Dislike the message? Attack the messenger.  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , ,

I overheard a conversation a while back that went like this. Someone mentioned an article that had appeared in the press. The author of the piece had reported on a scientific breakthrough and concluded that this—along with the advance of science in general—rendered obsolete any and all speculation about the existence of God. It’s a common argument, of course, and one that appears regularly enough, though this particular piece did have a specific twist that apparently upset many Christians as a challenge to their beliefs. The second speaker in the conversation responded to the article’s conclusions by saying that the publication involved had been shown to be disreputable as a news source and was in financial difficulty.

This approach to argumentation is easy to categorize. It’s “if you don’t like the message, attack the messenger.”

This is a very common strategy, used extensively by both Christians and non-Christians, as a way to support their position against some challenge. Christians use it, for example, as they did here, in defense of the faith—and thus as a part of what is technically referred to as an apologetic for their beliefs. It is, however, a form of argumentation that we as Christians should never use.

As a matter of fact, I know of no serious study that has shown this particular publication to be disreputable as a news source. Perhaps such a study exists, but as I will demonstrate in a moment, that really does not matter. I didn’t engage in too exhaustive of a search, but I found none. As Christians we should be very careful of speaking poorly of people. Asserting that the publishers, editors, staff, writers, and reporters of a publication are untrustworthy is a serious charge. Not agreeing with or liking a publication’s editorial position does not make that publication disreputable. Three times the apostolic instruction in Scripture is that “all” instances and forms of “slander” are forbidden to the believer (Ephesians 4:31; Colossians 3:8; 1 Peter 2:1). It is a very high standard, especially in a cynical age like ours, but it is our standard nevertheless.

But let’s assume, for the sake of discussion that such a study—or better yet several such studies—exists. As a publication, it is a source of news that has been shown to be disreputable and untrustworthy. That does not mean this article can therefore be dismissed. Even a clock that has stopped working tells the time correctly twice each day. This article, now that it has been brought up, can be examined on its own merits. The fact that the author and our conversation partner are both made in God’s image demands such a response from us. We can examine the ideas involved, to the best of our ability test them against what we know to be true, and draw conclusions appropriately.

In their classic book, How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren clearly delineate how to properly disagree. If we are to disagree with an author, we must show specifically where the author is uninformed, misinformed, or where his argument is illogical or incomplete. Failing being able to demonstrate this, we must agree at least partly, or we can say truthfully we don’t know but would like to suspend judgment pending further study and thought. We would be wise to limit ourselves to this framework, especially if we expect a watching world to take seriously our claim to care for the truth because we worship one who claimed The Truth. (See my summary of Adler’s and Van Doren’s helpful ideas here.)

Interestingly at a scientific conference (see information here) a speaker outlined what he called “a general manual of denialism,” a list of six tactics used by believers against science. As you will notice, attacking the messenger is one tactic that he lists:

“First, cast doubt on the science. Second, question the personal motives and integrity of the scientists. Third, magnify genuine disagreements among scientists, and cite nonexperts with minority opinions as authorities. Fourth, exaggerate the potential harm caused by the issue at hand. Fifth, frame issues as a threat to personal freedom. And sixth, claim that acceptance would repudiate a key philosophy, religious belief, or practice of a group.”

As a matter of fact, I would argue that these tactics are not limited to religious believers—the arguments used by unbelievers, including scientists, against religious belief often engage in the same tactics. Still, speaking as a Christian, regardless if we find these tactics used against our faith, as Christians we need to be discerning, not reactionary. And that includes, among other things, refusing to engage in the dishonest and often slanderous tactic of refuting a message by attacking the messenger.

Source: Thanks to my friend John Eddy or bringing my attention to the article cited in this piece.

This entry was posted at Monday, September 03, 2012 and is filed under , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


Thank you again. I agree. More interesting to me is that this is somewhat related to something I was going to request some thoughts on:
A relative and I were having a civil discussion about Christians feeling the need to protect their rights. I could not think of a scripture where Jesus protected his rights, but only could think about how Paul proclaimed the gospel, even though it send him to prison, and he continued to rejoice and care for others even there.
It is my opinion that we as believers be less concerned about our rights, proving God etc...and more concerned about demonstrating His love and greatness.

September 5, 2012 at 3:25 PM


The question of protecting civil rights is an interesting one. To do so for the common good, or to protect—and extend or realize—the rights of the dispossessed is something we as Christians must do as part of loving others. That much seems clear. We must be careful, it seems to me, in launching campaigns seeking to protect “our rights,” especially when our society is so sharply divided into tribes selfishly competing for the biggest possible slice of the American pie.

There are two interesting cases when Paul made use of his rights of Roman citizenship. Paul and his companions were arrested, beaten and jailed in Philippi. The next day when the magistrates order them released, Paul claims his right as a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37) and insists the magistrates personally come to free them. Calvin argues this was Paul’s way, not to stop the persecution that had already occurred, but to cause the magistrates to be more hesitant in the future of this rough treatment of Christians. Later (Acts 25:11) Paul appeals to Caesar after being accused by the Jewish leaders before a Roman governor (procurator) named Festus. This was his right as a Roman citizen and guaranteed a trial in Rome. He did this shortly after God informed him he was ordained to go to Rome to preach the gospel in the capital city of Empire (Acts 23:11).

Being champions of human rights for all would be a fine epitaph. Somehow I think that sort of thinking should shape our thinking on the topic.

Thanks for commenting

September 14, 2012 at 3:00 PM

Hi Denis,
I wasn't going to comment on the rights issue but since y'all were having a fine discussion I think that I'll add this. Paul seems to appeal to rights as they are directly related to a real injustice. Where I agree with Cassandra in not defending our rights is that in our culture somehow we have confused injustice for inconvenience. In other words we think that defending our rights in matters of inconvenience is justified which makes our understanding of actual injustice a bit fuzzy. Probably why post-modernism has seen such a loss of heroism and transitioned to celebrityism (yes I made that up).

I believe that Paul appeals to right on the grounds that he was aware of an actual injustice rather than an inconvenience. May the whole of Christendom cast off matters of inconvenience and consider them rubbish and learn what injustice is so that we can respond in a proper way.

September 18, 2012 at 10:22 PM

Posturing Grace/Scott:
Thanks for adding to the conversation. Certainly I like the idea of distinguishing between inconvenience and injustice. And it seems that much that animates evangelicals when they claim "rights" falls into the inconvenience category (and perhaps not even that, since the absence of the Ten Commandments on some building wall hardly can be named an inconvenience).

My question: how do you distinguish between the two?

September 20, 2012 at 3:35 PM


After I posted my comment I began to ask myself the same question. It's a very good question. I suppose the Gospels teach us a bit about injustice verses inconvenience. Distinguishing between the two seems to be the differnce between concern for others (issues of injustice) and concern for self (issues of inconvenience). But that doesn't completely solve it since Paul was concerned for himself when appealing to his Roman citizenship. I suppose that sometimes the line can get blury between those two as well. Learning to look past inconveniences will give us clarity to see the true injustices around us. As I move away from some idea or constructed scenario of what I think is supposed to happen so that I can get whatever it is that I think that I need to get (sometimes from whoever it is I think that I need to get it from), in order to be who I think I need to be, then I move toward instead, "If anyone come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever would save his life would lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake, will save it."

The Great Inconvenience of God (the incarnate Christ) brought forth the Great Injustice by Man so that we might be reconciled to Him not to escape inconvenience but rather to embrace it so that we might redeem the places where injustice is now found so that people would know of the Great inconvenience of God and be saved.

So I guess I have to trust the spirit through all this deciphering between the two, know and trust in God's grace when I complain about inconvenience and ask for the wisdom to konw where to serve the places of injustice.


September 21, 2012 at 10:04 PM

I think more work needs to be done here. Perhaps we are left with no more direction than needing to depend of the Spirit's inner guidance, but I would want to make certain we cannot find more direction in Scripture itself.

One reason is that inconvenience and injustice actually seem to be inverted in Philippi. Paul accepted the beating and imprisonment (an injustice surely) but wouldn't let the magistrates simply dismiss them the next morning (an inconvenience surely) without coming to personally lead them out of jail.

It is a topic I will be touching on in a book I am writing, under a discussion of what "distinctiveness" should look like for Christians in a pluralistic society. So if you have more thoughts on this--either of you--let me know.

September 25, 2012 at 10:03 AM

I agree with you Denis and will be searching the scriptrues as well. I'm very interested in your book. I may attempt a blog or two in the future on injustice and inconvenience.

Enjoying the dialogue!

September 25, 2012 at 8:31 PM

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