Controversy In The Church

Ray Ferris
Racine, Wisconsin

At present there is a very dangerous attitude present among many of the Lord's people. That attitude is one that rejects the need for controversy and denies that good is accomplished thereby. Thus it is not at all uncommon to hear brethren speak out against controversy. The word controversy means, according to Webster: "A discussion of a controverted matter or controversial issue; dispute; debate; sometimes, quarrel ; strife." As we use the term we are not thinking of quarreling, which usually indicates anger and eventual strained relations between the disputants. Neither do we mean strife for the sake of unrest and turmoil, nor with personalities and character assassination involved. Rather we refer to the thoughtful and dignified discussion of issues where men differ in their thinking; the disputing and debating of points wherein people do not for the present agree.

This attitude we have noted may take one or more of several different forms, depending upon the problems and the people involved. There are some who do not even wish to see any kind of a public discussion in which there is likely to be differences of thinking expressed. The logical end of this attitude has even led to the point that the preaching must be of such a "soft" nature that none can take issue with what is said, nor be "offended" in any way.

Another form of this attitude is manifested when some use an expression like this: "We should not air our dirty linen before those who are not members of the body of Christ." This is just a cute way to say we ought not to teach regarding problems we have within the church if there is any possibility that an "outsider" may hear the lesson, or discover that such problems are present. Some who think like this are willing for one to preach against, or in favor of, those things wherein brethren differ, but think it is a mistake to put this information in a written form or to engage in a public discussion.

Still another manifestation of the idea that we must not have controversy is to be seen when some insist that discussion of certain problems must never take place where the church is weak numerically or spiritually, or as it is sometimes expressed, in the "mission field."

Controversy and History

All who have any concept whatsoever of the truth of God's word are fully aware of the fact that those who uphold it will be surrounded by controversies. Even the most cursory glance at past history will emphasize this point. Jesus was the great teacher of all time and His work was filled with controversy. Everywhere He went He found those who opposed Him as He taught truth. Over and over again the religious sects of His day challenged His authority and His teaching. There were many deliberate attempts to trap our Lord into some sort of statement that might be used against Him - but always to no avail. Through open discussion and debate He overcame every challenge and question. There has never been as controversial a figure in history.

The briefest glance at the life and work of Paul will give quick evidence of the controversy which surrounded his activities. He stood ready at all times to present and defend the truth of the gospel. As we look at the brief picture given of the work of the other apostles we find the same story - their labors for the Lord were performed in the midst of controversy. Read such passages as Matthew, chapter twenty-three; Acts, chapters two, three, and thirteen; and many others to see the firm and forceful way Jesus and His apostles presented their messages when it was needful.

After the apostasy of the church had taken its full course, and there arose efforts on the part of some men to try to reform this apostate church, once again we see evidence of the controversy surrounding their work. Read only briefly in the accounts of the lives of such men as Luther, the Zwinglis, Calvin, the Wesleys, etc. and it cannot be missed. Then when the great movement began to restore Christianity to its place in the New Testament order of things there were many and varied controversies. One of the greatest means of propogating truth during this era was the oral and written discussion or debate. This period of church history is literally filled with the names of men who wielded the sword of the Spirit in mighty battles, and therewith put to flight every foe. These lessons from history, both Bible history and church history, ought to show us the value of controversy and the necessity of it at times.

Preaching Truth Causes Controversy

Jesus made it clear that His message was not one that was conducive to complete serenity and peace on every hand. Notice these words: "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household." Matt. 10-34-36. There will always be those who will accept the gospel while still others will reject it. In these words the apostle Paul instructs Timothy of the need to do battle for the truth: "Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. But watch thou in all things, endure

afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry." 2 Tim. 4:2-5. In the same epistle, chapter 3, verse 12, he tells this young preacher, "Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution." Jude says, "it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints." Verse 3. Any faithful Christian will find himself beset by those who differ with him in his convictions. They will be found in the world and in the church. He is responsible unto God and his fellowman to teach others that which he is convinced is truth. Thus, it is inevitable that he be a controversialist to please the Lord.

Controversy and Learning

Reader, have you paused to consider how closely controversy is related to the whole learning process? When a small child begins to develop to the point where he can exercise his own will, controversy becomes an inseparable part of his existence. Even in the most modern" home with a mother and father who use the most liberal and lenient form of child psychology" there will be some controversy between the child and the parents. If there are children in the home there will be a lot of controversy among the children. There will be controversy between the child and his playmates. When the child enters school he may think two and two make five. When the teacher corrects this thinking (and I trust the teacher always will) it is controversy - the discussion of a matter upon which the two do not agree.

When the school system tries to teach my children the theory of evolution it is possible that they may accept it. (It is quite probable that they will unless they have some help in their early days in seeing the truth.) If they accept it there will be controversy when I attempt to show them the truth. If they do not accept it - and I pray they will not there will be controversy when the teacher attempts to teach it. Much of what we learn in this life is the result of, or at least is high1y influenced by controversy. It is an inseparable part of our existence.


We thus conclude that it is perfectly natural and normal; scriptural and profitable to see controversy in the church. Let us remind you that we speak not of bitterness, anger, and efforts to discredit individuals; but rather of intelligent and sensible discussions of controverted issues. By such a presentation of both sides of an issue we can measure it by God's truth, Next we shall discuss and measure the specific attitudes we have noted in the church regarding controversy in the church.

Truth Magazine III:3, pp. 20-21
December 1958