The Propriety Of Religious Controversy

By M.C. Kurfees (1856-1931)

It is one of the easiest things for men to be lopsided in religion. They go to extremes, either stopping short of the true line of rectitude or going beyond it. There is probably no field in which this tendency is more conspicuously exhibited than in the field of religious controversy. Personal wrangling is wrong, but so is a passive attitude toward error. There is a golden mean, a proper and highly important course to be pursued in that line, and the purpose of this article is to point out that course.

Let it be carefully observed, first of all, that contradicting men and disputing with them for the sake of mere disputation is, of course, wrong, and all Christians should avoid it. In this matter, precisely as in all other matters in religion, our sole inquiry should be, What is the will of the Lord? Fortunately, we have a record of that will, and our appeal, in the language of Isaiah, shall be “to the law and to the testimony” (Isa. 8:20). Hence, on the matter of religious controversy, what does the inspired testimony say? Does it condemn or enjoin and encourage it? Even if there were not a word on the subject in the entire biblical record, yet as long as truth and error are in conflict with each other, with their respective advocates arrayed against each other, common sense alone teaches us that controversy is inevitable.

However, turning now to the record, the apostle distinctly tells us that we are to follow the example of our Lord Jesus Christ. “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that ye should follow his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21). But it is no exaggeration to stay that, from the day he entered upon his public ministry to the day he expired on the cross, his life was a constant battle, an irrepressible conflict, an unceasing controversy with men. In fact, it was an exceedingly stormy life. Some of the sharpest contentions in all the annals of controversy are among his encounters with the scribes, lawyers, chief priests, Pharisees, and Sadducees. The rule was that whenever and wherever he and they met, the gauntlet of battle was at once thrown down and the contest began. If our readers will turn to the eighth chapter of John’s testimony and read carefully all from verse 12 to verse 59, they will find pictured in graphic and impressive terms one of his grapples with the Pharisees and one of the most pronounced and conspicuous samples of controversy with men which marked his career. It was not only a regular word battle between him and the Pharisees, but it actually ended in an effort on their part to stone him, though he escaped out of their hands. “They took up stones therefore to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple” (Jn. 8:59).

Now, since we are under the apostolic admonition to “follow his steps,” how can we do it and avoid controversy? It is thus seen to be an utter impossibility if we do our duty. Those who embrace his doctrine and preach it faithfully to men are certain to encounter similar opposition and to be drawn into similar controversy. Hence, the only way to avoid controversy in the case of such an encounter is to make an inglorious surrender to the enemy; and no “good soldier of Christ Jesus,” as Paul designates the faithful Christian (2 Tim. 2:3), can consent to such a surrender. Rather such a soldier, as the apostle further commands, will “fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Tim. 6:12).

But not only does the example of our Lord, as we have seen, enjoin upon us the duty of religious controversy, but it is specifically enjoined upon us by apostolic command. “Beloved, while I was giving all diligence to write unto you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). That language gives no uncertain sound. Christians are “to contend”; they are to contend “for the faith”; and they are “to contend earnestly for the faith.” This inevitably plunges them into controversy wherever they encounter opposition to “the faith.” It was so in the lives of Peter, John, Stephen, Paul, and all the early Christians who were worthy of the name; it is true of the same class today; and it will be true of them as long as the conflict between truth and error continues.

But there is a right way and there are wrong ways to conduct religious controversy, and Christians should scrupulously guard this point. Their fight is not only a fight for the truth, but it is a fight founded in love – love for both God and man. Hence, while we are under the apostolic admonition to engage in religious controversy, to contend and fight for the truth, we are also under the apostolic admonition to engage in it in the right way. Here it is: “Speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). That tells the story in a nutshell, and it enjoins a duty that should never be overlooked. We must love the truth and fight for the truth, but we must fight for it in love – love for God and love for man. In fact, the great and controlling purpose of the Christian fight is to win men to the truth and to save their souls. It is the truth that is to make them free (Jn. 8:32). We must contend for it, but contend for it in love. Hence, religious controversy, when properly conducted, is always on a high plane. Be it ever so earnest and enthusiastic, it is never less than dignified. It does not condescend to assail the motives of men and thus to dwindle into a mere personal wrangle. It not only shows respect for men unconsciously involved in error, but it shows very pronounced respect for them.

Another prominent characteristic of the right kind of religious controversy is the obligation to examine fairly the arguments presented by our opponents; and wherever truth is found on their side, we should freely and gladly concede it. In brief, a truly thoughtful Christian man in debate will always see how far he can agree with his opponent and thus narrow as far as possible the field of difference. Every step that can honorably be taken in this direction is a step toward the right kind of victory ultimately.

Finally, while we should discourage all improper conduct on the part of men engaged in religious controversy – the conduct of religious controversy in an improper way – nevertheless, we should encourage controversy itself. It is one of the most powerful ways of eliciting and propagating truth. The day of controversy is the day when truth comes to light and flourishes. Let us encourage and always and everywhere uphold the hands of those engaged in honorable religious controversy (Gospel Advocate LXV, 8 [22 Feb. 1923]: 180-81).

Guardian of Truth XXXV: 3, pp. 67-68
February 7, 1991