I recently watched as a young mother acted quickly and decisively to end a squabble among two preschool boys. She acted righteously and quite effectively, and then she turned to her two charges and set down the law: "It is never right to fight."
Sorry, Mom, I understand what you were trying to do, but that moral instruction will not serve those boys well as they grow into maturity. Their challenge will be to learn when it is right to fight, and how, as the Bible commands, to fight the good fight of faith.
What about the church? Is it ever right for Christians and churches to engage in controversy? Of course, the answer is yes—there are times when believers are divided over serious and consequential questions, and controversy is an inevitable result. The only way to avoid all controversy would be to consider nothing we believe important enough to defend and no truth too costly to compromise.
We know that Christ cares deeply about the peace of His church. In His prayer for the church in John 17, Jesus prays that His flock will be protected by the Father and marked by unity. But, as Christ also makes clear, His church is to be united and sanctified in the truth. In other words, there is no genuine unity apart from unity in God's revealed truth.
The New Testament is not evasive, as it reveals serious and consequential controversies within the earliest congregations and even among Christian leaders. The Apostle Paul defended the gospel against compromise as he entered into a controversy with the Galatians (Gal. 1:6–9). He inserted himself into a moral controversy as he wrote to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 5). Paul faced down Peter over the issue of the Gentiles and circumcision (Gal. 2:11–14). Jude warned of the perpetual challenge of defending the truth against its enemies (Jude 3). John warned of a church that was so lukewarm and uncommitted to the truth that it could not muster a controversy (Rev. 3:14–22).
The history of the church also reminds us of the necessity of controversy when the truth of the gospel is at stake. Time and again, we see crucial moments when truth must be defended or denied. The church has to look squarely at what is being taught and decide if the teaching is true to the Scriptures. This usually produces controversy. If the church believed that controversy is to be avoided at all costs, we would have no idea what the gospel is.
To our shame, the church has often been divided over the wrong controversies. Congregations and denominations have divided over issues that are, in the light of God's Word, indifferent. Furthermore, some churches seem to thrive on controversy, even as some church members and leaders are agents of disunity. This brings shame and reproach on the church, and it distracts the church from its task of preaching the gospel and making disciples.
So, how are we to know if a controversy is right or wrong? The only way to answer this question is to go to Scripture and evaluate the importance of the issues of debate. All questions of truth are important, but not all are equally important. Controversies over central and essential doctrines cannot be avoided without betraying the gospel. As Paul warned the Galatians, a church unwilling to face controversy over doctrines of central importance will soon be preaching "another gospel." The church has had to face controversies over doctrines as central and essential as the full deity and humanity of Christ, the nature of the Trinity, justification by faith alone, and the truthfulness of Scripture. Had those controversies been avoided, the gospel and the authority of Scripture would have been forfeited. These controversies were over doctrines of "first-level" importance—those doctrines without which the Christian faith cannot exist.
Doctrines at the second level of importance do not have to do with the fundamental aspects of the gospel and its call to repentance and faith, but they do explain the division of the church into denominations. Denominations have arisen due to disagreements on baptism, church order, and other issues that are unavoidable in congregational life.
At the third level, we see controversies over issues that should be discussed, even debated, but should not divide believers into different congregations and denominations. Congregations and denominations must develop the biblical and spiritual maturity to judge the importance of disagreements and know when controversy is right and when it is wrong.
Politicians have been known to urge their colleagues not to waste a crisis. In the same way, the church must not waste a controversy. The faithful church must make its controversies count. Controversy, when it appears, should drive the church to Christ and to the Scriptures as believers seek to know all that the Bible teaches. Disputes and debates must send the church to its knees in prayer as believers seek a common mind led by the Holy Spirit. Controversy, rightly handled, will serve to warn the church of the danger of doctrinal apathy and the necessity of personal humility.
Finally, controversy should lead the church to pray for that unity that Christ will accomplish only when He glorifies His church. Even so, Lord, come quickly. Until then, we dare not waste a controversy.