Jesus, a Controversialist

Clinton Hamilton
Tampa, Florida

Anyone with a clear concept of truth and his responsibility to it will be a controversialist. Jesus was repeatedly in controversy with the Pharisees, Sadducees and others of His day. The ways in which he met error need special study if we would be like the Master. It is not possible in the scope of this study to give attention to all his methods but a study of some of them will suffice for the present.

Appeal to Scripture

Because of His teaching concerning the resurrection, the Sadducees thought they had Jesus in a dilemma. Here is a woman, who according to the Law rightfully had been married to seven different brothers. Now if there is a resurrection, whose wife will she be in the resurrection? The effect of this inquiry was to deny the resurrection. Jesus knew this and replied: "Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as angels in heaven. But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead but the living" (Matt. 22:29-32). Mark's account in part says, "Is it not for this cause that ye err, that ye know not the scriptures, nor the power of God?" (12:24). The question of the resurrection was settled by appeal to Scripture. In this case, Exodus 3:6.

The present building for man's spirit is earthly (2 Cor. 5:1-4) but Jesus says when the earthly tabernacle is put off, the spirit still lives. For Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were alive when God spoke to Moses though their earthly existence had been over for years. Thus there is something to put on the new building after the likeness of Christ's glorified body (Phil. 3:21; 2 Cor. 5:1-4; 1 Cor. 15:40-57; 1 Jno. 3:1-3). The fact that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were living after their physical death was taught by the present tense of the verb in Exodus 3:16. This shows the basis for the resurrection through the power of God. The question was settled by Scripture and the power of God.

An appeal to Scripture was made to settle the question of whether Jesus and His disciples had violated the sabbath by plucking ears of grain on the sabbath (Mark 2: 23-28). The implication was too plain for them to miss. David, when necessity so demanded, ate what otherwise he could not (1 Sam. 21:6). Christ put the sabbath in proper perspective. It was made for man and not man for the sabbath. Consequently, Christ, perfect man, is lord even of the sabbath. The question was resolved by the proper application of Scripture to the point at issue.

An appeal to Scripture that covers the issue of dispute should settle the controversy in the minds of honest and good people. But when men will not accept the truth, they oppose it and those who so teach. They could not answer Jesus but they fought Him. This is no disgrace to the one who bears the truth. We should not be discouraged nor fainthearted when we are in the manner rebuffed.

Appeal to Admitted Truth or Common Custom

The calumny of the Pharisees was powerfully overthrown when Jesus appealed to something which they admitted as true. They accused Him of casting out Beelzebub (M att. 12:24). He responded by calling attention to the exorcists among themselves who claimed to have the power to cast out demons. "And if I by Beelzebub cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out? therefore shall they be your judges" (Matt. 12:27). That which they admitted as truth condemned them if looked at from the point of its logical consequence. This is a most effective and powerful means by which to overthrow the argument of an opponent.

Association with publicans and sinners constituted in the eyes of the Pharisees and their scribes gross misconduct. Accordingly, they rebuked the Lord, "Why do ye eat and drink with the publicans and sinners?" (Luke 5:30). Incisively, and decisively, Jesus answered, "They that are in health have no need of a physician; but they that are sick. I am not come to call the righteous but the sinners to repentance" (Luke 5: 31, 32). An admitted truth closed their mouths. They were stopped in this approach but they were not ready to quit the battle. They turned to another question (Luke 5: 33-39).

In an attempt to resolve an apparent conflict between their conduct and that of Christ's disciples, the disciples of John asked, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast oft, but thy disciples fast not?" (Matt. 9:14). Evidently the Pharisees and the scribes also joined in this question (Luke 5:33). Jesus explained that He was to be with them but a little while. Therefore His disciples were eating and drinking. They would fast when He was no longer with them. The truth was illustrated by a common custom; no person patches old garments with the new cloth and no person puts new wine in old skins. This appeal to admitted common custom settled the dispute of the issue at hand for the principles were the same.

Argument Ad Hominem

An infirmity which had plagued a woman for eighteen years was healed by Jesus on the sabbath. Upon this having taken place the ruler of the synagogue indignantly condemned the action in these words, "There are six days in which men ought to work: in them therefore come and be healed, and not on the day of the sabbath" (Luke 13:14). Then using what we call argument ad hominem, arguing toward the man, Jesus said "Ye hypocrites doth not each one of you on the sabbath loose his ox or his ass from the stall, and lead him away to watering? And ought not this woman being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan had bound, lo these eighteen years to have been loosed from this bond on the day of the sabbath?" Luke 13: 15, 16). This showed their inconsistency. As long as they held the rightfulness of their own conduct, they could not question the act of Jesus.

Argument ad hominem does not establish a proposition but it does show that one cannot hold to two positions both of which is contradictory to the other. He must give up one or the other positions or both. He cannot hold both consistently.

Jesus met error pointedly. He asked questions, argued, and most effectively brought down the arguments of the opposition. We should seek to imitate His conduct in meeting error and its proponents.

Tolerance and Intolerance

We must never forget that we seek God's and not man's favor (Gal. 1:10). If we want the favor of men, we should not seek to serve the Lord. A man may believe what he pleases but when one warns him of the evil consequences, of such beliefs he is not thereby intolerant. To demand by f orce of any kind other than the persuasion of truth that a man give up error is intolerant. Economic boycotts, ridicule, pressure of popularity, and other such means of force demonstrate intolerance. Jesus was tolerant and to that extent we also should be tolerant. However, He was a controversialist and brought to men a sense of their guilt. This is not intolerance. A clear concept of truth and one's responsibility to it make it necessary for one to denounce error and appeal to its exponent to surrender to the truth. But one should not confuse this with intolerance.


One who argues that a Christian should not debate is inconsistent for he is debating! Debate enables us to do much good, for truth and error in contrast causes truth to shine clearer. We should avoid weakness in both courage and conviction. Only the languid and unconcerned person can refrain from contesting error. Our greatest periods of growth have come during the time of debates. Let each Christian determine in his own heart to uphold the truth against error at all costs. We must hold up the hands of the brethren who publicly meet all error. Aggressive teaching will stir up opposition just as it did in the time of the apostles. Debating now will have the effect it did then; some believed, some did not.

A Christian must engage in controversy. The spirit he exercises must be one of meekness and fear. His must be an appeal to Scripture and legitimate reason, not to personalities, questioning of motives and similar attacks of any kind.

Truth Magazine I:2, pp. 6-7, 20
November 1956