Controversy exists because God’s truth exists in a world of lies. Controversy is the plight of sinners in a fallen world, who were originally created by God to know the truth, love the truth, and proclaim the truth. We cannot escape controversy this side of heaven, nor should we seek to. As Christians, God has rescued us out of darkness and has made us able to stand in His marvelous light. He has called us to go into the darkness and shine as a light to the world, reflecting the glorious light of our Lord, Jesus Christ. And when light shines in darkness, controversy is inevitable.
If we are in Christ, the truth has set us free, and we are, thus, called to discern truth from error and truth from half-truth. Although it’s not always easy to stand for truth amid the darkness of this world, we are aided by the Holy Spirit to distinguish light from darkness as we walk in the light of His Word. The difficulty comes when we try to discern truth from error in the church of Christ. Moreover, when we believe that we have discerned truth from error in the church, how do we go about exposing the error and proclaiming the truth within the body of Christ? This is particularly challenging considering that God calls us on the one hand to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), and He calls us on the other hand to strive eagerly “to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).
So then, how do we contend for the one, true faith while striving for peace and unity in the church? At first glance, some might think these two commands are mutually exclusive. However, God’s call to contend for purity and God’s call to strive for peace and unity are fundamentally intertwined. If we are to understand how we should engage in controversy, we must first understand that these are not at odds with each other but, by necessity, complement each other.
Peace and unity exist in the church not in spite of the truth but precisely because of the truth. Thus, we earnestly contend for the purity of the one, true faith in order to preserve the authentic unity of the one, true bride of Christ for the glory of Christ. Unity at the expense of purity produces anarchy. We cannot have true peace and unity without purity.
If we care about the glory of Christ, we will care about the peace and unity of His church, and, in turn, we will care about the purity of the church. More to the point, if we are complacent about any and all controversies, it probably means we are complacent about truth itself. However, if we fully engage in each and every apparent controversy that exists in the church, it could mean we are not asking ourselves the right questions to determine which controversies we should engage in and, what’s more, in what manner and to what degree we should engage.
In his letter “On Controversy,” John Newton warns that before we engage in controversy of any kind, we must first consider ourselves. He asks,
What will it profit a man if he gains his cause and silences his adversary, if at the same time he loses that humble, tender frame of spirit in which the Lord delights, and to which the promise of his presence is made?
Newton penned these words in the eighteenth century, and they are as pertinent today as they were then, especially as we consider the constantly emerging new media through which anyone can engage in controversy more easily and more publicly. Yet, the medium isn’t the problem, nor is controversy the problem. We are the problem — how we engage in controversy and how we utilize media, both old and new.
With this in mind, as we strive to rightly examine ourselves before engaging in controversy, whether online or in a book, I offer ten questions that we can ask ourselves in order to help us determine if, when, and how we should engage in controversy as we contend for the peace, purity, and unity of the church of Jesus Christ.
1. HAVE I PRAYED? Prayer is the easiest thing to do and, perhaps, the easiest thing to forget. Before we engage in controversy, we are called to humbly seek the Lord, praying for ourselves and for the one with whom we disagree.
2. WHAT IS MY MOTIVE? We do well to question our motives without questioning others’. We are arrogant to think we can judge the motives of others’ when we can’t even understand our own motives at times. We need to ask the Spirit to search our hearts and reveal any wickedness.
3. AM I STRIVING TO EDIFY OTHERS? Are we striving to win an argument for the sake of the argument, or is our aim to bring the person with whom we disagree, and our audience, into closer conformity with the Word of God for the glory of God? Is our goal to show our intelligence or to point others to God and His Word?
4. HAVE I SOUGHT COUNSEL? We desperately need to seek out wisdom from our brothers in Christ, particularly older men and women who have grown more gentle, loving, and wise as they have matured in the Spirit. We need to seek out wisdom from our pastors and elders, and even from wise brothers with whom we might disagree.
5. WOULD I NOT RATHER BE WRONGED? When someone has criticized us, fairly or not, publicly or privately, it is not always necessary to respond. Love covers a multitude of sins, and our humble silence or turning of our cheek can turn away another’s wrath.
6. HOW WILL I TREAT THE PERSON WITH WHOM I DISAGREE? Are we showing love to our brother that the world might know we are fellow disciples of Christ? Are we treating our “opponent” as a brother in Christ or as an enemy of the church?
7. AM I INVOLVING A BIGGER AUDIENCE THAN NECESSARY? Is this a public or private matter? Also, is this a primary matter or is it secondary? Have godly men disagreed about this throughout history, and, if so, how should that affect my tone? Are we responding to a real controversy or are we actually creating one or making it a bigger issue than it really is?
8. AM I THE RIGHT PERSON TO ENGAGE? We often think more highly of ourselves than we ought, and we seldom esteem others as better than ourselves. We need to ask ourselves if something needs to be said, and if we are the ones to say it. Simply because we have a platform to speak to an issue doesn’t mean we always need to use it.
9. WHAT IS MY ULTIMATE GOAL? What are we aiming for? What truth are we defending? Will our engagement further advance the gospel and love for God and neighbor? Our goal ought never to be mere provocation.
10. AM I FOCUSED ON GOD'S GLORY? Are we serving God’s kingdom or our own kingdom and name? Our goal is not to gain more readers or listeners, but to point all eyes to Christ for His glory. If we must engage in controversy, let us only and always do so for God’s kingdom and glory, not our own.