We live in an age in which a major ‘virtue’ being promoted is to just get along, to not rock the boat, and to stay away from controversy. This mindset has infected much of the Christian church as well. Too many believers just want to be liked, and they avoid like the plague anything which may result in argument, debate or division.
They wrongly think that if they just smile a lot and try to be nice to one another, they have done their Christian duty. They dislike doctrine because they dislike controversy. They shy away from anything that might cause friction, and that includes any hard biblical truth that might offend people.
Avoiding controversy at all costs has become one of their chief aims in life. They much prefer to sit back and remain silent – even when their own faith is under attack – than appear to be controversial, ‘negative’ or argumentative. So the faith once delivered to the saints is allowed to be flushed down the drain as they seek above all things to just be ‘nice’.
The truth is, such folks know little of New Testament Christianity. Indeed, they know little of their Bibles. And if they do know Scripture, they are obviously living in denial as they seek to ignore or suppress the plain message of Scripture.
And the plain message is this: the gospel of Jesus Christ is ALWAYS countercultural, it is ALWAYS disruptive, and it is ALWAYS controversial. The only gospel that makes no waves, pleases everyone, and causes no discomfit is a false gospel.
One simply has to read the four gospels to see this. It becomes crystal clear that Jesus was continually in the centre of controversy. Everywhere he went he caused trouble, stirred up a ruckus, and caused division. And all this because he simply proclaimed truth.
But when you have a world full of people who hate the truth, there can be only one outcome in such circumstances: controversy, and plenty of it. No wonder John Stott titled his excellent 1970 book Christ the Controversialist. He makes it crystal clear that Christianity is controversial – end of story.
Anyone who thinks they can be a committed Christian in a Christ-hating world and live without controversy is simply kidding themselves. In an earlier article I offered a number of powerful quotes from his book: billmuehlenberg.com/2017/11/07/praise-controversy-dogmatism/
Let me just offer one of them here:
Perhaps the best way to insist that controversy is sometimes a painful necessity is to remember that our Lord Jesus Christ Himself was a controversialist. He was not “broad-minded” in the popular sense that He was prepared to countenance any views on any subject. On the contrary … Jesus engaged in continuous debate with religious leaders of His day, the scribes and Pharisees, the Herodians and Sadducees. He said that He was the truth, that He had come to bear witness to the truth, and that the truth would set His followers free. As a result of His loyalty to the truth, He was not afraid to dissent publicly from official doctrines (if He knew them to be wrong), to expose error, and to warn His disciples of false teachers. He was also extremely outspoken in his language, calling them “blind guides”, “wolves in sheep’s clothing”, “whitewashed tombs” and even a “brood of vipers”.
And of course all the great saints have said much the same. They have all known that theological and spiritual controversy go hand in hand with any gospel witness and presentation. Let me quote just a few of these great heroes of the faith.
The great Scottish churchman Horatius Bonar (1808-1889) knew much about these matters. One lengthy quote will suffice here from his 1864 volume, God’s Way of Holiness:
“For there is some danger of falling into a soft and effeminate Christianity, under the plea of a lofty and ethereal theology. Christianity was born for endurance; not an exotic, but a hardy plant, braced by the keen wind; not languid, nor childish, nor cowardly. It walks with strong step and erect frame; it is kindly, but firm; it is gentle, but honest; it is calm, but not facile; obliging, but not imbecile; decided, but not churlish. It does not fear to speak the stern word of condemnation against error, nor to raise its voice against surrounding evils, under the pretext it is not of this world; it does not shrink from giving honest reproof, lest it come under the charge of displaying an unchristian spirit. It calls sin sin, on whomsoever it is found, and would rather risk the accusation of being actuated by a bad spirit than not discharge an explicit duty. Let us not misjudge strong words used in honest controversy.
Out of the heat a viper may come forth; but we shake it off and feel no harm. The religion of both Old and New Testaments is marked by fervent outspoken testimonies against evil. To speak smooth things in such a case may be sentimentalism, but it is not Christianity. It is a betrayal of the cause of truth and righteousness….
I know that charity covereth a multitude of sins; but it does not call evil good, because a good man has done it; it does not excuse inconsistencies, because the inconsistent brother has a high name and a fervent spirit; crookedness and worldliness are still crookedness and worldliness, though exhibited in one who seems to have reached no common height of attainment.”
J. C. Ryle (1816-1900) was another who often had to deal with controversy. He too wrote about it often. Consider just a few quotes:
“Controversy in religion is a hateful thing. It is hard enough to fight the devil, the world and the flesh, without private differences in our own camp. But there is one thing which is even worse than controversy, and that is false doctrine tolerated, allowed, and permitted without protest or molestation. . . . There are times when controversy is not only a duty but a benefit. Give me the mighty thunderstorm rather than the pestilential malaria. The one walks in darkness and poisons us in silence, and we are never safe. The other frightens and alarms for a little season. But it is soon over, and it clears the air. It is a plain Scriptural duty to ‘contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints.’ (Jude 3)”
“I am quite aware that the things I have said are exceedingly distasteful to many minds. I believe many are content with teaching which is not the whole truth, and fancy it will be ‘all the same’ in the end. I am sorry for them. I am convinced that nothing but the whole truth is likely, as a general rule, to do good to souls. I am satisfied that those who willfully put up with anything short of the whole truth, will find at last that their souls have received much damage. Three things there are which men never ought to trifle with – a little poison, a little false doctrine, and a little sin.”
“Controversy is an odious thing, but there are days when it is a positive duty. Peace is an excellent thing, but, like gold, it may be bought too dear. Unity is a mighty blessing, but it is worthless if it is purchased at the cost of truth. Once more I say, Open your eyes and be on your guard.”
And Charles Spurgeon was clearly no stranger to controversy. So much of his ministry was involved in major conflict and controversy. He spoke of this often:
“Controversy is never a very happy element for the child of God: he would far rather be in communion with his Lord than be engaged in defending the faith, or in attacking error. But the soldier of Christ knows no choice in his Master’s commands. He may feel it to be better for him to lie upon the bed of rest than to stand covered with the sweat and dust of battle; but, as a soldier, he has learned to obey, and the rule of his obedience is not his personal comfort, but his Lord’s absolute command. The servant of God must endeavour to maintain all the truth which his Master has revealed to him, because, as a Christian soldier, this is part of his duty. But while he does so, he accords to others the liberty which he himself enjoys.”
“Be ready for a bad name; be willing to be called a bigot; be prepared for loss of friendships; be prepared for anything so long as you can stand fast by him who bought you with his precious blood. . . . God give you courage, more and more of it, through faith in himself! May you be willing to put your religion to every proper test, the test of life, and the test of death, too!”
J. Gresham Machen spent much of his life involved in controversy for the sake of the gospel. He discussed the place of controversy in the Christian life in various places. Here are a few quotes:
“If we face the real situation in the Church and in the world, and decide, despite that situation, to stand firmly for the gospel of Christ, we shall be very likely indeed to find ourselves engaged in controversy. But if we are going to avoid controversy, we might as well close our Bibles; for the New Testament is a controversial book practically from beginning to end. The New Testament writers and our Lord Himself presented truth in sharp contrast with error, and indeed that is the only way in which truth can be presented in any clear and ringing way.
“Certainly a Christianity that avoids argument is not the Christianity of the New Testament. The New Testament is full of argument in defense of the faith. The Epistles of Paul are full of argument– no one can doubt that. But even the words of Jesus are full of argument in defense of the truth of what Jesus was saying.”
“Men tell us that our preaching should be positive and not negative, that we can preach the truth without attacking error. But if we follow that advice we shall have to close our Bible and desert its teachings. The New Testament is a polemic book almost from beginning to end.”
Finally let me turn to Martyn Lloyd-Jones who knew about such things, and preached on it often. Just one lengthy quote from the third volume of his 16-vol set on Romans:
“The great Apostle never confines himself to mere positive statements but often indulges, because he feels that he must do so, in arguments, in polemics. I make this point because I think there is a great deal of very loose and very false and flabby thinking on the whole question of polemics and of argumentation at the present time….
Disapproval of polemics in the Christian Church is a very serious matter. But that is the attitude of the age in which we live. The prevailing idea today in many circles is not to bother about these things. As long as we are all Christians, anyhow, somehow, all is well. Do not let us argue about doctrine, let us all be Christians together and talk about the love of God. That is really the whole basis of ecumenicity. Unfortunately, that same attitude is creeping into evangelical circles….
Let us be clear about what we mean. This is not argument for the sake of argument; this is not a manifestation of an argumentative spirit; this is not just indulging one’s prejudices. The Scriptures do not approve of that, and furthermore the Scriptures are very concerned about the spirit in which one engages in discussion. No man should like argument for the sake of argument. We should always regret the necessity; but though we regret and bemoan it, when we feel that a vital matter is at stake we must engage in argument. We must ‘earnestly contend for the truth,’ and we are called upon to do that by the New Testament.”