Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Ethics of Controversy

This was origianlly posted on Justin Taylor's blog, Between Two Worlds, June 14, 2007.

Tom Wells on controversy: "It is the unhappy lot of any man who cares a fig for truth to be called on to engage in controversy. He may embrace it as a purse of gold or despise it as a putrefying sore, but he can no more escape it than he can escape the atmosphere or the common cold. In a fallen world, truth and controversy are bedfellows. . . . A man may spend valuable time bemoaning that fact, but what is needed is a way to come to terms with it as a godly man, a way to carry on controversy with a minimum amount of damage to his opponent and to the interested bystander and the maximum amount of good to the cause of God and truth." Wells's main points are that in controversy, we must do the following:
* show respect for the persons with whom you differ
* give your opponent accurate definitions of your key ideas
* when in doubt, put an orthodox construction on your opponent's words
* suspect a man's judgment before you suspect his sincerity
* be ready to believe that the truth is larger than you have understood it to be

It's an excellent article, filled with many good quotes, including this one from J. C. Ryle:
"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 ...Three things there are which men never ought to trifle with: a little poison, a little false doctrine, and a little sin."

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My response:

I find Wells's initial comment to be dead-on. Whenever one person takes a stand on an issue, it is inevitable that someone else must disagree. This phenomenon sometimes can lead to a lot of bad blood. Disagreement may be inevitable, as may be loss of communion, but a large measure of grace ought to be employed in any disagreement, especially over religion. Jesus told his disciples, "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." While we must recognize the context as belonging to the early and growing church, we may easily infer its meaning to our context today. I do not think we can heal all the rifts between denominations (some splits are right and necessary), but even where ecclesiastical communion is not possible, genuine love and respect can still be shown.

I am often amazed by how many vastly differing opinions there can be even within a relatively homogenous group. I have been tempted on several occasions to let my natural bombastic nature get the best of me, but it would have hurt rather than helped each situation. While the conversations were left without agreement having been reached, friendships were maintained and respect upheld. In these situations, another instruction quickly comes to mind, "Don't have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord's servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will."

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