Is Controversy Christian?

Many earnest Christians are very much opposed to religious controversy. To them, disagreement, debate, and division over religious issues is quite deplorable and, in their judgment, contrary to the spirit of Christ and detrimental to His cause. Hence, these people tend to avoid discussions, meetings, literature, or issues which would bring into focus matters likely to cause controversy. A plea is made for a spirit of tolerance. But one man has put his finger on the error often present here when he writes:

"There are many pleas made these days for 'tolerance.' But often 'tolerance' is not the right word for that which is demanded. What is meant is 'compromise.' Tolerance and compromise are not the same thing. This is tolerance -- to grant to another the same rights which I claim for myself. This is compromise -- to sacrifice heart-felt conviction in order that someone else may be pleased or in order to avoid a breach of peace" (Copied).

To compromise with wrong in the name of tolerance is to dishonor God and His Word.

An extensive study could be made of the controversies of Jesus. Practically every day of His life on earth found Him either opposed by or opposing error and sin. He had many conflicts with the scribes and Pharisees (cf. Matt. 23 and 12:24ff.). On some occasions, He opposed His own disciples (Matt. 16:21ff.). He taught that His followers would have trouble, opposition, and controversy (Matt. 10:35ff.).

"Many religious persons have a dread of controversy, and wish truth to be stated without any reference to those who hold the opposite errors. Controversy and a bad spirit are, in their estimation, synonymous terms, and to strenuously oppose what is wrong is considered as contrary to Christian meekness. Those who hold this opinion seem to overlook what every page of the New Testament lays before us. In all the history of our Lord Jesus Christ, we never find Him out of controversy." (From the writings of Robert Haldane).

Whole Bible books are given over to polemics. The epistle of Jude is an outstanding example. The entire book is a rebuke to false teachers, a warning to believers, and a battle-cry against error. No doubt many Christians would feel that Jude ought to have been more "positive." But God the Holy Spirit thought otherwise.

A prominent feature throughout the pages of the New Testament is controversy over doctrine. Yet, sincere professing Christians sometimes say that they do not feel there should be any controversy over doctrine -- we ought to just "preach the gospel" and not "argue" among ourselves. While all spiritual Christians would agree that purely carnal argument (argument that springs from and promotes the desires of the flesh) should be avoided, at the same time, the New Testament is clear that churches will be engaged in doctrinal conflict until Jesus comes back for His saints.

The truth of God is constantly subject to attack, misrepresentation, and dilution. Acts 15:2 declares that Paul and Barnabas "had no small dissension and disputation" with the Judaists, the propagators of a false gospel. Suppose no one had engaged in controversy at this point? Suppose Paul and Barnabas had shunned "dissension" and "disputation" on the grounds that it was not a spiritual approach to the problem? The Galatian heresy would have spread throughout the churches and choked out its very life.

Note also that it is a doctrinal battle about which Paul speaks when he exhorts believers to "fight the good fight of [the] faith" (1 Tim. 6:12) and when he triumphantly declares that he has, through the years of his tumultuous ministry, "kept the faith" (2 Tim. 4:7). Those who go astray doctrinally are to be rebuked "sharply, that they may be sound in the faith" (Titus 1:13).

Again it was Paul -- the same Paul who wrote the great chapter on love -- who, when his fellow preacher, Peter, failed to stand true to Biblical principles, "withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed" (Gal. 2:11). An unpleasant controversy indeed, and between two Christians and two preachers! But suppose Paul had refused to enter into controversy with his friend Peter. Numbers had already followed Peter in his error and compromise (Gal. 2:13). With such an influential leader piloting the boat in the wrong direction, early Christianity might have been wrecked upon the rocks of legalism.

Some well-meaning pastors, desiring to maintain peace and harmony in their churches, flee any controversial issue, fearing that it will split their church and they will lose their pulpit. Granted that divine wisdom must be exercised in the handling of controversial issues, they must, nevertheless, be handled. Controversy in local churches is sometimes very healthy if righteousness and New Testament principles are being defended.

Let us not forget the blessings of controversy to the Church of Jesus Christ. Thank God for men in every age who, with steadfast purpose, battled against error and those who held it. J. C. Ryle, in remarking on the danger of Christians who were unwilling to fight, said:

"The only positive thing about them is that they dislike distinctiveness and think extreme and decided and positive views are very naughty and very wrong. These people live in a kind of mist or fog. They see nothing clearly, and do not know of what they believe. ... They are eaten up with a morbid dread of controversy and an ignorant dislike of party spirit; and yet they really cannot define what they mean by these phrases."

In these days when there is an abundance of pietistic objection that controversies and controversialists are hindering the work of God in evangelism, let us hear the scholar, J. Gresham Machen:

"Again, men say that instead of engaging in controversy in the Church, we ought to pray to God for a revival; instead of polemics, we ought to have evangelism. Well, what kind of evangelism is it that is indifferent to the question what evangel it is that is to be preached? ... not the evangelism that Paul meant when he said, 'Woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel.' No, my friends, there can be no true evangelism which makes common cause with the enemies of the cause of Christ ... Every true [moving of the Holy Spirit] is born in controversy, and leads to more controversy."

It can without doubt be said that every great Christian truth is controversial. God is the controversial Figure in the universe. His people are controversial as well. The truth stings, burns, and angers the hearts of men. May we be faithful to the cause of truth!

[The above report was adapted from an article of the same title by Dr. Ernest Pickering, formerly president of Central Baptist Seminary and Deputation Secretary for the Baptist World Mission. All Christians need to read Dr. Pickering's book Biblical Separation: The Struggle for a Pure Church.]

Biblical Discernment Ministries - 6/98