics at Biola University, and is the author of Tactics—A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009).

Greg Strand


Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

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