“Vince in Parma, what’s on your mind?”
“Hey Geoff, first-time caller, long-time listener. I want to talk about Pete Rose.”
This exchange could’ve been heard on the sports talk radio station of any American city for the past 30 years. But during the 1990s, when sports radio was in its infancy, call-in shows reigned, and baseball had more cultural currency, this conversation was the conversation.
The subject was the Hall of Fame case for Pete Rose, Major League Baseball’s all-time hits leader (4,265) who was banished from the league in 1989 for betting on games while he was the manager of the Cincinnati Reds. Rose was exiled to signing autographs at card shows and making appearances in tacky casinos. Pete Rose was forced to live up to his nickname, Charlie Hustle.
Some fans thought he should be admitted to the Hall for his brilliance on the basepaths; others thought his sins compromised the integrity of the game. This argument was an innings-eater for talk radio, particularly during slow seasons when the host ran out of topics, and they could just fire up the Pete Rose argument, watch the switchboard light up, and let the callers take it from there. It was for sports radio what paternity tests were for Maury Povich or tropical storms were for the Weather Channel.
The Rose argument was attractive because it had an easy on-ramp and required minimal information. The critical facts were agreed upon. Rose’s on-field resume was Hall of Fame worthy; no argument. Rose’s off-field resume was highly problematic; no argument. The question was simple: should his checkered record keep him out of the Hall of Fame? From there everybody could bring in every piece of evidence from every point of view. Callers could unload an endless supply of comparisons, anecdotes, illustrations, what-about-isms, red herrings, and ad hominems. Since everybody could have an opinion, nearly everybody did have an opinion. Hence, great content for a slow Friday in Milwaukee.
Here’s the strange thing about the Pete Rose debate: the Hall of Fame could enshrine him and most of us would not care. We didn’t really care about Pete Rose; we cared about the Pete Rose argument. We didn’t argue because we cared; we cared because we argued. We liked to be heard and we liked to be right. The sentence “I want to talk about Pete Rose'' could've simply been, “I want to talk.”
Arguing is usually more about proving something about ourselves than about defending a particular truth. A well-meaning argument can devolve into proving we are more intelligent, more informed, more righteous, or more conscientious. Conversations become competitions. They aren’t about searching for truth, but instead settling the score.
This doesn't mean we shouldn’t argue. We just need to think about how we do it. The New Testament’s word for argument is apologia. It’s used in legal contexts, such as Paul’s imprisonment and testimony before Festus (Acts 25:16) and Paul’s description of his trial, “first defense” (2 Tim. 4:16). In Philippians, it is used to refer to the defense of the gospel (1:7). Perhaps the most common use in the New Testament is Peter’s admonition to “always be ready to make your defense (apologia) to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15). The New Testament envisions Christians to be witnesses of the gospel, always prepared to make an argument.
But the New Testament probably isn’t a fan of the thing we do online when we start fights with strangers. I’d imagine that would qualify as what Paul warns Timothy against, “profane chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge” (1 Tim. 6:20). What begins as a defense of the truth can quickly end up as an offense against a stranger.
Most people I know don’t want to talk about Pete Rose, but they are happy to talk about politics, masks, “cancel culture,” vaccines, abortion, Facebook privacy, government corruption, transgender swimmers, or book bans. There is nothing wrong with discussing these matters, but I’d be careful to converse more like a gospel-centered apologia and less like a bored caller who wants to chew the fat about Pete Rose. How should we do this? The Bible has some wisdom:
- Use words to build someone else up, even when tearing their position down (1 Thess. 5:11). Sarcastic words and cheap shots don’t honor God. I’m not sure who wants to bring their friends down; it only leaves them with worse friends. That’s a recipe for loneliness.
- Consider arguments as opportunities to learn, not just times to share. Television and social media are awful platforms for education. But conversations can be helpful for broadening a perspective. “Be quick to listen and slow to speak and become angry” (James 1:26). If our friends are really friends, they deserve to be heard.
- Use arguments as opportunities to bless others. “The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life” (Prov. 10:11). It’s incredible how quick we can be to ruin a good relationship because of a disagreement over a superficial topic. We should use words to build relationships, rather than using relationships as containers to pour out our words.
God gives us lips for many reasons: worship, encouragement, and even to make an argument (apologia) for his work in the world. It would be a mistake to let a careless unloading of words get the best of us. A few missteps can ruin a lifetime of work. Just ask Pete Rose.