Attitudes Toward Controversy in the Church

Ray Ferris
Racine, Wisconsin

In our last article we noted the prevalence of the attitude that would bar all controversv in the church. Remember, we are using the term controversy to indicate "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." We emphasize the fact that we are not advocating division in the Lord's body, nor the type of controversy that would cause division by its very nature. There is ample scriptural evidence to show how repugnant division is in the sight of the Lord. The surest way to bring about division is to ban all discussion of differences and thus hinder their resolution.

In the prior article we noted several forms of manifestation of the above mentioned attitude; the part controversy has alwavs played in religious history; that by the very nature of the gospel it will produce controversy when it is proclaimed; and finally, that controversy is very closely related to the whole learning process. The burden of this paper will be to discuss and measure some of the different manifestations of the so-called non-controversial spirit.

All Controversy Opposed

The first of these attitudes with which we shall deal is the one which abhors any presentation of material that emphasizes differences of thinking. It is impossible for me to even imagine a subject upon which one could preach the whole truth and not find many who would disagree with a part of it. This would be true of a sermon on God, Christ, the resurrection, the plan of salvation, heaven, hell, worship, morality, work of the Lord's people, and on to the last subject imaginable. It is undoubtedly unwise to deliberately magnify our differences with others if we wish to change them to our way of thinking. However, there is not even a remote possibility of changing a man's thinking to conform to mine if he never realizes there is a difference in our thinking, and of what that difference consists! Many, many of the things we learn as adults come as a result of a realization that things are not as they seemed to us in our first impressions. We learn that we were wrong. Let us, then, not magnify our differences, but let us explore and find all of the "common ground" possible in order that we may have something to serve as a foundation for our thinking when we do have differences.

However, let us also realize we must not compromise God's truth in order to gain "common ground." There is no more logic in compromising or "whitewashing" a little truth in order to have common ground with a brother in Christ than in doing so with a lot in order to stand with "the fool" that "hath said in his heart, There is no God!" The principle is the same. It is but a matter of degree or extent. Where would such comproinise have left Jesus when tempted by Satan? Where could He have drawn the line with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes? The truth cannot be preached in its entirety without sharp, hard, and straightforward NEGATIVE preaching which will pin-point differences and show where error exists.

Controversy Among Brethren

A second evidence of this "non-controversial" spirit is to be seen when men immediately rebel at the idea of a public discussion or a magazine article that attacks a doctrine or practice of brethren. This is supposedly for fear that those who are not Christians will be driven away because they learn of differences among brethren. Now a question or two is in order. Should Christians be deceitful? Can we pretend there are no problems or differences among members of the body of Christ and not be deceitful? Suppose we deceived all of our neighbors and friends into thinking all brethren were completely one in thought and action and thus "converted" them to our great unity. What would inevitably happen when they learned the real truth? Is our unity the thing which leads men to Christ? or is it the whole truth of the gospel?

Once again a word of caution is in order. It is inconceivable to think of real Christians deliberately advertising our difficulties to the world, but some who profess to be such may do so. I Cor. 6 is evidence of the Lord's desire that his people ought to settle their problems without unnecessary and useless pleas to those who are without. There is nothing to indicate that it was considered some terrible sin if people of the world happened upon the material of the writers of the New Testament wherein they instructed and corrected brethren. Nor was it true that all of the problems within a congregation were closelv guarded secrets. The very letters used to correct brethren are means of leading men to the Lamb of God, and some of the letters were circulated among different congregations. Messengers carried news of problems of other congregations. Notice Gal. 1:1-2; Col. 4:16, and I Cor. 1:11ff.

It is, then, true that we ought not to make a deliberate display of our problems and turmoils; to put our "dirty linen" out for the public to see as their primary impression of us. However, covering up and hiding the "dirty linen" in some secretive way can on1y lead to a bigger "stink" eventually! Even at the risk of someone discovering that we have it we must do what is necessary to clean it up. Nearly all of the last 25 books of the New Testament discuss problems within the church and instruction for their solutions. These books also provide much to help lead a sinner to Christ, and were doubtless used to do so then as now.

Opposition To Debate And Writing

We noted that some who were perfectly willing for a preacher to teach from the pulpit against any sin prevalent in the church were yet opposed to discussions among brethren and to the placing of said teaching in written form. A debate between brethren, if properly conducted, is no more than two sernions presenting the opposing thoughts on a controversial subject. It is true that many such debates are not conducted on the proper plane and become no more than low-caliber attacks on personalities, name calling, etc. It is a shame and a disgrace for any man who pretends to be a proclaimer of the gospel to stoop to such tactics. However, just as we do not rule out preaching because some sermons are of poor quality and are poorly delivered, neither should we rule out debate because it is sometimes abused, misused, and poorly done. "Outsiders" may very well have access to either or both at times.

The placing of material in written form is just another means of teaching. It is a way of delivering a lesson to many that we might not otherwise reach. It may even be a means of teaching thousands not yet born into the world. Consider the vast good done by the writings of such men as Campbell, Lipscomb, McGarvey, Lard, etc. Now if it be argued that man will accept is authority what others place in written form and thus all such writing must not be, let me remind you that this same reasoning would demand that all preaching cease. People by the hundreds and thousands are quoting the sermons of men as their standard of authority. Just as this does not rule out preaching, neither does it rule out letters, tracts, books, magazines, etc.

Controversy Where The Church Is Weak

Finally, we notice the prevalent idea that certain problems never be mentioned where the church is weak numerically or spiritually. Without trying to judge the motives of those who make such an argument we make this observation: There are many problems that such people are perfect1y willing to have discussed and strong teaching done concerning what God says on the subject. It is usually only certain problems that are taboo. If a gospel preacher allows himself to be silenced by this course he may very well find himself preaching those so-called love sermons mentioned before that would fit in any denominational pulpit. There will ever be enough different people with their different theories present in the church, or at least nominally so, to question almost every aspect of God's truth. For example, in my own work in this section of our country-known by most people in the church as a mission field-all of the following problems have been encountered: denying the necessity of obedience to all of God's plan for salvation from past sins; premillennialism; instrumental music in worship; man-made schemes for raising money; women leading prayers, etc. in the public worship; social and recreational subsidy by the church treasury; church supported youth camps for recreation and pleasure along with spiritual instruction; desire to contribute to colleges, orphan homes, etc. from the treasury, thus having the church working through a man-made institution; unauthorized alliances and arrangements among congregations with one church directing part of the labors of many others; laxity toward moral problems such as drinking, adultery, nudity, dancing, etc.; and the list could go on and on. Now which of these problems is to be faced squarely with God's truth, and which to be ignored as though they did not exist? Which of these theories advocated by brethren will we teach against, and which shall we cover up? Who will make the decision on such a matter? Brethren, the decision was made for us long ago. We must "contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints," and fight to the last breath any innovation of man whether it arises from within or without.

What do you suppose Paul's answer would have been had some in the church in Corinth appealed to him to remind him that Corinth was a mission field and he must not teach against anything that was controversial? Do you suppose that Jesus did not realize as He taught against the traditions of Judaism in His day that such controversy was not "Christlike" and might drive some from the truth? Note again Matt. 23 to behold His righteous indignation against the scribes and Pharisees and note that verse one says He spake "to the multitude and to his disciples."

When the question of discussing these "certain" problems arises in areas where the church is weak we are told that it must not be done until "we" have reached a decision on the matter. In other words, the congregation must not have any help in guiding their study until "we" have made a decision. Then, of course, when "we" have made a decision "we" will expect nothing to be taught except that which "we" decide is right. Brethren, the time for teaching and study is before a decision is reached if at all possible. Otherwise it may be too late.

It is generallly considered fine for an individual to preach, teach, and advocate all he desires in favor of that which a congregation is practicing, or wishes to practice, however, if an individual dares to question such practice that must not be studied in a place where the church is weak! This simply amounts to peace at the price of a sacrifice of conviction on the part of some, for in many of these "certain problems it is generally agreed that even though the legality of the matter in question could be established the thing causing the controversy would still not be a matter of necessity but of expediency, or opinion.

A Prevalent Difficulty

Recently in a discussion among a group of brethren involving the question of whether the scriptures authorized the church to act in a particular capacity a significant statement was made. One brother said we must be careful not to "go off half-cocked on the matter." His thought seemed to be that we should not stop what many are practicing until we have studied further. This is a prevailing difficulty-to stop what we have begun when it is questioned. What we ought to realize is that we have already "gone off half-cocked" if we are practicing that which has been assumed to be acceptable. We should never begin practicing a thing until we have found it to be authorized by command, statement of fact, example or NECESSARY inference. Likewise, we should ever be ready to examine again that which we have started to practice and measure it by the Word. If there is reaeson to doubt that it is authorized we must discontinue such practice until a clear authorization is found, "for whatsoever is not of faith is sin." Rom. 14.23.

In conclusion, let us remember the words of James, "But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable . . ." James 3:17. (Emphasis mine, REF.)

Truth Magazine III:4, pp. 10-11, 23
Jannuary 1959