Controversy, Debate, and the Progress of Truth

By Ron Halbrook

False teachers are “enemies of the cross of Christ” because their error has the effect of undoing what Christ sought to accomplish by dying on the cross: save the souls of sinners.

Controversy and Debate Truth and Error Battle for the Souls of Men

Since the time when Satan first introduced deception, error, and sin into the world, every step gained by the teaching of truth has been ac- companied by controversy. Religious historians point out the gospel originally spread because of its emphasis on one true religion or one right way in religion, a proposition which has been the occasion of unending controversy (John 14:6; Acts 4:12; Eph. 4:4-6). The Apostles of Christ and the early evangelists preached that Christ demanded unconditional surrender to him and to his word. Notice the emphasis of the Great Commission on converting “all the world” and “every creature” to the same “gospel”:

And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned (Mark 16:15-16).

Where issues of truth and error, right and wrong, were involved, the teaching of Christ allowed no com- promise or accommodation. Those who changed and perverted the message of Christ were considered “the enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:18). Thus, the original spread of the gospel was associated with much controversy and debate, both with alien religious bodies and with false teachers in the church. This is why the religion of Jesus Christ survived and outlived every other religion of the first century. The more other religions tried to attract people by accommodating and embracing different concepts and practices, the more those religions lost their distinctiveness and became impotent.

Rather than accommodating false religions, the early Apostles and preachers “confounded” their representative teachers by proving the truth of the gospel, which had the effect of converting the sincere lost and enraging their former leaders (Acts 9:20-25). Paul said to a man who withstood the truth and sought to turn people away from it, “O full of all subtilty and all mischief, thou child of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord?” Paul struck this false prophet blind rather than apologizing to him for refuting and condemning his error (Acts 13:6-12). Because of the dangers to the souls of men posed by the doctrines of false teachers, Paul warned, “Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, be- ware of the concision,” and he called these teachers “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:2, 18). Palestinian dogs were not generally domesticate like ours but were dangerous and destructive, like false doctrine. The work of spreading false teaching is an evil work and those who do it are evil workers. “The concision” is a play on words using forceful satire, sarcasm, and ridicule based on the fact that the words for circumcision and mutilation are much alike in Greek, only the prefix to these compound words differing. False teachers are “enemies of the cross of Christ” because their error has the effect of undoing what Christ sought to accomplish by dying on the cross: save the souls of sinners. To compromise the truth would have been to desecrate the gospel sealed with Christ’s blood and to jeopardize the souls of men which could be saved only by the truth.

The impetus of the gospel and of the church began to wane when a spirit of compromise and accommodation spread in later centuries. This gave rise to the development of Catholicism, which often “converted” people by embracing elements of their false religions as a means of attraction.

Controversy and Debate During the Protestant Reformation

After the corruption and darkness of Roman Catholicism held sway for several centuries, the Protestant Reformation occurred in the 1400s-1500s. This was an era of widespread debate and controversy. The discussions which occurred were wide ranging in subject matter, and generally very heated, very pointed, and very vigorous in every way. The result was a new era of Bible study which led untold thousands of people out of the Catholic Church and set them searching for the truth of the gospel.

Luther’s Ninety-five Theses for debate nailed to the Castle Church door at Wittenberg October 31, 1517 were not limited in language to mere academic statements of differences. Several of them cut with the force of a two-edged sword by using language similar to the satire and irony used by great Bible characters in debate at times. For instance,

11. Those tares about changing the canonical penalties into the penal- ties of purgatory surely seem to have been sown while the bishops were asleep.

27. They preach human doctrine who say that the soul flies out of purgatory as soon as the money thrown into the chest rattles.

28. It is certain that when the money rattles in the chest, avarice and gain may be increased, but the suffrage of the Church depends on the will of God alone.

32. Those who believe that through letters of pardon they are made sure of their own salvation will be eternally damned along with their teachers.

87. Again: Why does not the Pope, whose riches are at this day more ample than those of the wealthiest of the wealthy, build the one Basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with that of poor believers?

E.G. Schwiebert of the Department of History at Northwestern University noted that the Ninety-five Theses caused fear, resentment, and alarm among Romanists:

This criticism of the power of indulgences and the demotion of the Pope struck a powerful blow at the very foundations of papal power. A contemporary woodcut pictured Luther standing before the door of the Castle Church writing the Theses with a pen so long that its other end knocked off the Pope’s triple crown. This drawing well il- lustrated why Rome and its cohorts became extremely alarmed over the reception of the Ninety-five Theses (Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, intro. by E.G. Schwiebert [St. Louis, Mo.: Concordia Publ. House], 15).

Such forceful expressions and illustrations might be pronounced “insensitive,” “ungracious,” and “unkind” by some, but they are no stronger than the language of many Bible passages. Twelve years after the Ninety-five Theses were posted, an important debate occurred within the Reformation camp. Martin Luther with Philip Melanchthon met Ulrich Zwingli with John Oecolampadius for a face to face debate as the result of an ongoing controversy through their pamphlets. The main issue was Luther’s view that Jesus is mystically present in the elements of the Lord’s Supper. This 1529 meeting is called the Marburg Colloquy and the speeches were recorded in the notes of people who were present. The debate was primarily over whether the words, “This is my body,” are literal or figurative in meaning. Zwingli charged Luther with exaggerating the figure to make it literal. Luther answered, “You stray from the point, admonishing me for my rhetoric and refusing to tolerate my ‘exaggerations.’. . . . I call upon you as before: your basic contentions are shaky. Give way, and give glory to God!”

Zwingli responded, “And we call upon you to give glory to God and to quit begging the question! The issue at stake is this: Where is the proof of your position? . . . You’ll have to sing another tune!” Luther fired back in the following ways: “You’re being ob- noxious!” “You’re trying to dominate things! You insist on passing judgment!” “You express yourself poorly and make about as much progress as a cane standing in a corner. You’re going nowhere.” Zwingli responded, “No, no, no! This is the passage [John 6] that will break your neck!” (Donald J. Ziegler, ed., Great Debates of the Reformation [New York: Random House, 1969], 84-86)

Such debates were the lifeblood of the Protestant Reformation, which had the effect of returning the Bible to the common man and making it possible for the boy who follows the plow to know more of God’s Word than does the Pope, just as William Tyndale hoped. North America was settled and populated primarily by the heirs of this great religious revival and reformation, bringing with them the militant spirit of open debate and controversy.

Controversy and Debate In Restoring New Testament Christianity

This spirit of constantly submitting all things in religion to the test of revealed truth in Scripture caused many people in this country during the 1800s-1900s to forsake all denominational names, doctrines, and practices and to plead for a return to the New Testament pattern of faith and practice in all things. This return to the original teaching of Jesus and his Apostles is sometimes called the restoration movement. Every step was taken and tested in the crucible of controversy in keeping with such passages as 1 Peter 4:11 (“If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God”) and 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 (“Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. Abstain from all appearance of evil”).

Regaining and retaining the New Testament ground has involved a state of constant warfare. It is possible to return to the original teaching of Christ and his Apostles because God preserved his Word as the basis of true Christianity. When Jesus taught the parable of the sower, he explained, “The seed is the word of God” (Luke 8:11). If we believe, teach, and practice what Jesus commanded in the first century through his Apostles, we will be nothing more or less than “Christians” — sharing “the like precious faith” and “the common salvation” of the first Christians (2 Pet. 1:1; Jude 3). The gospel seed originally made Christians only — not Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Pentecostals, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Grace Evangelicals. The same gospel seed will make the same thing today, Christians only. The denominations resist this simple truth, and so there is warfare for the souls of men.

After Jesus ascended to heaven, he sent the Holy Spirit to guide the Apostles in the revelation and proclamation of “all truth” (John 16:13). The book of Acts shows that by this divine guidance, they preached the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as providing the basis of our salvation and of all that we are to do in submission to God. Matthew through John was written to prove, secure, and confirm that teaching as the foundation of all New Testament truth. 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 summarizes that same message. The book of Acts also shows that sinners were taught to accept and obey the gospel on the terms and conditions of the gospel: Men must put their faith in Christ, a true faith leading them to repent of their sins, to confess Christ openly, and to be immersed in water (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; Rom. 10:10).

Often only one of these conditions is mentioned to stand for all of them by a common function of language where a part stands for the whole. Faith is often mentioned in this way since it is the basis for the other conditions, but each of them is mentioned in this way without all the others at times (John 3:16; Acts 11:18; Rom. 10:10; 1 Pet. 3:21).

When penitent believers are immersed by the authority of Christ, it may then be said of them, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). The conditions of pardon are not works of merit in any sense, but are merely terms appointed by God for men who wish to throw themselves on the mercy of God. All the merit necessary for salvation belongs to the Lord who provided it by his own love, grace, and mercy, but no merit belongs to man when he meets these conditions. These conditions merely serve the purpose of God offering salvation to men without forcing it upon them. Men must choose to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation by grace. “But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Esaias saith, Lord, who hath believed our report?” (Rom. 10:16). Whether we choose to believe and obey or not, there is no merit in ourselves as a basis for salvation. If our working could merit salvation, the reward would be “not reckoned of grace, but of debt” (Rom. 4:1-8).

As Roman Catholicism corrupted everything in the gospel of Christ, it corrupted the doctrine of salvation by faith through grace by developing the doctrine of man’s meritorious works. In reacting to this hurtful extreme, the Protestant Reformation went to an equally hurtful extreme by developing the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. In spite of some differences in the application of this faulty premise, virtually all of the Protestant denominations are united on it as a basic premise. On this premise, people are said to be saved and somehow united in Christ in spite of all sorts of differences in name, doctrine, and practice. Not only do these denominations tolerate the widest possible range of differences between themselves, they tolerate all sorts of differences and departures from the New Testa- ment pattern of teaching. In spite of paying lip service to the New Testament as a standard of truth, the very spirit and essence of denominationalism with its emphasis on salvation by faith alone breeds disrespect and indifference toward the New Testament. Though not intentional, that is an inevitable consequence of the doctrine. The restoration of New Testament Christianity requires uprooting both the Roman Catholic doctrine of man’s meritorious works and the Protestant Reformation doctrine of faith only, which means plenty of controversy!

The Apostles taught not only the basis of salvation in Christ along with the conditions for receiving salvation, but also “all things” commanded by Christ (Matt. 28:19-20). After being baptized into Christ, the early Christians were taught to work and worship together in local churches. Immediately after obeying the gospel, the first Christians “continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellow- ship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). Under the direction of apostolic teaching, they met every “first day of the week” to eat the Lord’s supper as a memorial to his death and to give of their financial prosperity for the work of the local church (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1-2). They were taught not to forsake these gatherings where they also sang, prayed, and taught God’s Word (Heb. 10:25; Col. 3:16-17). New Testament worship has been restored only after much controversy and debate.

Each local church was organized under the oversight of mature men called pastors (shepherds), bishops (over- seers), or presbyters (elders), but without any concept of a clergy-laity distinction or an elevated priesthood (Acts 14:23; 20:17, 28; Tit. 1:5). Evangelists or preachers were simply public proclaimers of the gospel, without titles or institutional portfolio of any kind (2 Tim. 4:1-5). There was no hierarchy or higher level of organization beyond the local church, but each church was autonomous or independent, sharing no inter-congregational ties except the common faith and practice resulting from a common devotion to Christ as head (Eph. 1:22-23). When Paul said, “The churches of Christ salute you,” he referred to these independent New Testament churches, not to some group of churches under the umbrella of a pyramid institution resembling Roman Catholicism or the denominational synods, presbyteries, and conventions. The New Testament pattern for the local church has been restored by the arduous process of debate and controversy.

After giving the New Testament pattern of truth for the gospel and the church as God ordained it, He forewarned his people to “hold fast the form of sound words” because many departures and apostasies would occur in the future (2 Tim. 1:13; Acts 20:28-30; 2 Thess. 2; 1 Tim. 4:1-3). All the religious error associated with so-called Christendom since the first century verifies the validity of God’s warning. In a world filled with such innovations and apostasies, the task of calling people back to the truth of God’s Word is a difficult battle. Every step back in the direction of truth is won in the face of fierce resistance. Only those with a determined faith and a courageous spirit can endure this great battle for the souls of men.

Just as the steps of progress in the Protestant Reformation occurred in the crucible of controversy and debate, every step in this return to the purity and simplicity of New Testament teaching occurred in the crucible of controversy and debate. Whatever could not stand the acid test of Scripture under intense investigation was rooted out and rejected. In debates which were often prolonged, pointed, and even heated, these New Testament Christians met the best representatives of virtually every religious group in America to examine the Scriptures during the 1800s and the first half of the 1900s. In this atmosphere of open religious examination, hundreds and thousands of people left religions and churches they could not read about in the Bible and became simply New Testament Christians. Debates have always played a vital role wherever and whenever there is a sincere search for truth.

Debate and Controversy in an Age of Secularism and Apostasy

Most people today are interested in debates over all sorts of issues involving everything from politics to economics to educational policies to sports, but, sad to say, they are little interested in discussing religious issues. Religious debates have become increasingly rare as our society has become increasingly secular in its values. Most people, including preachers, do not have sufficient conviction to make it worth the effort to examine their views in debate. Religious issues have been marginalized not only by secularization but also by ecumenicism (unity in doctrinal diversity), subjectivism (no absolute standard of truth and error), and pop psychology’s positive mental attitude philosophy (“don’t let anyone put a guilt trip on you,” eliminate negative positions, avoid controversy, etc.). Religious historians sometimes summarize this complex of ideas as part of a new world view which they call “modernity.”

Historians point out that after World War II the focus of most religion in American began to shift away from concern for religious truth. Emphasis upon truth gave way to concern for such things as counseling (mostly pop psychology on how to “feel good about yourself” without repenting of sin), building a “positive image” for the church (dubbed “the Protestant smile” by some historians), and a plethora of social services (giving the people what they want including everything from daytime babysitting to recreational programs to job training to legal services to you-name-it).

Just as in New Testament times, churches of Christ in modern times have suffered from innovations, departures, and apostasies. A major apostasy occurred during 1875- 1925, when a large number of churches gave up New Testament teaching and embraced much of the faith and practice of the Protestant denominational world. Another such tragedy occurred after World War II. These apostate movements tolerate debates for a while but inevitably lose interest in them. Such movements are not fueled by an intense interest in truth but by the desire for peace, conformity, compromise, and popularity. Most of the preachers among these apostate churches are horrified at the prospect of public debates today and consider them a relic of ancient history. These men consider themselves much too “nice” and “pious” to draw the sword of the Spirit.

Although churches of Christ used to be known for actively pursuing opportunities for debates with other groups on a wide range of subjects, just as was done in New Testament times, many brethren today have succumbed to the popular delusion that we can convert people without confronting and uprooting sin and error. Bill Crews recently wrote about “Churches of Christ, Past and Present,” including these comments:

Let me tell you what nearly all churches of Christ used to be like.

Their preachers were ready to defend their religious faith and practice and to discuss differences, publicly or privately, with anyone. They challenged teachers of error to public debates and never refused honorable discussion of differences. They believed that teachers of the truth had nothing to fear and that the truth would always stand out in open, honorable discussion.

But the success of rapid growth and new generations of members not grounded in New Testament truth and some who have wanted things to be otherwise have largely changed this picture for most churches of Christ. An old story is being acted out all over again. History is repeating itself. Today many churches of Christ are not concerned about respecting the authority of God’s word in all things. Many unauthorized innovations have been introduced. Many members look upon the churches of Christ as constituting another denomination among denominations. Most preachers are completely uninterested in and fearful of discussions, public or private, of religious differences. They seem more interested in getting along, fitting in, attracting and holding numbers, friendly competition, and “dialogue.” Most will refuse a challenge to public debate, especially upon issues within churches of Christ. Desire for recognition, acclaim, acceptance strongly influence. Apostasy is the order of the day.

But there are still some churches of Christ that are concerned about being churches after the New Testament order (Park Forest Proclaimer [published by Park Forest Church of Christ, 9923 Sunny Cline Dr., Baton Rogue, LA 70814], 6-7).

Some among churches of Christ have lost the spirit of militant evangelism and debate. Some among us polish the tombs of past debaters and profess to believe in debating “if done the right way,” but they rarely if ever know of anyone who does it “the right way.” They will claim to believe the truth taught in debates, but will spend more time and effort criticizing one thing or another about the brother who debates than condemning the opponent who is an enemy of the gospel of Christ for his false teaching and false practices. Rather than challenging those who teach error to debate and showing the rest of us “the right way to do it,” they snicker and spread their disgust over “the way most debates are conducted.” They are far more embarrassed and upset over the debates which occur than over the error and false teaching these debates expose and refute.

Such thinking, no matter how well or how pleasantly expressed, is in direct contradiction to Jeremiah 1:7-10; Matthew 15:13; John 16:7-13; Acts 15:1-7; 17:17; 2 Corinthians 10:4-5; Philippians 1:17; Jude 3, and many, many other passages. Controversies accelerated rather than impeded the spread of the gospel in the first century, and again during the 19th and 20th centuries, until the love of prosperity in the post-World War II years bred a spirit of compromise and accommodation toward both doctrinal and moral error. During the last fifty years, the avoidance of debate and controversy has impeded greatly the spread of the gospel in America.

This shift is not unique to churches of Christ, but is typical of the religious scene in America generally. Churches of Christ feel the impact of surrounding culture today just as they did in the first century when, for instance, the weaknesses and problems in the church at Corinth mirrored Corinthian society. God’s people must resist and rise above the seductive attractions of secularism and apostasy. The battle for the souls of men is just as vital and necessary now as ever before. The days of controversy and debate are not gone any more than the general need for preaching the truth both publicly and privately is gone, but it is harder to engage people in any kind of study about spiritual things. We must work all the harder to proclaim and to defend the truth of the gospel. We must preach and press the demands of truth all the harder. There are still souls to be won if we will persist in an all-out warfare for the truth and against sin and error of every kind. The Great Commission still says,

“Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:15-16).