After writing an article on controversy, I came across the following excerpt from What Is Baptism And Does It Save? by John Piper, and I thought I would pass it along. Â I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Controversy is Essential and Deadly
Let me begin today with a brief introductory word about controversy. The main thing I want to say is that doctrinal controversy is essential and deadly. And the attitude toward controversy in various groups of Christians depends largely on which of these two they feel most strongly. Is it essential or is it deadly? My plea is that at Bethlehem we believe and feel both of these. Controversy is essential where precious truth is rejected or distorted. And controversy is deadly where disputation about truth dominates exultation in truth.
The reason controversy is essential in the face of rejection and distortion is that God has ordained that the truth be maintained in the world partly by human defense. For example, Paul says inÂ Philippians 1:7 that he is in prison for the “defense and confirmation of the gospel.” AndÂ Jude 3 says that we should “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.” AndÂ Acts 17:2-3 says that Paul’s custom in the synagogue was to “reason” from the Scriptures and “explain and give evidence” that Jesus was the Christ. So the preservation and transmission of precious truth from person to person and generation and generation may require controversy where truth is rejected or distorted.
But controversy is also deadly because it feels threatening and so it tends to stir up defensiveness and anger. It’s deadly also because it focuses on the reasons for truth rather than the reality behind truth, and so tends to replace exultation in the truth with disputation about the truth. This is deadly because thinking rightly about truth is not an end in itself; it’s a means toward the goal of love and worship. Paul said inÂ 1 Timothy 1:5 that “the goal of our instruction is love.” And he prayed inÂ Philippians 1:9-11 that our “love . . . abound in knowledge . . . unto the glory and praise of God.” Controversy tends to threaten both love and praise. It’s hard to revel in a love poem while arguing with someone about whether or not your sweetheart wrote it.
John Owen on Controversy
So controversy is essential in this fallen world, and controversy is deadly in a fallen world. We must do it and we must tremble to do it. A wise counselor for us in this is John Owen, the Puritan pastor from 340 years ago. He was involved in many controversies in his day – theological and denominational and political. But he never ceased to be a deep lover of God and a faithful pastor of a flock. He counsels us like this concerning doctrinal controversy:
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.*
I think that was the key to Owen’s life and ministry: he didn’t just contend for doctrine; he loved and fellowshipped with the God behind the doctrine. The key phrase is this one: “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.” In other words, we must not let disputation replace contemplation and exultation.
I am keenly aware that this series of messages on baptism is more controversial than usual. I am also eager that this pulpit avoid two great errors: losing truth in the quest for exultation; and losing worship in the noise of disputation. So let us all pray that in our lives and in our church we walk the tightrope balanced by the necessity of controversy on the one side and the dangers of it on the other.
The Bible itself is a great help in this because it teaches about baptism, for example, in contexts that are so rich with good news that it makes it relatively easy to exult as we deal with this practice of baptism. In fact, baptism itself is meant, like the Lord’s Supper, to point to realities that are so great and so wonderful that. over all the controversy, we must hear the music of God’s glorious goodness and grace.