That is an interesting enquiry.
In a previous Q&A (in Update No. 281, dated 16th February 2007), we answered the question about whether or not to answer a fool and quoted Proverbs 26:4-5 which states: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, Lest you also be like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, Lest he be wise in his own eyes.”
In that Q&A, we stated: “To answer the fool’s specific allegation or even accusation would end up in a meaningless discussion. In such a case, both parties would end up being foolish or behaving foolishly. Luke 20:1-8 gives us one example. When Christ was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel, the Pharisees confronted Christ and asked Him: ‘Tell us, by what authority are You doing these things? Or who is he who gave You this authority?’ (compare verse 2). Christ understood the wrong motives and intentions of the Pharisees. He did not answer their question. Rather, He asked them a question that He knew was impossible for them to answer without condemning themselves (compare verses 3 and 4). As Christ expected, the Pharisees refused to answer the question. As a consequence, Christ stated that He would not answer their question either, and the discussion ended (compare verses 7 and 8).”
At times, Christ refused to answer a question at all, as He understood the wrong motives of the questioners (Matthew 27:12, 14; John 19:8-9). There were other times when the scribes and the Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus in one way or another. In Mark 12:13-17 we read the account where the Pharisees asked Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar. Jesus did answer the question, but most certainly not in a way which they had expected. There are many other examples where the religious class seemed to be intent on trying to get Him to answer in a way that, as they hoped, would expose Him as a fraud. We know that that simply didn’t happen, couldn’t happen and wouldn’t happen with the One sent to earth by God the Father to die for the sins of mankind. He was perfect and without sin, and He reacted to all that was thrown at Him in a perfect way.
However, we are not perfect today and we may not have always the ability to ascertain another person’s motives when asking a question. It can be even harder to discern when we don’t have personal contact with the enquirer, but when we just receive a written question.
We have had many questions over the years—some of which have been ridiculous and to answer such an enquiry would fall into the category of answering a fool.
Let us give an example of someone asking a question with an ulterior motive which we were initially unable to ascertain at the time. The question was asked about counting the 50 days from the Days of Unleavened Bread to determine the Day of Pentecost. Our understanding of the matter was sent to the enquirer to which he replied that we were in error and then proceeded to correct us in a haughty manner. He hoped that his explanation would help us to correct our “error”. Not only was “his understanding” at odds with the long held teaching of the true Church of God, his manner was not that of a humble Christian. This is just one example of many that we have received over the years. Had we known from the outset his attitude and motives, we would certainly not have answered him at all.
There have been occasions when someone sends us lengthy papers, asking us to review the accuracy contained therein and to correct anything which might be wrong. Sometimes, we can see right from the start that the writer does not want any correction, but just wants to teach us his unique point of view. Depending on the nature of the issues expressed in the paper, we either decide not to answer at all, or, we may refer the writer to our literature and sermons, briefly stating that they contain our teaching on the given matter, and we do not see any reason to change that. But when we do answer initially and correct the writer, and he responds by starting to argue about our correction, any further communication regarding the matter would be fruitless.
Some are determined to believe that nothing can be changed since Mr. Herbert Armstrong, who was the late human header of the Worldwide Church of God, died. We have explained our position on many occasions and when we receive memos setting forth a contrary viewpoint, depending on the way in which the issue is presented, we may either not answer at all, or refer the writer to our literature and sermons.
Recently, in response to a sermon on the worship of Mary, a writer responded by claiming that unless we believe in Mary being in heaven and intervening on our behalf, we cannot be saved. Any response would be futile, given the fact that this issue was thoroughly explained in the sermon. Other topics raising opposition would include Christmas, Easter, the Trinity or eternal hell. Again, based on the motivation of the writer, which in most cases can be readily determined, we might respond by briefly referring the writer to our literature or sermons, or we might choose not to respond at all.
We may not always be able to immediately discern a person’s motives for asking a question. However, any questions that are asked insincerely can be just an excuse to draw an answer that can then be dismissed and the “correct” answer put forth.
Another problem can arise because definitions can mean different things to different people. Sometimes it may be necessary to ask the questioner what he means by a certain statement or example so that we will be answering like for like. One example would be if we were asked if we were “homophobic.” You will find that this word has several meanings. This word can often be used to express the idea that a true Christian is homophobic purely because he quotes the biblical instruction on the matter. That conclusion would be completely wrong, of course, as we have explained in our literature over the years. When a writer appears to be sincere and really wants to know our position on that topic, we would first need to ascertain what is really meant by such a question and the understanding of the writer as to the meaning of the word, and not make assumptions. Our answer, or the lack of it, would depend on the writer’s response.
We are happy to answer questions; indeed, we have about 800 Q&As listed on our websites which shows that we are not averse to or afraid of answering questions and we will continue to do our best in this area. However, we answer questions that we deem to be genuine and sincere. On the other hand, we might choose to refuse answering “a fool according to his folly.” If we were to answer at all in such a situation, this would be tantamount to “casting pearls before swine” (compare Matthew 7:6) which can be construed as giving things of value to those who will not understand or appreciate them and who do not really want them, but who are instead desirous of expressing their own opinion. There are times, however, when we can and will answer “a fool according to his folly” to ensure that he is not wise in his own eyes (compare Proverbs 26:5).
When questions are asked which are or appear to be genuine (giving, at first, the benefit of the doubt), we will do our best, time allowing, to answer these promptly. We might want to add, however, that in most cases, genuine questions which a writer may have could be easily answered by the writer himself by searching for the answers on our websites.
Lead Writers: Brian Gale (United Kingdom) and Norbert Link