The Spirit of Non-Controversy

Leslie Diestelkamp

Question: In this, the middle of the Twentieth Century, has the Lord's church out-grown controversy? Of course there are some who do engage in controversy. Some may do so only for the sake of controversy, and others may do so out of pure motives. Some may be fighting for self, and some may desire to stand in defense of truth. Many may engage in controversy with a kind and gentle spirit, while others may do so with a spirit of bitterness and malice.

However, the usual cry is "Peace, peace. " Sometimes this is a cry for "Peace at any price." It seems that some of the Lord's people would rather have peace than to have truth and right if these can only be had in and through controversy. Some seem to be ashamed of an argument about the Scripture and have become so completely overwhelmed by pacifism that they will allow a soul to be lost in ignorance rather than earnestly discuss the Bible with him and they will allow the church to be led into error rather than "contend earnestly for the faith" (Jude 3) with brethren.

This spirit of non-controversy manifests itself in several ways, some of which we shall mention.

Be Altogether Positive

A few deny that there is value in negative teaching. Many minimize the value of such. Perhaps a majority simply overemphasize the positive, and thus de-emphasize the negative. It is not my intention to suggest that our teaching should be of a negative nature most of the time. Rather, the essence of the gospel of Christ is a positive message, and the one who teaches truth will not fail to devote most of his time, energy and ability to the proclamation of the high and holy demands of the positive word. On the other hand, the preacher or teacher who avoids the negative, will fail to impress upon his hearers (or readers) the whole truth, and those who give heed to what he teaches will undoubtedly fail to harmonize their lives with the will of God, and will evidently receive a false conception of the gospel.

When the negative is minimized the following things, at least, will result: (1) The use of mechanical instruments of music in worship will become a matter of little concern, even to people who worship where such are not used. This is seen by those of us who live in large cities, who observe the action of Christians who come from faithful churches but who drift (and sometimes gladly plunge) into the Christian Church when they move. The church where the mechanical instrument is not opposed openly and frankly and often is due for a rude awakening as soon as many of its members leave the home community. (2) Dancing, petting, drinking intoxicants, etc. will characterize the lives of members of the church even if they are taught to "keep thyself pure" and to "keep oneself unspotted from the world." By being completely positive it is probably impossible to get youngsters to see any sin in dancing. If gospel preachers follow the lead of denominational preachers, and confine their lessons on moral matters to entirely positive messages, we can expect the Lord's people to condone dancing and petting because they do not oppose lasciviousness, and to overlook lasciviousness because they do not actually abhor fornication!

To be positive is fine and is in harmony with truth. To be altogether positive (or altogether negative either) is to be wrong and unscriptural. A proper balance in preaching and teaching (and in our attitude) will enable us to attain that which God expects and to avoid that which he condemns. Let us beware if our own attitude is one that causes us to be displeased with negative teaching. Even a casual reading of the New Testament will enable us to see that, though its message for us is primarily a positive one, much of its instruction for us is couched in negative language. Let us also be aware that a denial of the proper value of negative teaching is an almost certain indication of the influence of modernism in our religion.

Consider Only One Side

Another angle of the non-controversial idea is to refuse to hear, read or allow to be presented, both sides of a matter. For instance, often some brother expresses great admiration for a certain paper published by brethren, explaining that he likes it so much because it doesn't allow controversy upon its pages. The fact of the matter is that usually that paper may be almost filled with controversial material, but that it will only print one side of such controversy. It is not at all uncommon for a paper which is styled as noncontroversial, but which really is one-sided, to have perhaps five articles, three or four of which are highly controversial. Yet some brethren are made happy because there is no argument (they say) in it. But whoever gives a reason for his beliefs, presents an argument. However the tendency toward pacifism today, among Christians, causes many to insist that only one side of an argument be presented.

When we refuse to consider both sides of an argument, we are like the proverbial ostrich, and such a closed-mind policy will likely cause us, at times to be the blind one whom another blind one leads. The only safe course is to allow every issue to be tested in open discussion, either orally or printed; for the lesson that does not challenge the opponents of truth has missed its mark, and the one that cannot stand thorough investigation does not deserve serious consideration.

Brethren everywhere lament the action of denominational people who refuse to openly discuss issues, but at the same time such brethren will often refuse to give consideration to those issues that prevail among God's people. Furthermore, when brethren do have discussions with denominational people, they do so without malice, usually, and stoutly affirm their friendship for those with whom they differ. Yet, significantly, when brethren differ they usually manifest a spirit of ill-will that borders upon hate for one another.

It is my intention herein to beg for two things: (1) Open, frequent and candid discussion of those things that trouble brethren; (2) and a spirit of brotherly kindness, compassion and patience in such discussions, whether they be oral or written.

The Test of Controversy

The Holy Spirit says, "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good" (1 Thess. 5:21). But how can a thing actually be proved without controversy of some kind? The actual controversy may be one that only rages in our mind, when we place one argument against another, or it may be a friendly discussion between friends and/or brethren. On the other hand, a thing may sometimes best be proved true or untrue by public, oral discussion, or by written debate. At any rate that which we read or hear, and believe without a fair and accurate test, is only an assumption. And, to assume such to be truth is to risk our soul's destiny upon uncertainty. The only fair and safe course, in view of our never-dying soul and of the eternal reward or punishment, is to be sure that all that we believe and practice is adequately, advisedly and ambitiously tested in the crucible of controversy.

To refuse controversy is usually not a sign of humility but of weakness, and to decline controversy may be an indication of cowardice rather than meekness. The supposed sweet spirit of non-controversy breeds ignorance, prejudice and bigotry. By-products of this attitude will be compromise, sectarianism and apostasy.

There are those who count the baptisms reported today and boast of accomplishments in this new day when debate is unpopular and when an argument is discouraged. They say that we have arrived at the time when those things are not needed to get results. It is affirmed that the church is growing more and more than ever before in modern times, and all of this without the controversy of former days. However we should always keep in mind that experts in that field say that from 80 to 90 percent of the baptisms today come from the Bible study classes. This simply means that most "growth" today is from families already in the church, and that little progress, comparatively, is being made toward converting people of the denominational world. It can hardly be denied that fewer denominational people are being converted today than in the early days of the restoration. Why? Could not one reason be that there is less controversy with them? Furthermore, take note of successes in foreign field: Where have greatest successes been seen? Usually, and with perhaps a few exceptions like Nigeria, by far the greatest success is in the place where opposition has been great and therefore controversy has been a prominent part of the work. The work in Italy is a real example of this, for there, under the stress and strain of argument and discussion, hundreds have been baptized who have remained faithful, indicating real conviction which was usually produced in the face of strong opposition. On the other hand, if one wants to see an exhibit of weakness, it may usually be easily found in those places where baptisms have not been preceded by long, hard struggles with conscience, with conviction, and with truth.

Disagree Without Being Disagreeable

The non-controversial spirit which, in some places, is choking all the vitality, vim and vigor out of the Lord's church, may simply be the result of a mis-conception - supposition that those who differ must divide and that when we disagree we must be disagreeable. Some people forbid controversy because they say love forbids it. However, this is shallow thinking. In the first place, real love for a person demands that we get the truth to that person if at all possible, even if we do take the chance of losing his friendship. Furthermore, love for truth requires that we declare it firmly, fully and faithfully. To keep back part of the truth is to make the remaining part a lie. Likewise, that truth which is declared in a compromising spirit is a weakened, diluted and, at least to a great extent, an impotent truth.

If the church must grow without constant controversy, then it must cease to follow the greatest controversialist of all time, Jesus Christ. His every thought, word and deed brought him into open and severe conflict with Satan and Satan's servants. If the followers of Christ today find themselves in less conflict than he, perhaps it is because they do not possess the "spirit of Christ," which spirit will motivate lives and words everyone of which will be an open challenge to Satan and Satan's servants.

Let us then take "The sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God," and fight faithfully the good fight of faith, with fidelity.

(These words by brother Diestelkamp, whose positive contribution to the cause of Christ cannot be successfully denied, are just as relevant in 1992 as they were when they first appeared in Truth Magazine in November 1957.)

Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 16, pp. 496-497
August 20, 1992