Scriptural Response to Controversy
We are pleased to share this guest editorial by Bro. John MacDougall. It was originally part of an exhortation given at the Portage Ecclesia, IN. The wisdom of Bro. John in this article is of utmost value to our community.
My wise old high school geometry teacher, Ms. McGrath, used to tell us, “Learn to disagree without being disagreeable.” While this is an admirable ideal and seems very reasonable, I find it is virtually impossible for humans to do. The human race is simply not wired that way. We are emotional creatures, not reasonable ones. We can view even the slightest disagreement, the most academic of disputes, as a threat to our pride and ego, if not to the stability of our world, our faith, and our way of life. Merely talking about a subject of disagreement, even to someone with whom we agree, causes our voice to rise in pitch and intensity. We begin to sound angry, even about subjects with no direct effect on us personally. Despite the difficulty, Ms. McGrath’s dictum was good advice. Fifty-five years later, I’m still working on it.
Learn to disagree without being disagreeable.
You may have noticed that the Internet often inflames controversy. Writing back and forth from a distance worsens conflict and seldom, if ever, resolves disputes. I have seen various explanations for this phenomenon, especially the lack of non-verbal cues: one of voice, facial expression, and body language that aid face-to-face converse. While that is true to some extent, I think the reason is more straightforward.
My theory is that in face-to-face conversation, the things we value most are our relationship with the other person and getting along with politeness. We have rules of behavior that people observe in personal relationships that generally prevent us from throwing screaming fits, coming to blows, or walking out in a huff. Those rules of behavior do not always work. But still, our desire to remain on speaking terms with the other person usually causes us to avoid direct insult or offense. We control ourselves. If we lose control, at least one of us sees things getting too intense, backs off, apologizes, or realizes the discussion is unproductive and changes the subject.
Of course, all this is true of our family, friends, ecclesial brothers and sisters, coworkers, and neighbors, but it also relates to others we come into contact with—even the cashier at the store checkout. Our relationships are more important than insisting on our views.
I think this is also how God views us. Our relationship with God is more important to God than our having the correct facts. The sacrifice we remember is about reconciliation. “God was, by means of Christ, reconciling us to Himself.” (2 Cor. 5:19).1
Our relationship with God is so important to Him that He went far out of His way to maintain it. God has been gracious and forgiving. He still loves us and wants us to “get along” with Him. To God, our relationship is more important than being right or just. So, through the sacrifice of His Son, He shows love, mercy and forgiveness.
But why would we even try to talk about controversial subjects? Is it ever useful? Can’t we just ignore those matters? In many cases, ignoring such things is the best way to deal with them. If we can’t agree, we should just let it go.
But what if an issue seems very important to others? It may not appear significant to us, but it may seem very important, even essential, to someone else. Such controversial issues can be sources of ecclesial division. They have sometimes become tests of fellowship, points that define and separate us from those who disagree. Occasionally, despite our efforts to ignore such matters, we are forced to deal with them. Sometimes, ignoring them permits them to fester into major conflicts. We learn, grow, and allow ourselves to be transformed when we confront difficult issues and challenge our assumptions and presuppositions without complacency.
The Lord’s sacrifice calls on us to transform, to change.
When we seek to convert outsiders to our beliefs, we challenge them to confront the controversial issues that define our faith. How can we ask our friends and neighbors to deal with different viewpoints if we are unwilling to do the same? To avoid controversy is to avoid Jesus; we know this when we try to speak to outsiders about him.
The Lord’s sacrifice calls on us to transform, to change. To confront what that transformation consists of and requires of us is challenging. If we avoid the tough questions Christ’s sacrifice asks of us, we are refusing to learn or grow, to remain complacent in our present imperfect knowledge. There is a saying, “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.” To avoid controversy is to avoid thinking.
Could any of us ever believe that we have The Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but The Truth? I don’t think there are any examples in Scripture of such blessed people endowed with perfect Truth. There are many examples of proud people who mistakenly seemed to have thought in this manner. This is the God-like knowledge Eve aspired to. Even the Son of God is described as learning and growing. In Hebrews 5:8, we are told, “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered.” This takes us directly back to the cross, through his suffering, where his humility is contrasted with Eve’s grasping at the knowledge reserved for God alone. Dealing Scripturally with controversy must begin and end with that example of humility.
A Scriptural approach to dealing with controversy must begin and end with genuine humility of spirit that regards others as our better, does not malign or slander their motives, and considers at least the possibility that we ourselves may be wrong or at least “imperfectly right.”
The Berean Example
For the most part, Christadelphians do not deal with controversy either well or poorly. Often, we simply do not deal with it at all. We avoid it. Certainly, Sunday morning meeting is not the place for it. Most Bible Schools, gatherings, or conferences have a very explicit policy against discussing controversial issues.
Where is the right place to consider controversy?
Our weekly Bible class, where there are young people and hopefully visitors, is not the place for these sorts of discussions. It seems only the Internet is out in the open. But there, the written public argument can be angry and bitter. Debate is worse than useless, it is counterproductive. Rather than cause anyone to reconsider their thinking, such arguing simply hardens all sides in their preconceived opinions. Where is the right place to consider controversy? I don’t know. But ignoring controversy is ignoring important ideas we need to think and talk about.
In Acts 17, Paul and Silas came to Thessalonica, where they went to the synagogue and preached the gospel of Christ. But the Jews in Thessalonica became jealous, apparently because of the response of God-fearing Greeks to the gospel message. The Jews then stirred up a mob of “worthless fellows” idling in the marketplace into a riot, which caused Paul and Silas to leave the city and go to Berea. In Berea, they found the local Jews to be more willing to listen to their message.
These Jews were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they eagerly received the message, examining the scriptures carefully every day to see if these things were so. Therefore many of them believed, along with quite a few prominent Greek women and men. But when the Jews from Thessalonica heard that Paul had also proclaimed the word of God in Berea, they came there too, inciting and disturbing the crowds. (Acts 17:11-13 NET).
The Berean Jews were “open-minded.” They “eagerly received the message.” In other words, they listened before judging. I do not want to minimize their daily examination of the Scriptures to verify the message. That is vital. We do need to test a controversial issue against Scripture to corroborate what is the truth. But first, we have to listen with open minds. If we allow mobs of outside agitators to stop us from even hearing it in the first place, we have nothing to compare against and test by Scripture. Worse yet is if we, like the Jews in Thessalonica, employ those howling mobs to dissuade others from even hearing the controversy.
Sadly, the agitators from Thessalonica went to Berea also, inciting mob riots there too. That is the very thing we ought not to do. It’s improper for us to spread our troubles abroad to drum up support for our position. A Scriptural response to controversy is to calmly and thoughtfully compare it to Biblical text and to allow others to do the same.
Listen to New Things?
Next, Paul traveled to Athens, where he gave his address on Mars’ hill. We read in Acts 17:21, 32-34:
All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there used to spend their time in nothing else than telling or listening to something new. Now when they heard about the resurrection from the dead, some began to scoff, but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul left the Areopagus. But some people joined him and believed.
We must, however, caution against going to the extreme of simply wanting to hear new things. At some point, we do have to make up our minds. The purpose of listening to controversial matters is not to remain undecided. It is to learn. Learning requires evaluating and then accepting or rejecting. We do need to test and prove our assumptions and make sure our conclusions are well founded. But we must reach a decision and then act on that conclusion. Belief, when put into action, is called faith. We do need to come to a decision we can put faith in.
Finding a Way to Get Along
In Acts 15, we have the prime example of the apostles dealing with the most controversial subject of the first century. The council at Jerusalem assembled to discuss the question of whether the Old Testament Law still applied. Were circumcision and the ritual law still in force? There was disagreement among many. Could the bitterly opposed Jewish and Gentile believers find a way to get along?
Yes, they did! And the agreement they reached is an example of an accommodation. In the council, James referred to the prophets Isaiah and Amos to prove from Scripture that God also called the Gentiles His own. The letter the council sent was a compromise position. It placed only four “necessary rules” on Gentile believers: “Abstain from meat that has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what has been strangled and from sexual immorality.” (Acts 15:29).
The council accommodated to find consensus. In other words, we don’t always have to insist that the right principles be acknowledged. Sometimes, we can find ways to get along that might not feel fully correct to either or all sides. Sometimes, principles can be sacrificed for unity. We can find ways to tolerate the practices of brethren, even when we disagree.
The four gospels, Romans, Galatians, Corinthians, and many other epistles, condemn legalism, the making and enforcing of laws. They tell us not to judge each other but to judge ourselves. Much of that message concerns how far we fall short of God’s standards. To that end, they all cite God’s standards. We read about God’s standards, and then, as if to prove how pious we are, we begin making lists of rules and laws and then try to codify them into ecclesial laws. If we must make up rules, let’s make them for ourselves, not for others.
Love is the highest truth. Mercy, forgiveness and grace are higher than justice (Jas 2:13). Unity is more important than our personal insistence on being right. In 2 Timothy 4:2-5, we read:
Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.
This passage is difficult to apply objectively. All parties in controversy may accuse the others of only listening to those who tell them what they want to hear. The internet and cable news enhance this, so we can easily select only those sources of information that will agree with our preconceived opinions. This reality is a danger to us all.
As the NET Bible translates verse 3, “Instead, following their own desires, they will accumulate teachers for themselves, because they have an insatiable curiosity to hear new things.”
This NET version makes it sound more like those in Athens just wanted to hear new things. I’m no Greek scholar, and I have no idea which translation is closer to what Paul may have intended, but whether “what they want to hear” or “new things” is more accurate, the danger seems to be in self-selecting our own teachers and in not doing our own due diligence to check what we are told against Scripture.
Do we rely on what some teachers may tell us rather than testing it for ourselves? If we rely too much on a teacher and not enough on Scripture itself, we risk falling into errors of many kinds. We could encounter that trap if we rely on one self-selected set of teachers. The solution is to challenge yourself. Listen to the other side of a controversy. Really listen. Consider it with humility. And, of course, compare all that you hear with Scripture.
Don’t be afraid to engage in dialogue and challenge others—even if uncomfortable—and don’t be afraid to lose an argument. You can learn more by losing than by winning. Every discussion you lose, you can learn something. You discover nothing by winning. If you get too comfortable with your opinions, you won’t know to change even the wrong ones. If you can’t stand being told you are wrong, you are doomed to live with your errors. We must accept that we just “might” be wrong or are unaware of something. Unity cannot be achieved by conformity but by embracing diversity.
Lessons from Job
The whole Book of Job is an example of dealing with controversy, debate, disagreement, and even a crisis of faith. Job’s friends traveled great distances to sit with him. For seven days and nights, they just sat with Job. No one said a word for seven days. Finally, Job spoke. He gave an entirely understandable lament, cursing the day he was born. And his friends listened. After that, they talked, talked, and talked. How long the talking went on, I don’t know, but a long time. Opinions were all over the place. They disagreed pretty strongly. Job’s friends may not have been beneficial in their responses, but at least they kept trying. They kept talking. Their fundamental disagreement did not take away their bond of fellowship.
Finally, after 35 chapters of talk, God speaks from the whirlwind, having listened to all that discourse. God replies: “Who is this who darkens counsel with words without knowledge?” (Job 38:2 NET). God dismisses them all as words without knowledge. Yet, the lack of comprehension by men does not turn God away from His love and care for us. God’s fellowship with men does not depend on our having the correct answers. God is more interested to know that we are seeking the answers.
The Reconciliation Process
In addressing anger and division, we often refer to Matthew 18. The process of Matthew 18:15-17 is really excellent. The whole chapter is about reconciliation, about how to recover our brother. It is NOT about how to disfellowship. It is NOT about what a Human Resources Department would call “progressive discipline” on the way to dismissal. Matthew 18 throughout makes the point about the goal of reconciliation or staying in unity.
The parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15) is about regaining that which was lost. Reconciliation. “Wherever two or three come together” (Matthew 18:20) is about unity or reconciliation, not small ecclesias. How many times shall I forgive? (vv. 21-22) is about reconciling. The parable of the large forgiven debt compared to the small debts of our fellows (vs. 23-35) reminds us of the example of Job. How much of our ignorance God tolerates, contrasted with the tiny offenses we object to in the ecclesia! The “process” in verses 15-17 is about “regaining” a brother and staying in unity.
We have looked at just a few examples of Scriptural approaches to controversy. Scripture calls on us to deal with disagreement with maturity without allowing it to divide us. We are encouraged to learn and grow from it, to be humble in the knowledge of our own ignorance and fallibility. We are asked to be open-minded, and listening before we evaluate. To act on our convictions, but to be willing to accommodate and show tolerance of others. We are called to judge ourselves rather than others. We are to trust Scripture rather than teachers. We are always to seek to stay in unity.
Portage Ecclesia, IN