At the outset, I want to make it clear that this article is aimed specifically at controversial issues among those who believe the biblical Gospel of Jesus Christ. Â I make this clarification because there will always be division between those who love Jesus and those who reject Him (2 Cor. 6:14-18, James 4:4). Â As we love God and love people, the world will hate us for it. Â We are destined for controversy with those who hate Jesus, and, as result, hate us.
This article is not aimed at addressing controversy between believers and unbelievers, and it is very important that you understand this before you read any further.
The issue I’m addressing in this article may be captured in the question, “What do those who are brothers and sisters in Christ do when they (sometimes sharply) disagree with one another over particular doctrinal issues in Scripture?” Â As far as I can tell, there are at least two wrong ways and a right way to address these issues.
Let’s first address a couple of inappropriate (even dangerous) ways we can address controversial issues in Scripture.
Two Dangerous Responses:
Some people avoid controversial issues altogether. Â And there are several reasons for this.
First, some avoid speaking about controversial issues that are not central to the basic Gospel of Jesus Christ in order to guard the unity of the body of Christ. Â Generally speaking, I have great respect for the person whose desire is to guard and protect the body of Christ. Â That said, avoiding all controversial issues outside of the most basic Gospel is unwise and even dangerous. Â Avoiding such issues isÂ unwise because it discourages thinking and healthy debate, both of which are incredibly valuable for the spiritual growth of believers. Â If you’ve had the privilege of enjoying healthy debate with other believers, you have likely reaped the harvest of heightened amazement with God and heightened love for people. Â And avoiding such issues isÂ dangerous because the Holy Spirit saw to it that every word God wanted recorded as Scripture was, in fact, recorded. Â And while some of what He inspired is undoubtedly difficult (even controversial), the fact that He inspired all of it (2 Pet. 1:20-21; 2 Tim. 3:16-17) demands our devotion to all of it. Â Perhaps the problem here is best addressed by asking the question, â€œWho are we to, in essence, treat certain portions of Scripture as if God placed them there by mistake?â€
The second reason people avoid controversial issues that are not central to the basic Gospel of Jesus Christ is for fear of ever â€œrocking the boat.â€Â This person essentially flies the banner, â€œAbove all else, donâ€™t ever offend anyone.â€Â Though I most definitely identify with this position, I must remind myself (and you) that this is, to be rather blunt, idolatry.Â The deep motivation here is not so much to preserve the unity of the church, but to engage in the worship of the god of personal comfort and convenience.
I attended church for about a decade before hearing anything about the reformed understanding of Godâ€™s sovereignty (if the terminology throws you off, Iâ€™ve tried to explain what I mean below, so stay with me!).Â While some would say, â€œThe reason you didnâ€™t hear about it is because itâ€™s not in the Bible,â€ I’ve addressed that in other posts.Â For now, though, whether you agree with my perspective or not, put yourself in my shoes (and those in a similar position) for a moment.Â As a sophomore in college I was presented with an avalanche of Scripture (in context) that affirmed an understanding of God I had never heard, despite being in church for about a decade.Â I then went through a progression of responses to this realization.Â My immediate response was anger (i.e., â€œI cannot believe my pastors and teachers failed to tell me about this!â€).Â My second response was the more humble admission that my pastors and teachers may have told me the truth, but I failed to listen and think and process their teaching properly.Â My third response was the even more painful realization that I wouldâ€™ve at least seen the issue had I been more devoted to the study of Godâ€™s Word in my personal life.
To this point, you may be wondering, â€œWhat does this have to do with the title of this section: ‘Obsession’?â€Â My final response to this situation was borderline obsession.Â Because the truths were unknown to me for most of my Christian life, I committed myself to making sure no one else found himself or herself in my situation.Â The result was that I essentially treated this particular controversial issue as if it were the only truth in Scripture.Â This, of course, is unhealthy, since not just the controversial passages/doctrines, but â€œall Scripture is God-breathed and profitableâ€ (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
As you may have noticed, both avoidance of and obsession with controversial issues outside of the most basic Gospel have the same root issue: the failure to appropriately value every Word God has inspired.Â My intention is to address these issues, recognizing that they are, in fact, addressed in Godâ€™s Word, while not obsessing over them, recognizing that these are not the only issues in Scripture.
An Appropriate Response:
On December 24, 1740, George Whitefield, a Calvinist, opened a letter to John Wesley, an Arminian, in the following way:
Reverend and very dear Brother,
“God only knows what unspeakable sorrow of heart I have felt on your account since I left England last. Whether it be my infirmity or not, I frankly confess, that Jonah could not go with more reluctance against Nineveh, than I now take pen in hand to write against you. Was nature to speak, I had rather die than do it; and yet if I am faithful to God, and to my own and others’ souls, I must not stand neutral any longer. I am very apprehensive that our common adversaries will rejoice to see us differing among ourselves. But what can I say? The children of God are in danger of falling into error. Nay, numbersÂ have been misled, whom God has been pleased to work upon by my ministry, and a greater number are still calling aloud upon me to show also my opinion. I must then show that I know no man after the flesh, and that I have no respect to persons, any further than is consistent with my duty to my Lord and Master,Â Jesus Christ.
This letter, no doubt, will lose me many friends: and for this cause perhaps God has laid this difficult task upon me, even to see whether I am willing to forsake all for him, or not. From such considerations as these, I think it my duty to bear an humble testimony, and earnestly to plead for the truths which, I am convinced, are clearly revealed in the Word of God. In the defence whereof I must use great plainness of speech, and treat my dearest friends upon earth with the greatest simplicity, faithfulness, and freedom, leaving the consequences of all to God.
For some time before, and especially since my last departure from England, both in public and private, by preaching and printing, you have been propagating the doctrine ofÂ universal redemption. And when I remember how Paul reproved Peter for his dissimulation, I fear I have been sinfully silent too long. O then be not angry with me, dear and honoured Sir, if now I deliver my soul, by telling you that I think in this you greatly err.”
From this interaction, several biblical principles are modeled:
1) Acknowledge the debate as an “in house” discussion.
Begin with the understanding that because those involved believe the Gospel, the issue is an “in house” discussion, meaning that the discussion is among believers. Â Whitefield addresses Wesley as, “Reverend, and very dear brother.” Â Later, after Whitefield’s death, John Wesley was asked, “Do you think we shall see Mr. Whitefield in Heaven?â€ Â Wesley replied, â€œNo, sir, I fear not. Â Mr. Whitefield will be so near the Throne and we at such a distance we shall hardly get sight of him.â€ Â While each man sharply disagreed with the perspective of the other, each man also recognized the other as a dear brother in Christ. Â The same should characterize our doctrinal disagreements with those who are in Christ.
2) Make sure love both for God and people is motivating the discussion.
Engage in your disagreement out of love for God and a desire to bless/benefit/protect His bride, the church. Â The desire to be right or to win an argument should never drive one into debate with anyone. Â Love both for God and people is the only acceptable motivation for debating, or, for that matter, doing anything at all (1 Cor. 13). Â Encompassing each of these first two points, Augustine, who was no stranger to intense debate, seems to have had the proper perspective: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, charity; in all things, charity (i.e., love).”
3) Be humble, gentle and respectful.
Humility, gentleness and respect should be apparent in your approach to those with whom you disagree. Â Like Whitefield, let the thought of speaking/writing against one of your own brothers or sisters be difficult, even painful for you. Â On this note, John Frame wrote in his bookÂ Evangelical Reunion,
[I]t is not hard to convince people of Calvinistic teachings when you avoid using Calvinistic jargon. . . . [T]here is a slogan among the Reformed that â€œanyone who prays for anotherâ€™s conversion is a Calvinist.â€ . . . If you pray for the soul of another, you believe that personâ€™s decision is in the hand of God, not merely a product of the personâ€™s â€œfree agency.â€ . . .
It seems to me that what we call Calvinism today is simply a spelling out of the heart instincts of all believers in Christ. Â I can easily persuade myself that the whole church will be Calvinist eventually, if we allow people to read Scripture as it stands, without feeling that we have to rub their noses in historic controversy.
There is a certain â€œsmarty pantsâ€ theological attitude in wanting to show people of the other party that our team was right all along. Â We sometimes feel that we need to do that to make our case maximally cogent; but in fact that attitudeÂ detractsÂ from the cogency of our case. Â We give people the impression that to acknowledge the biblical principle they must also acknowledge us, our denomination, our historical traditions. Â But no. Â Although biblical principle deserves their allegiance, our â€œteamâ€ does not necessarily deserve it (74-75. paragraphing added).
This kind of theological snobbery should have no place among God’s people. Â Yet, like Whitefield, do not mistakenly understand humility to be, “Treating what may be known (i.e., what is clear) in Scripture as if it is unknowable or unclear simply because Christians disagree.” Â That, of course, is not humility, but foolishness.
4) Let the intensity of the discussion be determined by the significance of the issue.
As a general rule, we should take more seriously those things that are most intimately connected to the glory of God. Â For example, the glory of Christ is not intimately connected to whether Acts 6:1-6 is a reference to deacons, but the glory of Christ, as Whitefield explains to Wesley, is intimately connected to His role in salvation, which is the essence of the Calvinism vs. Arminianism debate, making the Calvinism vs. Arminianism debate worthy of more intense discussion than the issue of deacons in Acts 6.
5) Consider and fairly address the arguments of those with whom you disagree.
Understand your opponent’s position and address him as fairly as possible. Â A common mistake in debate is what may be called the straw man argument, which is the term given to an attack of a caricature of the arguments of one’s opponent rather than the actual arguments of one’s opponent. Â This tactic often reveals laziness in preparation on the part of the one making the argument and frustration on the part of the one whose actual arguments have been misrepresented.
6) Let the Word of God in its proper context make your arguments.
Let Scripture in its proper context drive your arguments, since, a) our opinionsÂ only matter to the degree that they are consistent with God’s revelation of Himself in the Bible, and b) the Scripture will be the tool the Spirit uses to resolve the disagreement if He so chooses (Jn. 17:17; 2 Tim. 3:16-17).
7) Work toward unity.
The Scripture demands that every believer, “be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). Â Our efforts in discussing controversial issues should be aimed at preserving the unity of God’s church, not “bolting” at the first sign of disagreement.
8) Separate after great effort at unity and only if necessary.
When is it “necessary” to separate oneself from another believer or even a local church? Â This is not an easy answer because every situation presents its own unique issues. Â In short, “in house discussions” (i.e., discussions that do not touch on the essence of the Gospel) rarely necessitate leaving a church. Â That said, there are circumstances in which separating may be the best option. Â Commenting on Whitefield’s interaction with Wesley, Iain Murray wrote,Â “Doctrinal differences between believers should never lead to personal antagonism. Â Error must be opposed even when held by fellow members of Christ, but if that opposition cannot co-exist with a true love for all saints and a longing for their spiritual prosperity then it does not glorify God nor promote the edification of the Church.” Â As with Whitefield and Wesley, whose theological/doctrinal differences extended well beyond the issue of election, separation may be the best option if your discussions result in a seemingly unresolvable, sharp disagreement that will otherwise likely result in damage to the body of Christ. Â Again, few issues seem to warrant such a reaction, making most reasons for breaking fellowship with a church and/or individual believer biblically unwarranted, harmful to the Church’s unity, damaging to the Church’s mission, and dishonoring to Church’s Savior (Jn. 17:22-23). Â So, I’m not saying that separation is never acceptable. Â I’m just saying we should tread very lightly.
On this note, Mark Dever compiled a great list of questions to help the person considering separation determine if that is the best course of action.
I hope this proves to be helpful to you in your desire to deeply love Christ and His bride, the church. Â Have I gotten something wrong in this article? Â Please comment below and let me know. Â Should something be added? Â Again, I’d love to hear it. Â Thanks again for reading!