In the midst of much controversy within the church, with no foreseeable end in the future, I figured a great post on dealing with controversy biblically would be in order. Today, we would much rather be silent than to engage in controversy. As someone who generally engages controversy, I figure most people might see me as one who loves it. I would disagree and say I have much desire to stay out of it, and just be silent on the sidelines. However, there is biblical precedence, if not expectation, that we engage in this. In fact, It is Jesus who said, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34) Christ is divisive and even families will be divided on account of allegiance to Christ so we must understand controversy. Also, there is the very reality of disunity within the church. Because there will be error, in what way do we approach it? This has been a very real question for me to answer personally, and I have done a lot of study, and repenting, as I work through these issues. Here to help us is John Piper in his book “The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright.” This book is a response to the New Perspective on Paul, a theology which takes a different (and some say bad) look on justification. Before engaging with N. T. Wright he writes this chapter to explain why its necessary.
I am a pastor first. Polemics are secondary and serve that. Part of our pastoral responsibility is what Paul calls “the defense and confirmation of the gospel” (Phil. 1:7). Virtually all of Paul’s letters serve the church by clarifying and defending doctrinal truth and its practical implications.
The reason I take up controversy with N.T. Wright and not, say, J.D.G. Dunn or E.P. Sanders (all notable for their relationship to the so-called New Perspective on Paul) is that none of my parishioners has ever brought me a thick copy of a book by Dunn or Sanders, wondering what I thought about them. But Wright is a popular and compelling writer as well as a rigorous scholar. Therefore, he exerts significant influence both in the academic guild and among the wider public. If he is mistaken on the matter of justification, he may do more harm than others. In addition, Wright loves the apostle Paul and reverences the Christian Scriptures. That gives me hope that engaging with him will be fruitful. I know I have learned from him, and I hope that our common ground in Scripture will enable some progress in understanding and agreement.
How Then Shall We Conduct the Controversy?
In his essay called “Polemic Theology: How to Deal with Those Who Differ from Us,” Roger Nicole begins,
We are called upon by the Lord to contend earnestly for the faith (Jude 3). That does not necessarily involve being contentious; but it involves avoiding compromise, standing forth for what we believe, sanding forth fro the truth of God—without welching at any particular moment.
When we are arguing about the meaning of the gospel, it is important to do it “in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). If Bible-believers are going to disagree about the meaning of the Bible, we should try to do so biblically. To that end, I offer the following encouragements.
Wise Words from Old Times
In 1655 John Owen published The Mystery of the Gospel Vindicated and Socinianism Examined. It contains one of my favorite exhortations, namely, that “we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for.” In other words, arguing for the truth of God should never replace enjoyment of the God of truth.
[More important than all is] a diligent endeavor to have the power of the truths professed and contended for abiding upon our hearts, that we may not contend for notions, but that we have a practical acquaintance within our own souls. When the heart is cast indeed into the mould of the doctrine that the mind embraceth—when the evidence and necessity of the truth abides in us—when not the sense of the words only is in our heads, but the sense of the thing abides in our hearts—when we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for—then shall we be garrisoned by the grace of God against all the assaults of men.
But is it really necessary? Must we contend? Cannot we not simply be positive, rather than trying to show that others are wrong? On June 17, 1932, J. Gresham Machen delivered an address before the Bible League of Great Britain in London titled “Christian Scholarship and the Defense of the Faith.” In it he said,
Men tell us that our preaching should be positive and not negative, that we can preach the truth without attacking error. But if we follow that advice we shall have to close our Bible and desert its teachings. The New Testament is a polemic book almost form beginning to end.
Some years ago I was in a company of teachers of the Bible in the colleges and other educational institutions of America. One of the most eminent theological professors in the country made an address. In it he admitted that there are unfortunate controversies about doctrine in the Epistles of Paul; but, said he in effect, the real essence of Paul’s teaching is found in the hymn to Christian love in the thirteenth chapter of I Corinthians; and we can avoid controversy today, if we will only devote the chief attention to that inspiring hymn.
In reply, I am bound to say that the example was singularly ill-chosen. That hymn to Christian love is in the midst of a great polemic passage; it would never have been written if Paul had been opposed to controversy with error in the Church. It was because his soul was stirred within him by a wrong use of the spiritual gifts that he was able to write that glorious hymn. So it is always in the Church. Every really great Christian utterance, it may almost be said, is born in controversy. It is when men have felt compelled to take a stand against error that they have risen to the really great heights in the celebration of truth.
Machen also reminds us that not just the heights of celebration in the truth but also the salvation of souls may well come through controversy for the cause of the gospel:
During the academic year, 1924-25, there has been something like an awakening. Youth has begun to think for itself; the evil of compromising associations has been discovered; Christian heroism in the face of opposition has come again to its rights; a new interest has been aroused in the historical and philosophical questions that underlie the Christian religion; true and independent convictions have been formed. Controversy, in other words, has resulted in a striking intellectual and spiritual advance. Some of us discern in all this the work of the Spirit of God….Controversy of the right sort is good; for out of such controversy, as Church history and Scripture alike teach, there comes the salvation of souls.
Longing for the Day of Unity in the Truth
The heart-wrenching truth of our day, and every day, is that Christians often disagree with each other—sometimes about serious matters. Therefore, we rejoice that it is God himself who will fulfill his plan for the church: “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose” (Isa. 46:10). We take heart that, in spite of all our blind spots and bungling and disobedience, God will triumph in the earth: “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations” (Ps. 22:27-28).
Yet one of the groanings of this fallen age is controversy, and most painful of all, controversy with brothers and sisters in Christ. We resonate with the apostle Paul—our joy would be full if we could all be “of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Phil. 2:2). But for all his love of harmony and unity and peace, it is remarkable how many of Paul’s letters were written to correct fellow Christians. One thinks of 1 Corinthians. It begins with Paul’s thanks (1:4) and ends with his love (16:24). But between those verses he labors to set the Corinthians straight in their thinking and behavior.
The assumption of the entire New Testament is that we should strive for peace. Peace and unity in the body of Christ are exceedingly precious. “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (Ps. 133:1). “Seek peace and pursue it” (1 Pet. 3:11). “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Rom. 14:19). But just as clear is that we are to pursue peace by striving to come to agreement in the truth. “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable” (James 3:17). It is first pure. Peace is not a first thing. It is derivative. It comes from hearty agreement in truth.
For example, Paul tells us to set our minds on what is true, and honorable, and just; and the God of peace will be with us (Phil. 4:8-9). Peace is a wonderful by-product of heartfelt commitments to what is true and right. Hebrews speaks of the “peaceful fruit of righteousness” (12:11). Paul tells Timothy to “pursue righteousness … and peace” (2 Tim. 2:22). The unity we strive for in the church is a unity in knowledge and truth and righteousness. We grow up into the one body “joined and held together” as we “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph. 4:13, 16). “Grace and peace” are multiplied to us “in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord” (2 Pet. 1:2). And paradoxically, the weaponry with which we wage war for “the gospel of peace” begins with “the belt of truth” (Eph. 6:14-15) and ends with “the sword of the Spirit,” the Word of God (6:17).
Why True Unity Flows From Truth
The reason for this is that truth frees us from the control of Satan, the great deceiver and destroyer of unity: “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32; cf. 2 Tim. 2:24-26). Truth serves love, the bond of perfection. Paul prays for the Philippians that their “love [may] abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment” (Phil. 1:9). Truth sanctifies, and so yields the righteousness whose fruit is peace: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17; cf. 2 Pet. 1:3, 5, 12).
For the sake of unity and peace, therefore, Paul labors to set the churches straight on numerous issues—including quite a few that do not in themselves involve heresy. He does not exclude controversy from his pastoral writing. And he does not limit his engagement in controversy to first-order doctrines, where heresy threatens. He is like a parent to his churches. Parents do not correct and discipline their children only for felonies. Good parents long for their children to grow up into all the kindness and courtesy of mature adulthood. And since the fabric of truth is seamless, Paul knows that letting minor strands continue to unravel can eventually rend the whole garment.
Thus Paul teaches that elders serve the church, on the one hand, by caring for the church without being pugnacious (1 Tim. 3:3, 5), and, on the other hand, by rebuking and correcting false teaching. “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9; cf. 1:13; 2:15; 1 Tim. 5:20). This is one of the main reasons we have the Scriptures: they are “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).
“By the Open Statement of the Truth We Commend Ourselves”
Faithful Christians do not love controversy; they love peace. They love their brothers and sisters who disagree with them. They long for a common mind for the cause of Christ. But for this very reason they are bound by their conscience and by the Word of God to try to persuade the church concerning the fullness of the truth and beauty of God’s word.
We live in a day of politicized discourse that puts no premium on clear assertions. Some use language to conceal where they stand rather than to make clear where they stand. One reason this happens is that clear and open statements usually result in more criticism than ambiguous statements do. Vagueness will win more approval in a hostile atmosphere than forthrightness will.
But we want nothing to do with that attitude. Jesus refused to converse with religious leaders who crafted their answers so as to conceal what they thought (Mark 11:33). Our aim (if not our achievement) is always to be like Paul when he said, “But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2).
Piper, John. The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright. Wheaton: Crossway. 2007. Print.