Controversy


Why is the church as weak as she is? Why can you and I not be more proud of her? Why is the church so often a poor recommendation of the Christian faith? Our Lord said that his disciples would be known for their love for one another and so we are to be a household of love, of unity, of mutual respect; but we are often, alas, virtually the reverse. The Lord Christ said that the world would know that the Father sent him into the world by observing the unity of the body of Christ. What unity? Constant bickering, hateful speech, division again and again, have weakened the church and now we display to the world a body of Christ so broken into little pieces that it is no wonder that so few take seriously the message of the church about where to find peace and love. “Physician, heal thyself!” When was the last time any unbelieving public figure said, “My how those Christians love one another.”

And just as it is true that the church as an institution has suffered greatly from division and dispute, the individual Christian has often been drawn up into unfruitful controversies that, while they get the blood up, prove eventually to be pointless and harmful, from which disputes consequences ensue that no one foresaw when the fighting began. I doubt any of us realizes the extent to which the gospel has suffered and Christians have suffered the loss of holiness and integrity and usefulness because of controversy, dispute, and the unkindness that so regularly accompanies disagreement about one thing or another. We immediately, especially we conservative Protestant Christians, trumpet the need to stand up for the truth because a failure to do so has cost the fidelity of so many churches through the years. Think of the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians and the Methodists and so on who are now so many enemies of the gospel. But we tend to forget how weak the true gospel witness is in the world today in some large part because of the disproof of that message that the world observes in the behavior of real believers and their really believing churches.

No wonder then that the subject of controversy gets as much attention as it does in Proverbs. If one is to live skillfully in this world, one must avoid the damaging if not deadly pitfalls of argument. Nothing is more likely to destroy harmony, to damage relationships, and to weaken collective action and to bring bitterness to the individual heart than the disunity and ill-will fostered by argument, and so a man or woman who learns how to avoid unnecessary argument in the first place and properly to manage necessary argument in the second is the wise, the skillful person. You know how often this subject is addressed in Holy Scripture.

“I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you…” [1 Cor. 1:10-11]

“I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord.” [Phil. 4:2]

“Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value and only ruins those who listen.” [2 Tim. 2:14]

“Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.” [2 Tim 2:23]

Or think of Paul and Barnabas and their inability to surmount a disagreement they had prior to Paul’s second missionary journey.

“Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company.” [Acts 15:37-39]

The son of encouragement and the great apostle to the Gentiles couldn’t find a way to work out their disagreement. Unbelievable!

The history of early Christianity, during the time the apostles were still alive, was a history of dispute and argument in the church and a history of harm done to the church and it’s life and it’s witness by those arguments and it has been the same ever since. Well, if the church were beset with quarrels in those heady days, no wonder we find a good bit of attention devoted to controversy, its avoidance and its management, in the teaching of Proverbs. This is one of the perennial problems in human life that we can count on Proverbs to address.

Much of its teaching has to do with the avoidance of argument or conflict in the first place, and, so it would seem, virtually no matter what.

“Do not contend with a man for no reason, when he has done you no harm.” [3:30]

“There are six things that the Lord hates…” we read in 6:16-19, and, in addition to such things as haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, we have in the final and emphatic place, “one who sows discord among brothers.”

“Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.” [10:12]

“A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention.” [15:18]

“Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam, so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out.” [17:14]

“Whoever loves transgression loves strife.” [17:19]

“It is an honor for a man to keep aloof from strife, but every fool will be quarreling.” [20:3]

“Whoever meddles in a quarrel not his own is like the one who takes a passing dog by the ears.” [26:17] Not even Samson grabbed a fox by its ears. Most dogs were wild in Israel in those days and grabbing one by the ears was a sure way of getting bit. The busybody who likes to get involved in disputes, any disputes – someone else’s will do fine – is very likely to end up suffering harm as well as causing it. [cf. Waltke, ii, 358]

As you can see, the primary emphasis in Proverbs is to refrain from argument or contention. Controversy is the path of fools not the wise. Now, to be sure, there is a kind of controversy that is necessary. We must stand up for the truth of God, for the rights of those who are being abused, and so on. But while that is clearly taught in the rest of the Bible, there isn’t a lot about that in Proverbs. Most of its advice is to stay as far away from controversy as one can.

Indeed, in Proverbs we find that it is a mark of the godly that they are people of peace and harmony and foster such harmony between others.

“When a man’s ways please the Lord, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him. [16:7]

And, typically in Proverbs you will find that the controversialist is driven to dispute by flaws in his character.

“Drive out a scoffer, and strife will go out, and quarreling and abuse will cease.” [22:10]

“For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer [we might substitute  “a gossip” for a “whisperer”], quarreling ceases. As charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife.” [26:20-21]

“A dishonest man spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends.” [16:28]

“A greedy man stirs up strife…” [28:25]

And why is it that controversy is so dangerous and needs to be avoided at all costs?

“A brother offended is more unyielding than a strong city, and quarreling is like the bars of a castle.” [18:19] The concluding simile there describes the “difficulty of penetrating beyond the psychological barriers he consciously erects to make himself invulnerable to any and every approach toward reconciliation.” [Waltke, ii, 84] “This observation is an implicit warning to avoid conflict because of the intractable problems that will arise.” [Longman, 359] Hard feelings caused by conflict are very difficult to surmount and very often, even  in the church, they are never surmounted.

People will inevitably disagree. Christians will inevitably disagree. No two people think alike about absolutely everything. But we are taught in Proverbs that it is one thing to disagree, another thing altogether to quarrel. There is a disposition toward argument and dissension that must be put to death because it is sinful, pure and simple. And what precisely does that mean? Well here is the great George Whitefield, the Great Awakening evangelist, who lived in a day when controversy among brothers did terrible damage to the ministry of the gospel during a time of tremendous opportunity.

“It is best for the gospel minister, simply and powerfully to preach those truths he has been taught of God, and to meddle as little as possible with those who are children of God, though they should differ in many things. This would keep the heart sweet, and at the same time not betray the truths of Jesus…. I have not given way to the Moravian Brethren, or to Mr. Wesley, or to any whom I thought was in error, no, not for an hour. But I think it is best not to dispute when there is no probability of convincing.” [Dallimore, ii, 76-77]

That last line is priceless: “it is best not to dispute when there is no probability of convincing.”  If that advice, and only that advice, were followed, a great measure of argument in the church would immediately disappear.

And some other practical counsel fleshes out the meaning of Proverbs’ virtually universal prohibition of the pursuit of controversy. Here is Matthew Henry, the English pastor and celebrated Bible commentator. “The worst thing we can bring to a religious controversy is anger.” [BOT 256 (Jan ’85) 141-142] And in my experience anger is what is nearly always brought to a religious controversy. Herman Bavinck, the great Dutch theologian of the late 19th century and early 20th century, was a politician, a member of Parliament, and a Reformed churchman. He knew of what he spoke when he once said, “Politics is often seamy. Church politics are always seamy.” Why do we get so angry and turn a discussion of our differences into a fight? Well, says, John Newton, “There is a principle of self, which disposes us to despise those who differ from us.” [Letters (pb. ed.) 102-104] How dare he or she not take the same opinion on the matter that I do!

There is nothing that can be done about the existence of disagreements. But there is a great deal that can be done about the way in which we talk about them and handle them in the church. The 4th century church father, Jerome, was a great man, but he was a horrid controversialist. He quite forgot the biblical injunction that “the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone…correcting his opponents with gentleness.” [2 Tim. 24-25] Jerome was a master at putting the worst construction on a man’s words, at name-calling, and at prickliness. How different his contemporary Augustine, who seemed to be able to conduct controversy virtually free of any personal antipathy and of whom, as a controversialist, it has often been said that he was fortiter in re, suaviter in modo: strong in his convictions but gentle in his manner. The difference between the two men led one biographer to observe that Jerome was as unlikely to keep a friend as Augustine was to lose one. [Wills, St. Augustine, 85]

Or take John Wesley, a great man and greatly used by God, but a horrible controversialist, the very sort of man who should never have engaged in it. In one egregious instance of where a controversial spirit will carry an otherwise good and honest man, in the midst of contention about predestination between the Arminian camp and the Calvinist camp of Great Awakening preachers, Wesley printed a tract which he issued under the name of his Calvinist opponent Augustus Toplady, author of the hymn Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me. Toplady had published a 134 page book on predestination, still in print today, The Absolute Predestination of God, which Wesley condensed in a very distorted way into a 12 page tract and then published it as if it had been written and published by Toplady himself. In other words, the tract was an out and out fraud. The final paragraph, a complete fabrication, was a Wesley invention.

“The sum of all is this: One in twenty (suppose) of mankind are elected; nineteen in twenty are reprobated. The elect will be saved, do what they will; the reprobate will be damned, do what they can. Reader believe this or be damned. Witness my hand, A- T-.

So here was Wesley publishing a work of his own devising, publishing it under another man’s name, and presenting Toplady’s views in the worst possible light, as if they were the same as Wesley’s caricature of them. It was dishonest, deceitful, and unmanly. When a howl of protest went up, Wesley made only this reply.

“I do not fight with chimney-sweepers. He is too dirty a writer for me to meddle with. I should only foul my fingers.” [In Tompkins, 170-171]

These are two earnest Christians talking about one another and they didn’t even have blogs!
As so often in the church’s past we observe that with friends like these we have no need for enemies!

Controversy has undone a great many of whom we might have expected better. We greatly admire, and rightly, Samuel Rutherford for his timeless expression of the place of love for Christ in Christian experience. But he had a reputation as a stormy controversialist. One of his friends admitted that he was “naturally hot and fiery,” and those who felt the sting of his attacks came to have a jaundiced view of the great man. They certainly didn’t admire him as we do. One described him as “a hater of all men not of his opinion, and one who if ever so lightly offended, unreconciliable, void of mercy and charity, although a teacher of both to others.” [In J. Coffey, Politics, Religion, and the British Revolutions: The mind of Samuel Rutherford, 3] That’s our beloved Samuel Rutherford he’s talking about and that’s what controversy and argument did to his reputation!

So you see how important it is to take this instruction to heart. Even the best of men can and have stumbled here and have found their characters wanting when put to the test of disagreement with brothers. Controversy is no stranger to us, of course, and we know its ill effects only too well. Our controversies – such as those that created the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Bible Presbyterian Church in 1937 (the latter the mother denomination of Faith Presbyterian Church) – have been precisely of that kind forbidden in Proverbs and against which we are warned so sternly. They are of the kind that happen between men of virtually identical principles who have managed to find something about which they disagree, often a relatively minor, often an extremely minor something in the total scheme of things. In that case it was wine and the place of the millennium in our eschatology!

I think, for example, of the controversy that erupted in the Free Church of Scotland between men of impeccable orthodoxy and deep spiritual life upon the evangelistic campaign conducted by Dwight Moody in the middle 1870s. Most everyone was thrilled with the results of Moody’s preaching until it was criticized in a 31 page pamphlet for not being Calvinistic enough by Dr. John Kennedy of Dingwall, one of the most famous and honored men of Presbyterian Scotland in the day. But, of course, many men of his own denomination were enthusiastic supporters of Moody, greatly encouraged by the results of his preaching, and so his attack on Moody was effectively an attack on them. So one of those men, the great hymn writer and faithful pastor Horatius Bonar, issued a reply in the name of all of them, a 78 page pamphlet of his own. Bonar argued that Kennedy’s attack on Moody’s preaching was based on misquotations, on statements taken out of context, and on sweeping generalizations that were simply not true. The fact of the matter is that the two men – Kennedy and Bonar – and the men who agreed with each of them were of different temperaments and of different theological emphases. They shared the same Presbyterian faith, the same reformed theology, but they were not entirely like-minded. The controversy brought those differences to the surface.

They differed, for example, on whether a gospel preacher can say that God’s love prompted him to offer salvation to any and every man and that God wanted every hearer of the gospel to be saved. Dr. Kennedy, strong Calvinist that he was, was willing to say that God offers salvation to all who will believe, but was not willing to say that there is divine love in the free offer of salvation to any and every sinner. He denied, in his words, “the call of the gospel as expressive of the love of God to each individual to whom it is addressed.” Dr. Kennedy certainly preached the love of God, but as a Calvinist he believed he shouldn’t individualize it because, of course, who knows who belongs to the company of the elect.  Dr. Bonar, on the other hand, an equally strong Calvinist, was very ready to say that in the gospel there is to be seen God’s heart of love toward all, to each and every person to whom the gospel is ever addressed. That dispute exists still today in the Presbyterian and Calvinist world. If you’re wondering, we come down on Bonar’s side regarding that question. And so the controversy continued until, like so many others, it petered out and to virtually no one’s regret faded into the mists of time to be thankfully forgotten. [cf. the account of Iain Murray in A Scottish Christian Heritage, 186-201] It certainly accomplished nothing good. It besmirched some reputations; it infuriated some brothers, but it changed virtually no one’s mind, and it didn’t stop Moody’s preaching or, thankfully, prevent large numbers of Scottish folk responding in faith to Moody’s gospel invitations.

Well so our controversies in 1937 and the hard speech and the foolish taking of sides that resulted in a church split that continues to this day. Many of the men involved in that split would later say that it was sin and they were responsible for it, but it has not been fixed, it has really not been repented of and there are still two churches where there ought to be one. The issues that were made a test of unity in those days, by the way, aren’t issues any longer in either of the two churches – plenty of people in the PCA and the OPC drink wine and ministers hold all three of the primary millennial views to the interest of virtually no one – but they were enough to divide the body of Christ in 1937. So, in neither the short nor the long term did the division profit the cause of Christ. In fact, so soon after the departure from the Northern Presbyterian Church in 1936, the second split simply confirmed the stated opinion of the theological liberals who now controlled the Presbyterian church: we weren’t standing up for the gospel at all; we were simply cross-grained folk who couldn’t get along if we didn’t get our way about everything. Within a year we managed to convince a great many people (including the editors of America’s major daily newspapers) that that was precisely what we were. They forgot about us in the blink of an eye.

And what of our present disputes? I’m thankful to say that in our Presbytery at least, they have been managed with a great measure of decorum and brotherly regard, but when a man is taken to trial with the view to driving him from the brotherhood, in the adversarial process that a trial inevitably is, there will be as there was speech that would never have been uttered otherwise. I was Dr. Leithart’s defense counsel and I said things about other men in that role, in disputing the prosecution’s argument and in undermining the authority of his witnesses, that I hope very much I would never otherwise have said. A man was presented as an expert witness, so it was our responsibility to show, in Dr. Leithart’s defense, that he wasn’t an expert at all, that he only pretended to scholarship, that he was a known controversialist, and so on. Does anyone think that he will forget what was said about him in that trial?

“A brother offended is more unyielding than a strong city, and quarreling is like the bars of a castle.” [18:19]

There are some people in our church who seem to think that trials clarify matters and are good for peace and harmony in the long run. I doubt that very much. Trials make adversaries of men who were friends before and deepen suspicions that existed already. We should go there as infrequently as we possibly can.

But what of those who say that the gospel is at stake. So said Dr. Kennedy in Scotland in the 1870s and his voice was one to be reckoned with. But so were the voices of Horatius and Andrew Bonar, Alexander Whyte, and, for that matter, Charles Spurgeon, who all took the other side in that dispute. The fact of the matter is that those who accuse some of our men of denying divine election or justification by faith are actually accusing them not of explicitly denying those doctrines – for to a man they confess them and explicitly record their agreement with those doctrines as they are expressed in our theological standards – I say they are actually accusing them either of not realizing that they deny the doctrines or of being insincere in their profession of them. That’s a very different kind of accusation and must be made much more circumspectly. When you profess to know another man’s mind better than he knows it himself, you must have the smoking gun in your possession. Nothing else will do. The fact is that we are engaged in a dispute that pits against one another men who agree about virtually everything in Christian theology: the inerrancy of the Bible, the doctrine of the Triune God, of Jesus Christ, of his atonement, Calvinism’s doctrine of sovereign grace, paedobaptism, and Presbyterian church government. Are there differences among PCA ministers and people in regard to certain doctrines and practices? Of course there are. There have always been significant and interesting differences of understanding among Reformed ministers. But there are differences and then there are differences. Some rise to great importance; many do not.

Taking the teaching of Proverbs together we conclude with this summary:

  1. There are people and most of these people probably know and if they don’t they should know who they are – who should never involve themselves in controversy because they haven’t the characters for it. As Alexander Whyte bluntly put it: “If we cannot do it with clean all-men-loving hearts, let us leave all debate and contention to stronger and better men than we are.” [Bunyan Characters, i, 141-142] There are scoffers, we read in Proverbs, and whisperers who love to engage in controversy. But we should never indulge in any controversy spawned by such people or regard their opinions in the matter as of any consequence whatsoever. That kind of controversy is sinful, pure and simple. It is proud, selfish, and harmful. Such people are utterly forgetful of the constant warnings of Holy Scripture against a controversial spirit.
  2. But if there must be some discussion of differences, then that discussion must be conducted with a view to avoiding the sins of temper and of dishonesty that so regularly accompany dispute and contention. We are back to Johan Albrecht Bengel’s four little words in his comment on Matthew 7:1: sine scientia, necessitate, amore. If the controversy is not conducted with knowledge it is to be abandoned. Period. Nowadays I have learned to ask clarifying questions. If someone asks me if I am against the so-called Federal Vision, I now invariably ask, “And what you mean by Federal Vision; what is Federal Vision in your view.” Usually when I receive the answer I can say, “Oh, yes, I’m definitely against that.” But then I go on to say, “But it so happens that I don’t know anyone who is for that, including the people who are most closely associated with Federal Vision.” It has dismayed me to see how little care has been taken to make sure that a man’s views are accurately represented and not caricatured. If the controversy is not conducted out of necessity, that is, if there is nothing really at stake that requires us to contend, then it must be abandoned. Whatever one’s opinions about the current dustup in the PCA, I have yet to hear or read a single persuasive argument that we need to contend about these things. I fear that what we are about nowadays in our church is recreational controversy, controversy for the fun of it. But nothing in Holy Scripture suggests to me that the Lord looks kindly upon controversy disturbing his church when there was no particular need for it apart from the desire of some men to have a good fight about something. And, finally, if the controversy is not conducted in love, if it is not conducted with mutual regard, with kindness, and with proper respect, we should lay it down at once and no one should dare to touch it again. The treatment of people on the blogs should have brought an end to all of this a few years ago and it should have been the settled intention of the church not to raise it up again until it was made clear to everyone that the church would never tolerate again that kind of speech between brothers that was becoming commonplace on the internet. There is a study now underway at Duke University on theological controversy on the internet and the Presbyterian Church in America is being used as an example of how it is not to be done. We should be ashamed of ourselves. We’re supposed to be mature Christians. We’re behaving like children. Controversies waged like ours has been will not help; they will only harm the interests of God and the gospel.

 

I have seen not one good thing come out of this controversy. I could claim to have learned some theology and church history in preparing papers and testimony for the trial, but the entire process has hurt the church, distracted men from their proper work, produced a great deal of anger and ill-will, deepened animosity, and all the while has done nothing to bring harmony and peace. Nobody is changing his mind. I know this will infuriate some, but I think what we are going through is an unseemly and childish spat between aggressive or militant traditionalists, on the one hand, and, for want of a better term, theological progressives on the other, both of whom are committed to the full authority of the Word of God and the Reformed faith.

“It is an honor for a man to keep aloof from strife, but every fool will be quarreling.” [20:3]