Let’s Hear It For Controversy

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: https://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:

Image of Christ the Controversialist: A study in some essentials of evangelical religion
Christ the Controversialist: A study in some essentials of evangelical religion by John R.W. Stott (Author) Amazon logo

“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.”

[2017 words]

6 Replies to “Let’s Hear It For Controversy”

  1. Of friendships I’m experiencing this loss, mind you on a small scale, and learning this more each day. The latest response, generally spouting from academically minded or more affluent and independent folk, is that the truth is questionable, depends on interpretation, let’s just focus on love, love and more soft love. Agree, Christ’s love is universally and unequivocally paramount, however, Christ’s love with an attitude of broken and contrite heart is what God’s cannot despise. It shifts the focus from what God can do for me, this could be referred to as the empirical ‘I’ emphasis, to what I can do for God, with God, for His kingdom. On holidays recently, I attended a service where a young girl [18] presented a message of Christ’s love from a sinner’s viewpoint. Saying that should we receive what we deserve, we could not stand, it would be unbearable, we have broken God’s law, our righteousness is as filthy rags, but it’s with His grace that we are saved. It was quite refreshing compared to what I normally here back home. Thank you Bill, I will continue to raise God’s truth for discussion and/or debate with friends and family, not provocatively, but a sincere dig-deeper-into-God manner. Let the controversy ensue.

  2. Yes. Hooray for controversy!

    About being nice, and about covering up sin, and about failing to stand for the truth;
    Hosea 8:7 “?They ??sow the wind, And reap the whirlwind”.

    Controversy has always been hard for me.
    I strongly suspect that it has been the influence of my upbringing, esp. the bits about being loving and “if you cant say anything nice, don’t say it at all”.
    There was also the factor that an argument was taken to reflect mainly on the level of acceptance and love that someone had for me, rather than what my thoughts and opinions were.
    However, amongst it all, my family and childhood church had a strong attitude to the truth of Scripture, and this has become foundational for me.

    We are reaping the whirlwind now.
    I remember in the late 70s describing the main doctrine of the church as “don’t rock the boat”.
    All that was taboo that has now come to haunt us big time.

    I have found Lauren and Stefan refreshing as they, on the most basic level, say that our western society is based on a humble search for the truth, and that freedom of speech, controversy, argument is a major key to that.

    We as Christians also accept that there is fundamental truth in the revelation of Jesus.
    The discussion about searching for truth and the place of controversy impacts upon revelation truth in two ways.
    1. Although the revelation truth has a strong element of being beyond logic, and beyond scientific repeatable testing in the normal sense, when it is accepted as a possibility, the evidence that can be used in a controversy is both clear to be seen and logical in the new dimension. The eyes are opened to a new way of looking at things and make the supreme amount of sense.
    e.g. “Jesus said ‘I am the Way'”. Unpacked logically according to revelation this statement goes far beyond the meaning and logic of any other “this is the only way” claim. Only Jesus as the way, deals thoroughly and logically with, a. all of the attributes of God YHWH, and b. the sinful impotent nature of man. All the other “ways” are wimps and frauds in the ultimate sense.
    2. The revelation in Scripture is at the same time detailed and stringent; and broad and general. The church, through all of its history, has needed to employ argument and controversy to distill the essentials of the “apostle s doctrine”. To say that this is needed in our day in face of the whirlwind is an understatement. Indeed we must “earnestly contend for the truth”.

  3. I was accused of being a divisive and heretical influence in my former church and it is claimed by the Chief Elder that I was accordingly thrown out of the church. Whereas the truth is that I shook the dust from my sandals and left, in 2014.
    From 2011 to 2014, I had spoken at some length with the pastors and elders on at least three occasions, pleading with them to address the issue of homosexuality. Children in the church were being corrupted in their schools with gay propaganda and there were members of the church who had same sex attractions who needed to be released from these sexual addictions. Some of them might be married with children and for the sake their families they needed help.
    The church leaders refused to listen and instead invited Jonathan Berry of True Freedom Trust, in 2014, to come and address the church and then in 2017 they invited Sam Allberry, of Living Out, to come and brainwash the church for a whole weekend, into believing there were individuals like themselves, whose homosexual temptations made them better Christians and more like Jesus!! The theme was how to make the church more inclusive and welcoming to gays.
    I attended this series of thinly disguised equality and diversity training sessions and in response I wrote to the pastor, giving him my view. He did not answer and so I wrote to around 30 members whom I knew personally, amongst whom were the church leaders. They replied angrily.
    But it was the Chairman of the Trustees who took the responsibility of warning the whole church not to listen to what I had to say. He wrote:

    “We know that many of you who received emails from the former Church Member will, like us, have found them to be inaccurate, intolerant and offensive. If this is so in your case, we would advise you not to enter into direct correspondence or communication with him, other than to request he removes your name from his circulation list. If on the other hand you have concerns about the matters he has referred to then please speak to one or more of the elders….. In the past, while this person was a Member, several of us talked with him on occasions to pray and discuss his concerns. We believe that our approach then as now has been ultimately governed by the spirit of Titus 3:10. He, however, does not respond to reasoned discussion. Please pray for him, his wife and the unity of our own church family at this time.”

    For those not familiar with Titus 3:9-11, it says, “But avoid foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and vain. A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject; knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself.”
    Here the Chief Elder was misusing a passage of the Bible to defend the indefensible.

    Be warned this blight is coming to a church near you, if it has not arrived already.

    David Skinner UK

  4. Your recent story of “The Rose” tells us what we must expect, though perhaps not quite as savage. That story must put our plight as it is. No compromise.

  5. Please forgive the presentation of my former post.
    Something strange happened when I sent it off.

  6. Hip, Hip Hooray.
    From my personal journey in a church that is rapidly imploding, this article is a stand-out winner, thank you Bill.

    Loving the commentary by those who have chosen to leave their church (thanks David) although I still am convicted to stay & humbly be in a position to guide others back to Christ.

    Be encouraged ALL those who take a stand for God’s Holy Truth in their churches, because as the attacks become more personal, vitiolic & aggressive against God’s AMAZING Word – the perpetrators appear ridiculously childish, harmless and so scripturally ignorant.
    In Jesus Mighty Name We Stand!

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