Goal of Tactics

The goal of the tactical approach is to stay in the driver’s seat of any conversation without being pushy, uptight, or unpleasant, but also without having to be especially clever or knowledgeable. You can do that by learning a handful of simple techniques to help you deal with objections, manage aggressive challengers, and even turn the tables by exploiting the bad thinking found in many of the objections against Christianity. Our theme verse is Colossians 4:5-6: “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned, as it were, with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each person.” Simply put, Paul says we are to be wise, gracious, and tactical when talking with others about the things we believe.

Columbo Part 1

“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” The first tactic is central to our game plan. Lt. Columbo (of 70s TV fame) came across as bumbling, inept, and harmless, but he had a trademark approach that always helped him get his man. He’d furrow his brow, scratch his head, then turn to his suspect and say, “Do you mind if I ask you a question?” Asking carefully selected questions is the key to creating a convenient bridge from the content you know about christianity to the conversation you want to have with a non-Christian. It’s a friendly way to draw people out while keeping the pressure off you. As a general rule, never make a statement when a question will get the job done. The Columbo game plan has three elements, each launched with a different question. 1. Gather information by asking, “What do you mean by that?” Sometimes you need more information to know how to proceed further. This first question encourages the other person to clarify his view so you don’t misunderstand or misrepresent it. It also forces him to think more carefully than he may have about precisely what he does mean.

Columbo Part 2

2. Shift the burden of proof by asking, “How did you come to that conclusion?” Don’t give your challenger a free ride by letting him make claims without having to give reasons for his view. If he thinks there are many ways to God, it’s his job to explain why, not yours to show otherwise. If your professor attacks Christianity and then invites you to prove him wrong, don’t take the bait. The person who makes the claim bears the burden of proof. If the professor is doing all the talking, and you’re listening, you have nothing to defend. He does. When you’re up against a tough challenger you can’t handle, go immediately into fact-finding mode. Ask your first two Columbo questions, listen carefully to the answers, then dodge the heat by saying, “I need to think about that.” Later, when the pressure is off, study up and work out a response.

Columbo Part 3

3. Lead the person to some important insight. Questions can be used to indirectly make your point, explain your view, or point out a weakness or a flaw in a challenge. When I ask questions using Columbo the third way, I always have a goal in mind. I have a target I’m shooting for and my questions are the arrows. Sample Conversation: Once a waitress said to me, “All religions are basically the same.” (Notice that she made the claim here.) “Really?” I asked. “In what way?” (Columbo#1) Remarkably, my question stunned her into silence. She didn’t know what to say. Apparently, she’d thought so little about it she wasn’t able to clarify her own claim “Well, no one can ever know the truth about religion,” she finally said (another claim). “Why would you think that?” I asked (Columbo #2). This turn-about also caught her by surprise. She was used to asking this question, not answering it. “Well the Bible’s been changed and retranslated so many times over the centuries, you can’t trust it,” was all she could come up with (yet another claim). “Oh? How do you know the Bible’s been changed?” (Columbo again) Finally in frustration she said, “I feel like you’re backing me into a corner.” I wasn’t trying to be unkind or bully her intellectually. However, I was trying to challenge her politely with fair questions she couldn’t answer, so she felt trapped. Critics rarely are prepared to defend their own “faith” and rely more on generalizations and slogans than careful reflection. Expose their error by asking questions that get them thinking.


The Suicide tactic takes advantage of the tendency of many erroneous views to self-destruct. These are called self-refuting views. They collide with themselves and quickly expire. Your job is to notice when this happens and simply point it out. though self-refuting statements take different forms, all suicidal views involve contradictions. You will know if a view is suicidal if it either explicitly or implicitly conflicts with itself. Implicit contradictions are sometimes difficult to spot because they are hidden. These are views that express contradictory concepts in a very straightforward way: * “There is no truth.” (Is this statement true?) * “There are no absolutes.” (Is this an absolute?) * “No one can know any truth about religion.” (How do you know this religious truth?) * “You can’t know anything for sure.” (Are you sure about that?) Sometimes the suicide is more subtle. For example, the claim that science is the only legitimate way of finding truth sounds good until someone asks, “What scientific evidence proves this statement is true?” Since no scientific evidence proves science is the only way to know truth, the view self-destructs. In the same way, assertions like this one posted in a university lawn - “It’s not wrong to think you’re right, but it’s not right to think others are wrong” - are dead on arrival.

Practical Suicide

Some points of view fail the pragmatic test. They simply cannot work in real-life application. There is no logical problem, just a practical one. You can hold the view, but when you promote it you lapse into contradiction. The challenge, “You shouldn’t force your morality on me” self-destructs because it’s actually an example of that person “forcing” his morality on you (notice the phrase “you shouldn’t”). It’s like saying, “You shouldn’t be telling people what they shouldn’t be doing.” This is self-refuting in practice. The claim, “It’s wrong to try to change other people’s religious beliefs,” is usually an example of Practical Suicide. When used as an objection against the Christian’s missionary impulse, it’s an attempt to change the Christian’s own religious beliefs.

Sibling Rivalry

Sometimes objections come in pairs that are logically inconsistent and oppose each other, thus canceling out at least one. This doesn’t disprove them both, but it does cut your task in half and sometimes functions to silence both objections. It also may expose the irrationality of the one asking the questions. Relativists commit sibling rivalry suicide when they complain about the problem of evil. A moral relativist is one who denies objective morality. Yet the entire objection to God based on evil hinges on evil being objective, not relative. Either evil is real and must be accounted for by theists, or morals are relative and there is no true evil to complain about. Relativists can’t have it both ways. Their complaint about evil is suicidal.

Taking the Roof Off

Some points of view lead to unusual–even irrational–results when played out consistently. This tactic helps you test the accuracy of someone’s worldview “map” by showing that his particular position leads to absurdity. this is also known as reductio ad absurdum, or reducing an argument to its absurd conclusion or consequence. First, adopt the other person’s viewpoint for the sake of argument. Next, give the idea a test drive. Try to determine the implications that his reasoning has for other issues. Where will you end up if you follow his rationale faithfully to its logical end? Then, using well-placed questions (Columbo), help him see the error. Consider these examples: Some Christians oppose capital punishment because Jesus would forgive. On this reasoning, though, any punishment for criminals would be wrong because one could always argue, “Jesus would forgive.” This seems absurd, especially when Scripture states that government is meant to punish evildoers, not forgive them (1 Pet. 2:14). The Pharisees claimed Jesus cast out demons by the power of Satan. Jesus “took the roof off” by showing where such reasoning led: If Satan is the source of Jesus’ power in exorcism, then Satan is casting out Satan, destroying his own kingdom. This is absurd. Some people believe abortion is wrong for them because they believe it kills a baby, but think it’s wrong to “impose” this personal belief on others (the politician’s favorite “modified pro-choice” vide). Counter by taking the roof off. “So, you really believe that abortion kills an innocent baby, but you also think mothers should be legally allowed to do this to their own children. Right?” As you can see, this view is morally absurd.

Rhodes Scholar

The Rhodes Scholar tactic helps us distinguish between what a scholar (or other expert) claims and the reasons for his claims. Just because a person is an authority doesn’t mean his reasoning is right. This is also sometimes called the fallacy of expert witness. How should you respond when someone quotes an authority (Scholars say…” or “Theologians hold…”)? Always ask, “What are the specific reasons for his opinion?” Find out the reasons and you’ll be in a better position to assess the conclusions yourself. For example, liberal theologians often disregard any evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. But when you ask why they’re so dismissive, they say Jesus couldn’t have risen from the dead because miracles are impossible. Notice that this view is not based on good reasoning, but rather on naturalistic presuppositions. The evidence doesn’t matter.


Steamroller is a defensive maneuver used against people who try to overpower you with interruptions or roll over you with the force of their personalities. They take advantage of the fact that it’s easier to ask the hard question than to patiently listen to the answer. Because steamrollers are so aggressive, you must manage them aggressively. You don’t need to be rude, but you do need to be firm. Follow these steps, being careful not to let hostility creep into your voice. Stay focused and gracious, but stay in control. Step One: Stop Him Find a pause in the conversation and ask politely but directly for permission to finish your point: “I need a moment to explain myself. Is that okay?” Notice the negotiation here. You make a petition, and he grants it. Sometimes this is all that’s needed. Step Two: Shame Him If this doesn’t work, confront the rudeness directly, but with integrity. Say something like, “I’d love to respond to you, but you keep breaking in. Do you really want an answer? I can’t continue unless I know you’ll listen. When I’m done, it’s your turn. Is that okay?” Wait for a response. Step three: Leave Him If the first two steps fail, politely abandon the enterprise. Not everyone deserves an answer (Matt. 7:6). Save your energy for more productive encounters.

Sticks and Stones

Sometimes the first response from people who disagree with you is to call you a name (e.g., “racist,” “homophobe,” “intolerant”) instead of dealing with the point you’re advancing. This is not a legitimate response to your ideas, yet it's a ploy getting more popular every day in our culture. The key to the Sticks and Stones tactic is to flush out the personal attack by simply asking for a definition of the name you’re being called (“What do you mean by that?”), then asking why they are choosing to attack you personally instead of addressing the issue. By getting them to define the word clearly, it’s easier to show them they are resorting to personal attacks (ad hominems), not careful thinking, to “win” the argument. This approach can sometimes have interesting results: He: "You’re intolerant.” Me: “What do you mean by that?” He: “You think you’re right and others are wrong.” Me: “Do you think I’m wrong and your own view on this issue is right?” He: “Of course.” Me: “Why is it that when I think I’m right then I’m intolerant, but when you think you’re right there’s no problem? What am I missing here?”

Just the Facts, Ma'am

This tactic is effective because many challenges to Christianity are based on bad information and can be overcome by a simple appeal to the facts. If you know them – or can at least show that the truth is being twisted – then you can beat the objection. First, isolate the specific claim that drives the challenge. Separate that precise point or points from the rest of the rhetoric. Next, ask if the assertion is accurate. Did they get their facts right? Does anything about the claim seem unlikely or implausible on its face? Take the common charge, “More blood as been shed in the name of Gad than any other cause.” Even if this were true it would tell you nothing about God’s existence or the truth of Christianity. But it’s not even true. Lenin, Stalin, and Mao exterminated more than 100 million people in the 20th century. Their institutionalized atheism led to unprecedented loss of human life. The fact of history is that the greatest evil has not come from zeal for God, but from the conviction there is not God to answer to. Sometimes pacifists cite the Fifth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” to show that the Bible supports their cause. Their facts are wrong, though. Hebrew (like English) distinguishes between killing and murder. Ex. 20:13 actually reads, “Thou shalt not murder” –that is, don’t take human life without proper justification. Since not all killing is murder, biblically, it’s clear the Bible does not prohibit taking human life.