Question: "What is a devil's advocate?"
Answer: Although the term devil’s advocate sounds sinister, it has nothing to do with the devil. The term refers to a rhetorical device used to further discussion. Playing devil’s advocate often involves pretending to be against an idea or plan in order to prompt continued dialogue or to make a conversation more interesting. The key word here is pretending. Those who play devil’s advocate may not truly hold the position they are advancing—they seek to enliven the conversation or generate further consideration of the matter at hand. The goal of using this rhetorical device should be to challenge others to think critically.
The term devil’s advocate has its origin in the Roman Catholic Church. In the 1500s, the church thought it good to formally present evidence against the beatification and canonization of potential saints. Pope Leo X introduced the term devil’s advocate, and Pope Sixtus V officially established the office of devil’s advocate, also called Promoter of Faith, in 1587. The devil’s advocate acted as a prosecutor in the canonization process. His job was to critically examine the miracles attributed to the potential saint, assess the testimonies concerning him or her, and look for character flaws or misrepresentations. Pope John Paul II revised canonization procedures in 1983, and since that time the role of the devil’s advocate has diminished.
Today, in most contexts, playing devil’s advocate has nothing to do with ecclesiastical law. Rather, people will play devil’s advocate in order to stir controversy, spark discussion, or defend a contrary position. Sometimes, out of courtesy, the person presenting the contrary view will announce his or her intention to play devil’s advocate, and this allows the conversation to sustain a certain level of politeness and civility.
Before playing devil’s advocate within a conversation, we should first examine our motives. Are we pretending to disagree with an idea to encourage well-meaning conversation, or are we simply initiating an argument for the sake of arguing? Saying things just to get a rise out of people is not godly. Also, we should take care not to always take a contrary position. The role of devil’s advocate should be played infrequently, when necessary. In 2 Timothy 2:16, believers are instructed to avoid “worldly, empty chatter” (NASB), and in Colossians 4:6, Paul says our speech is to always “be with grace as though seasoned with salt” (NASB)—believers’ words should impact conversations positively so that the “flavor” of such interactions edifies others.
When done properly, playing devil’s advocate is a great way to challenge others’ beliefs. We are to always be ready to “make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, but with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15, NASB). Playing devil’s advocate can help others see the flaws in their logic and ultimately point them toward the ultimate source of truth—God’s Word.