On second thoughts

I am having second thoughts about my recent post on playing the ball and not the man.

The first stirrings of misgiving came from Tom’s comment, when he suggested that ‘to play the man and not the ball’ originally related to soccer, where it is far more obvious when you are playing the man not the ball—that is, because the ball usually runs somewhat free of the man. And so it is theoretically possible in soccer (although still uncommon) to have contact only or mainly with the ball, and avoid contact with the man. In fact, making contact with the man is often a ‘foul’. Does this better present the kind of lofty ideal that I proposed in the first half of my article: that it is desirable where possible to discuss ideas on their own merits, without reference to the person putting them forward?

However, my illustration wasn’t soccer but rugby (league or union), in which it is quite impossible to play the ball without playing the man, because the ball is (almost always) carried by the man. To arrest the progress of the ball, you have to arrest the progress of the man. You may not wish to hurt him, but you do have to tackle him, as Des Hasler so skilfully did.

And this set me thinking: Was the first part of my little article actually undermined or contradicted by the second half? Is it in fact possible to play the ball without playing the man? Can we discuss and disagree about ideas in polite abstraction without there being personal and real-world consequences and implications? Can we separate ideas so neatly from the person who is articulating them—a person with character, intentions and motives, a person who exists in political relation with others, a person with a history and a future?

I then had a conversation with two good friends who pointed out all the ways in which the Bible connects the idea with the person who carries the idea, and does not try to separate them. This why leaders and teachers must be godly—that is, teachers must embody and live out what they are teaching, because they are not impersonal information conveyers, but people who have personally grasped this message, and demonstrate their understanding of it by their life (e.g. Tit 1:1f). It’s why we must obey not only their teaching, but imitate them and submit to them (Heb 13:7,17).

This is also why elders are to silence false teachers not just their teaching (Tit 2:2). It’s why Paul advises Timothy not just to disagree with certain kinds of false teaching, nor even to debate it, but to recognize that it will be unavoidably linked to the ungodly character and behaviour of those who teach it. “Avoid such people”, he bluntly says (2 Tim 3:5).

A person and their words are not so easily separated. Theologically, we cannot accept or reject God’s words without also accepting or rejecting him.

So perhaps my argument needs modification. Or to put it more accurately, I think I was wrong.

By all means, we must play fair, and not tackle someone who doesn’t have the ball. And we mustn’t tackle the ball-carrier around the head, or gouge their eyes, or kick them when they are down.

But we must also recognize that it is impossible to tackle an argument without tackling the person putting it forward, with the all consequences that flow from that.

And conversely, if you don’t want to be tackled, don’t carry the ball.

Trouble is, I think I have just tackled myself. And it still hurts.



24 thoughts on “On second thoughts

  1. Tony. I’m much more convinced by this post. So take that!

    The ‘play the ball’ mantra seems to provide the perfect cover for someone like me: well-enough equipped by a stable upbringing and educational opportunity to have perfectly civil, abstract & apathetic conversation about the most serious matters of life/love/guilt/forgiveness …

    • Thanks Chris. Well put.

      Do you think there’s something modernist about the attitude you’re critiquing — the idea that we can separate our rationality and thinking from our character and behaviour and choices?

  2. Tony, kudos to you for admitting your mistake and being humble about it. I think online Christendom needs a huge dose of humility.

    Thank you for being a good model of that.

  3. Hi Tony,
    I agree with your latest post. Let me give you a “hypothetical”.
    Just “imagine” you live under the jurisdiction of an Archbishop (who may hypothetically be a Primate) who writes the Forward to a new book, thus endorsing its contents. The book contains the writings of a number of clergy in his diocese who state that they do not believe the Bible contains truth and they deny the divinity of Christ.
    How can you not, hypothetically, play the ball and the man?

      • Well if we’re talking hypothetically only, the title certainly couldn’t be “The Once and Future Scriptures”.

        • Oh dear. After reading the forward I think it’s time to take this situation out of the hypothetical!

  4. It’s a better post. I better say too that I’m not one of the two friends, I just like and share whatever you’ve been writing lately, which is always good, and sometimes painful.

  5. Hi Tony
    I think you were right the first time. Here’s why. If ‘p’ is true, it is true because of the way things are, not because someone utters it. Otherwise there could be no true propositions, and knowledge of theological truths. Moreover, there could be no public knowledge. So, the person/ball metaphor that exemplies the ad hominem fallacy is fairly reliable. ‘Can we separate ideas so neatly from the person who is articulating them’? Yes, the truth-makers of ideas are not persons themselves but the way the universe is. Actually, we wouldn’t even be able to disagree unless all the above were true. Agreeing is merely the social analogue where two or more affirm the same proposition; disagreeing is the social analogue of at least one person denying the proposition’s truth and at least one affirming ‘p’. Take away propositions, statements, ideas and claims as entities that are either true or false, everything would just be a matter of taste and personal preference. Perhaps the ball/man analogy should be replaced by the actual concept of the ad hominem.
    Thank you.

  6. Tony,

    I thought it was called football instead of ‘soccer’? (At least that is what several billion people call it anyway!)

  7. Timidly attempting to play the ball only is a poor form when playing rugby or engaging in a theological arguments, but I suppose at least an equal (if not greater or more common) danger for many of us is that we tend to tackle the man unfairly (both in rugby as well as in theology) and not even realising it. Play the man and the ball by all means, but it will take a great discipline to execute it fairly. And, if you can’t do so with such discipline or at least be open to receive corrections from others, I guess you shouldn’t be on the field.

  8. @ Duncan MacInnes. Since I’m an American (okay, the pope is an American, too, let’s try that again). Ahem. Uh, since I’m a North American (aw nuts, so are Canadians and Mexicans…one more time). Since I’m a citizen of the United States (and let me add as an aside that I’ve never met a Canadian or a Mexican who wanted to be referred to as an American), I’m more familiar in my culture with the term “football” for “gridiron football” and the term “soccer” for what most of the world knows as “football.” I’m betting Tony is simply aware that his readership extends farther than Australia, and, as always, he’s being accommodating and gracious and clear as possible. Many of us in the United States would know what he was referring to if he’d written football for what we call soccer in North America (well, parts of it at least). But I do admit it may be confusing for some!

  9. I think the rugby analogy works well, because when we engage with false teachers we not only want to protect others from their ideas, but if possible, to bring them to repentance. Now if you’re in some position of authority over them, or peer authority with them within some structure, go ahead and tackle them. But what if you have no connection to them? How do we go about tackling them from the stands?

  10. Tony, I think your illustration is overwhelming the truth you want to highlight. Could it be that you are creating a false dichotomy? On the one hand, when there is sin involved, yes, address the heart of the person; “play the man.” However when we are debating an issue of disagreement on a subject or issue that is not sinful it is improper and wrong to attack the individual, not the issue. In the NA church people take the example that they see set for them in the capital and on news TV (I use the term loosely) to attack the person, never engaging the issue. This is then carried into the church. We must learn to address the issue. As I hear the quote recently, “where Godly men disagree tread lightly.”
    Whatever the situation the question is not will we play the man or not but will we love the man?

  11. I’m not sure that either of your posts stands up without qualification, Tony. I may be wrong of course ;) but here are some immediate reactions.

    First of all, the men whom the NT writers tell us to tackle are false teachers, and it starts to get ugly when Christians put every issue into that box. The Bible is clear when it comes to false teaching that beliefs, actions and character are intertwined (e.g. Jer 23:9-15). When you say that the NT urges us to ‘silence false teachers not just their teaching’, I can only assume you mean excommunication (and that is an issue friends disagree on!). But – even in cases where a leader denies the faith, our response will be to exclude him from leadership for his words rather than his motives or morals, unless these have been openly demonstrated. In other words, ad hominem attacks are generally inappropriate even in these most extreme of circumstances. Yes, the man is stuck to the ball, but it’s still the ball you play, and only if the man won’t let go must he be taken out of play together with the ball.

    Secondly, then, this leaves us with the sorts of disagreements you wrote about in your earlier post, which are of a different order, and should be done lovingly within the bonds of Christian fellowship. When disagreements are relatively trivial, caring for the man is at least as important as winning the ball. Think of texts about causing the weaker brother to stumble, for example. Some men (and yes, it’s often men, or is it more academics?) have a distance between their opinions and their sense of self, and are not much touched by a tussle over ideas; others are more invested. That is, some people have very few beliefs about which they would say ‘if I’m wrong about this then I don’t know who I am any more’; other people have many more such issues.
    We try to discern the truth together as the body of Christ by giving one another gifts of grace – spiritual insight and understanding being one of them. But when the truths we argue about and the way we argue do more harm than good to the body, Christ is not honoured. I’m thinking of 2 Tim 2:22-26, for ex.

    The problem with the internet is that it is (1) public, and (2) impersonal (i.e. discussions are not conducted within personal relationships). Yes, it’s good to talk about how to disagree well on the internet, but how often have you wished someone had asked themselves, ‘do I really need to conduct this debate on the internet at all?’

    Finally (sorry for such a long comment), I should say that I have no such qualms about your two recent posts, Tony! Thank you for raising an important public issue.

    • Hi Andrew

      Just off to help my daughter and son-in-law move house — so just a brief comment to say thanks. Yes, there is absolutely more to be said on all this, especially on the spectrum of responses to different issues and different people. 2 Tim is very interesting in this regard, where you have the gentle response to win the other person (God being gracious) right through to ‘avoid such people’. It’s a terrible blunder to treat every issue with the same weight — I think that is the error of being quarrelsome (again 2 Tim 2).

      Thanks again. I’ll say more later.


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  13. Folks, reading Andrew’s comments again, I feel I should clarify that by making the point about false teachers in this second post, whose views are not to be engaged/discussed but silenced, I was NOT referring to Michael or John! That should have been quite clear from the overall context, given that I am currently seeking to engage with both, and hopefully in a gracious and reasonable manner! But just in case anyone was thinking I was raising the stakes here or trying to lump every issue in together … thought I’d better make that clear.

    I like your point Andrew about the fact that some issues are such that we would choose not to bother about them because the person is more important — the weaker brother idea. I think this fits overall with what I’m saying (that it is very hard in most cases to separate issues and people/relationships). It’s a different (and good) application of the same general point if I’ve understood you correctly.

    And just as a final comment let me also say:
    – we shouldn’t press the metaphor too hard; like all metaphors it breaks down at various points if you try to account for every aspect of Christian relationship and disagreement through it
    – there is lots more to be said about this whole question, including a discussion of how you decide the importance of different debates (and thus how you conduct them and respond to them). Some debates should be avoided altogether (both at the trivial ‘foolish controversy’ end and at the ‘avoid such people’ end of things). That leaves plenty of things to disagree about in the middle (as it were)!

  14. Hi Tony

    Just wondering what you meant by your comment ‘if you don’t want to get tackled don’t play the ball’? It sounds to me that it means ‘if you don’t want to face personal attacks don’t engage in debates’. Surely this isn’t what you meant!

    Perhaps the sports metaphor breaks down when we remember that unless we’re denying the gospel we’re actually all on the same team (Michael and John included).

  15. I think the analogy works much better with AFL. Or maybe even basketball – theoretically a non contact sport.

  16. I love the maturity here and the willingness to accept correction. In general, I think the concept is good, we must be certain not to hammer into the person in an ungodly way. But let’s face it, in the long haul we are hoping to change the man and that may involve a few bruises.

  17. I completely agree Laura…(many things)

    Let’s get rid of the sports metaphor completely, it’s so blokey. To think that unless one is prepared to fight, or get dirty, or hurt, or tackled, then one shouldn’t “play” is so misleading. Does it mean that one has to be ‘strong enough’ before we witness to the truth?

    But even apart from the blokeyness, the sports metaphor is misguided., even apart from the term ‘man’. Substitute softball or netball, we end up being mislead by it in a similar way. (“What?! throw under-arm?”…I’m joking, but I am amused at the quest to find the right sport/game that satisfies the man/ball relationship).

    The parable of the sport has become a hyperbole: it’s taken to it’s logical conclusion, become gendered in mainly, male games where the object is to win, (arguments understood in this way are merely eristic or polemic). The ethic and logic of rational discourse and argumentation, cannot be understood soley by the metaphor of sports and games, as if the imposition of gentlemanly rules covers transgressions.
    Some arguments in various domains have the intention to come to agreement. How does a sport metaphor represent the argument towards Agreement? I might the metaphor when I teach logic and fallacies to high school students, but that is just to supplement the theory of argumentum ad hominem, arguments that appeal or focus on the person, not what they say. Once a high school kid gets it, I move onto the theory. Ad hominem are not always fallacious, sometimes they are legitimate. Knowing when and why is the hard part. The sport metaphor does not help in telling us when and why a dialogic move (that shifts attention to the other speaker), is legitimate, unethical or fallacious.

    Thank you Laura, I am not sure whether you agree with me, I may have gone off on another tangent, on to other many things.

  18. Perhaps we need more egalitarian metaphors, or better, none at all- and talk instead about the real issue directly.

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