Religious Controversy

By Ron Halbrook

(The following three selections underscore the importance of religious controversy. I have slightly edited these excerpts of longer articles and have given them new titles. “The Prince of Peace Never Sheathed the Sword of the Spirit” is taken from Alexander Campbell, “Religious Controversy,” Millennial Harbinger [4 Jan. 1830]:40-44. “I have Counted the Cost” is taken from Campbell, “The Rev. Thomas G. Jones and the Luminary,” The Christian Baptist [1 Dec. 1823):99 [reprinted by Gospel Advocate Co., 1955]. “The Only Safety for the Truth” is taken from J.W. McGarvey, “Bro. Hayden on Expedience and Progress,” Millennial Harbinger [Apr. 1868]:219. Submitted by Ron Halbrook, 654 Gray Street, West Columbia, TX 77486)

The Prince of Peace Never Sheathed The Sword of the Spirit

“Who of the Bible’s great and good men was not engaged in religious controversy! Whenever it was necessary, all — yes, all the renowned men of antiquity were religious controversialists. Moses long contended with the Egyptian magi. He overcame Jannes and Jambres too. Elijah encountered the prophets of Baal. Job long debated with the princes of Edom. The Jewish prophets and the idolatrous kings of Israel waged a long and arduous controversy. John the Harbinger, and the Scribes and Pharisees, met in conflict. Jesus, and the Rabbis, and the Priesthood, long debated. The Apostles and the Sanhedrin; the Evangelists and the Doctors of Divinity; Paul and the Sceptics, engaged in many a conflict; and even Michael fought in ‘wordy debate’ with the Devil about the body of Moses; yet who was more meek than Moses — more zealous for God than Elijah — more patient than Job — more devout than Paul — more benevolent than John?

“If there was no error in principle or practice, then controversy, which is only another name for opposition to error, would be unnecessary. If it were lawful, or if it were benevolent, to make a truce with error, then opposition to it would be both unjust and unkind. So long as it is confessed that error is more or less injurious to the welfare of society, individually and collectively considered, then no man can be considered benevolent who does not set his face against it. In proportion as a person is intelligent and benevolent, he will be controversial, if error exists around him. Hence the Prince of Peace never sheathed the sword of the Spirit while he lived. He drew it on the banks of the Jordan and threw the scabbard away. “Religious controversy has enlightened the world. It has enlightened men upon all subjects — in all the arts and sciences — in all things — philosophic, literary, moral, political. It was the tongue and pen of controversy which developed the true solar system — laid the foundation for the American Revolution — abolished the slave trade — and which has so far disenthralled the human mind from the shackles of superstition. Truth and liberty, both religious and political, are the first fruits of well-directed controversy. Peace and eternal bliss will be the ‘harvest home.’ Let the opponents of controversy, or they who controvert controversy, remember, that had there been no controversy, neither the Jewish nor the Christian religion could have ever been established; nor had it ceased could the Reformation have ever been achieved. It has been the parent of almost all the social blessings which we enjoy.

“When we love truth for its own sake, and when our efforts to maintain it proceed from brotherly kindness and love to all men, then we will plead its cause with force and with success; and then, and then only, will we be sanctified and blessed in the work. But a controversy for opinion, or for truth, instituted by vanity, by the pride of understanding, or the lust of power, will pollute the heart, aggravate the passions, sour the temper, and terminate in vain jangling. But because it has been abused shall we desist from the use of it? This would be to make a covenant with death, and an agreement with destruction. This would be to live in vain, and to die without honor. This would be to depart from the example of the Apostles of Jesus, and to renounce our allegiance to the King eternal, immortal, and invisible. For so long as error in principle and in practice exists, so long will it be the duty of the intelligent and the good to oppose it; and as long as there are conflicting creeds, sects, and divisions among religionists, so long will it be our duty to contend for the faith once delivered to the saints.

“To your posts, then, O Israel! Remember you have en- listed not for six months, like some of our sectarian militia; but you have vowed allegiance during the war. ‘Fight the good fight of faith.’ Keep your eyes upon the Captain; and when the conflict is over he will cover you with laurels which will never wither, and bestow upon you a crown of righteousness which fadeth not away.”

I Have Counted The Cost

(A “Rev.” Thomas G. Jones accused Alexander Campbell of being a troublemaker, “a sort of religious Ishmaelite,” one who caused division and opposed almost everything and everyone. Campbell responded in the following words.)

“I would say, as the Jews once said, ‘Let my right hand forget her cunning, and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,’ rather than I should oppose one word, one doc- trine, or one commandment of the Savior or his apostles.

But this I confess unto thee, Mr. Jones, that I do oppose, and will, by the grace of God, oppose, not only almost, but altogether, everything received as the Christian religion, not found in the New Testament, to the utmost of my ability and opportunity, at the risk of everything — of even offending Mr. Jones or any other reverend gentlemen. I have counted the cost, and put my hand to the plow, and while the Lord protects and enables me, I will not look back.”

The Only Safety for the Truth

(In 1868 A.S. Hayden suggested that brethren should be more flexible and tolerant toward such things as instrumental music in the name of expediency and progress. J.W. McGarvey responded as follows.)

“The loudest call that comes from heaven to the men of this generation is for warfare, stern, relentless, merciless, exterminating, against everything not expressly or by necessary implication authorized in the New Testament. Such is my unwavering conviction; and my only regret is, that I cannot fight this fight as it should be fought.

“In conclusion, let me add, that if any brother who reads this sees fit to style me intolerant, dictatorial, or self con- sequent, I say to him that I claim to be nothing more than one plain disciple of Christ, and to exercise a prerogative which belongs to us all. It is my duty to find fault with everybody and everything that is wrong; and it is equally the duty of every other brother. In the full and free performance of this task, lies the only safety for the truth. Error alone can suffer in such a warfare, and she alone is afraid of it. If I have struck one blow amiss, let it be returned on me double, and it will be well.”