Some time ago, I was having a rather tense conversation with a Christian friend I’ve known for many years. I don’t need to go into the details except to say that we weren’t seeing eye to eye. We talked on, trying to resolve our difference of opinion—trying, in fact, to express exactly what the nub of the issue was. And then my friend said something very perceptive: “You know, I think maybe the difference between you and me is that I want to affirm everything you affirm; it’s just that I don’t feel the need to deny what you deny.”
This has gnawed at me ever since—not because it was hurtful (and it certainly wasn’t meant to be), but because it was profoundly true. Unsettling and true.
I was more apt to oppose things than my friend; more ready to criticize; more insistent about expressing the negative as well as the positive. (Dear Briefing reader, you know this only too well!) It prompted to me think of other friends and acquaintances. Which of them were united with me not only in our positive beliefs, but also in the beliefs and movements that we opposed? And did this matter? Did it say something about a deeper theological unity we shared? Or did it say something about a personality defect we shared?
It set me to thinking about character—my own, that is. Maybe I’m just an ornery critter. I can no longer admit honestly to being an angry young man, and I don’t feel ready to become a grumpy old man. But perhaps I belong in that even less respectable in-between category: the frustrated, irritable middle-aged man. Could it be that my more peace-loving friend, and many others like him, understood something about the grace of the gospel that I have yet to learn?
Flash forward to early 2007 and our Briefing feature article on Hillsong (Briefing #340). Despite having tried hard to be balanced, to give credit where it was due, and to offer a cleareyed, biblical critique of the Hillsong movement, I found (not for the first time) that this act of critiquing another Christian group was seen as a real problem by some of our readers. Sue Scarcella summed this feeling up well in a letter to our Interchange column in Briefing #343:
Brothers and sisters, please stop this anti-Hillsong tirade. It is uncharitable and, indeed, anti-Christian. If you have something to say, go to Brian Houston and his pastors with your pastors and dialogue. That is the way the Bible tells us to air a dispute, not to take it public over and over again. Frankly, it is becoming cringe-worthy.
Ouch! Was it ungodly and anti-Christian of me to write an article critical of Hillsong? In fact, is it ever right to criticize other Christian people in the way that we did (and have done at various points in the past)?
Perhaps posing the question this way is too simple. Of course, there will be times when it is right to confront deviant Christian doctrine or behaviour—as Paul did in Galatians 2 when Peter had his gospel brain explosion and refused to eat with the Gentile believers (an example, incidentally, of bad doctrine expressed in behaviour). Not many evangelical Christians would question the need to speak publicly against the heretical views of Bishop Spong, for example, or to critique the moral and doctrinal outrages of some prominent tele-evangelists.
No, the question is sharper and more testing. The question is: under what circumstances, and in what manner, should we critique the views of others? This was what raised Sue Scarcella’s ire—not that we had engaged in critique per se, but that we had chosen the wrong target, and done it in the wrong way.
Nor is this just an issue for Christian authors and magazine editors—and their readers. To what extent should preachers include in their sermons refutations of deviant or mistaken Christian doctrine? How often, and in what manner, should Bible study groups debate and critique alternative versions of Christian truth? How do we relate to Christian friends or relatives who think differently from us? Should we generally seek to avoid controversies, and concentrate on the things we do believe in common? Or is this just spiritual cowardice?
To borrow the words of Ecclesiastes, if there is a time to break down and a time to build up (Eccl 3:3), how do I know what time it is right now?
When we turn to the Bible for guidance on these matters, we quickly find a range of instruction that seems to pull us in different directions. On the one hand, there are the clear warnings to avoid quarrels and fights. I think we have all met the man of 1 Timothy 6 (and yes, it is almost always a man) who has “an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words” (v. 4). The wisdom of James is to be slow to speak, and slow to become angry (Jas 1:19). Proverbs, likewise, is full of exhortations to be very careful before opening your mouth to criticize someone:
Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense,
but a man of understanding remains silent.
The beginning of strife is like letting out water,
so quit before the quarrel breaks out.
It is an honor for a man to keep aloof from strife,
but every fool will be quarreling.
(Prov 11:12, 17:14, 20:3)
In Galatians 5, enmity, strife, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions and divisions are all works of the flesh, and those who keep engaging in such things will not inherit the kingdom of God (vv. 17-21)! Correspondingly, the fruit of the Spirit is peace, patience, kindness and gentleness (vv. 22-23).
The message is crystal clear: Christians are to put behind them the sinful tendency to quarrel, provoke divisiveness and engage in fruitless controversies. Instead, we are to be patient in the face of provocation, gracious and loving to those who do us harm (Matt 5:39), and desiring, as far as it depends on us, to live at peace with everyone (Rom 12:18).
These are straightforward but very challenging words, and those of us who like a good theological stoush need to sift our hearts with them. Are we too quick to criticize and find fault? Is this because of pride or self-importance? Is our habit of coolly pointing out the problems with this person or that movement a not-so-subtle means of diverting attention from our own inadequacies? Perhaps analysing the theological flaws of some other ministry makes us feel a little better about the dismal state of our own. Or perhaps we simply enjoy the love of power—impressing others and gaining more influence for ourselves by crawling over the discredited theological remains of our rivals.
Before the meek start crowing about how they are going to inherit the earth, there are all the Bible passages on the other side of the ledger to consider. Take Galatians as just one example. Chapter 5 is all peace, patience, kindness and gentleness. But this is the same epistle in which Paul calls the Galatians fools (3:1); damns to hell anyone who preaches a nonstandard gospel (1:8-9); condemns Peter, Barnabas and a slew of others as hypocrites (2:11-13); and expresses his wish that the circumcision party who are opposing him would go the whole hog and emasculate themselves (5:12). These are hardly the namby-pamby words of a silver-tongued bishop. Paul seems to see no contradiction between vigorously opposing false teaching, and displaying the fruit of the Spirit in love, peace and gentleness.
We find this good-cop/bad-cop routine running through Paul’s letter to Titus as well. In Titus 3:2, Paul tells Titus to remind his people to “speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people”. He also warns Titus to “avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law”, and concludes that people who love to stir up divisions and trouble are warped and sinful (3:9-11). And yet the elders in chapter 1, who are not to be “arrogant or quick-tempered” (v. 7), are nevertheless told to rebuke anyone who contradicts the apostolic word, and to silence the “insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers” who are teaching falsely (vv. 10-11). Paul goes on to label the Cretans liars, evil beasts and lazy gluttons, and tells Titus to “rebuke them sharply” so that they will not be carried away by this false doctrine (vv. 12-14). Paul was no teddy bear.
Neither, for that matter, was Jude. He urged his readers to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). ‘Contend’ sounds very noble and civilized, like a debate in the House of Lords. But the word in Greek is the ordinary word for ‘fight’ or ‘struggle’ or ‘conflict’—the same word used to describe ‘fighting’ the good fight (1 Tim 6:12 and 2 Tim 4:7), or ‘striving’ or ‘struggling’ for the work of the gospel (Col 1:29). In view of the threats and opponents facing them, Jude is telling his readers to roll up their spiritual sleeves and get ready for a punch-up.
There’s no escaping this sort of bracing, combative, critical stream of biblical teaching. As Ben Beilharz points out elsewhere in this Briefing, it’s also there in the Old Testament prophets who were rather fond of trenchant and even satirical criticism of idolatry and sin. And, of course, Jesus himself was not averse to laying into the Pharisees and Sadducees—sometimes with quite blistering language (the woes pronounced on the Pharisees in Matthew 23 being perhaps the most stunning example).
Theologically speaking, false teaching, division and dispute are an inevitable feature of the Last Days landscape in which we live. The Spirit expressly warns us that in this final period of salvation history between Christ’s first and second comings, people will depart from the faith (1 Tim 4:1). These will be times of difficulty when people will be lovers of self rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness but denying its power (2 Tim 3:1-5). It will be a time when congregations will not endure sound teaching, but will accumulate for themselves teachers willing to scratch their itching ears (2 Tim 4:3-4). This is why criticism, rebuke and fighting for the faith-once-delivered will always be necessary in these Last Days.
This is challenging material for those of us who tend more towards the gentle, affable, conflict-avoiding end of the spectrum. There is no virtue in being nice and mumbling a few platitudes, if circumstances call for fighting the good fight. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”, Edmund Burke is supposed to have said. Is our reluctance to critique or rebuke error a lack of confidence in the clarity of biblical truth? Have the assumptions and values of the postmodern world seeped too much into our souls, such that we find the assertion of absolutes and the criticism of error no longer to our taste? (See my article on ‘The Facebook of Truth’ in Briefing #350 for more on this.) Or perhaps we value our own comfort and friendly relationships too much, and are unwilling to pay the personal cost of speaking out, thus opening ourselves to criticism. After all, people who criticize others are intolerant and negative; they are the right-wingers, the nay-sayers, the nasty party. And we are too sophisticated, liberal-minded and positive to think of ourselves that way.
The point is clear enough, and doesn’t need further labouring. In the Bible, we find peace, grace and gentleness on one side, and argument, rebuke and criticism on the other. What are we to do about these two streams of instruction?
What we tend to do, of course, is to choose the emphasis that fits our personality. The pugnacious brother has “rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” etched into the spine of his industrial strength, bash-worthy, black Bible (Titus 1:13). And the mild and gentle brother has “blessed are the peacemakers” sewn into the hem of his kaftan (Matt 5:9).
We are very fond of dragging out the convenient aspect of the biblical material to justify our behaviour in a given situation. In response to Sue Scarcella and co, I could say that I am following in the footsteps of Jude in warning my Christian brothers about the dangers the Hillsong movement poses to the faith once delivered to the saints. Sue, of course, could well counter with the words of Jesus in Mark 9:39-40: “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us.”
The answer to the apparent dilemma before us is to realize that the Bible is a pastoral book, not a textbook. It addresses real and particular situations of life in God’s world in all their variety, not hypothetical questions asked in the abstract. And we can thank God for this because we live and love and obey God, not in the abstract, but in the nitty-gritty of real encounters and challenges.
In a sense, the command of God is very simple: to love God and neighbour. And yet the moral battlefield in which we obey that command has many types of terrain. It confronts us with different circumstances and people and relationships every day, and, in each of these, we love God and neighbour according to what is in front of us. It requires what ethicist Oliver O’Donovan calls ‘moral wakefulness’: we have to be alert and alive to the challenge of godliness in each different situation—to think through what good thing God requires me to do, or to be, here and now in this particular moment, and then to resolve in faith to do the good and avoid the bad.1
In other words, it’s not a matter of deciding that we will be Mr Nice Guy or Mr Fighting Words, depending on preference, personality or cultural trends. The real world we confront day by day will sometimes require of us the utmost gentleness, patience and forbearance, and a willingness to be wronged and slandered, rather than to speak out. At other times, faithful obedience will require that we speak strongly, clearly and forcefully in defence of the truth. And at still other points, it will require a blend of the two.
Sometimes the nature of our conversation with the same person or group of people will change with the circumstances. At times, wisdom will require us not to answer a fool according to his folly, lest we become like him (Prov 26:4). At other times, we will need to answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes (Prov 26:5).
We catch a glimpse of this happening in 2 Corinthians 10. Paul appeals to the Corinthians by the meekness and gentleness of Christ: “Please!” he says (if I may paraphrase). “Don’t be deceived by these false ‘super-apostles’. I beg you—I who am famous for being unimpressive in person and strong in my letters—I beg you now to heed my gentle request: stay with Christ, and with me, his apostle. Because, if you don’t, I know very well how to ‘show boldness’ in person, if I have to. And if I do come and have to ‘wage war’, it will not be in a sinful human way, but with divine weapons that demolish arguments and capture every thought for Christ.” (I think he speaks here of the divinely powerful and compelling truth of the word of God.)
In other words, Paul would much rather solve the issue without personal confrontation. He hopes to turn things around via the gentler action of writing a letter and putting the matter before them. But if that doesn’t work, the gloves are off; it’s too important—they are too important—for Paul to stand by and let them be “led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor 11:3). He doesn’t want a showdown. But, because he loves the Corinthians, he is prepared to have one, if necessary.
This is Jude’s tone as well in the opening verses of his very strongly worded little letter:
Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed … (Jude 3-4a).
Jude would have preferred to have written differently, but the circumstances didn’t allow him to.
John Piper summarizes the point nicely in the opening chapter of Contending for Our All:
Some controversy is crucial for the sake of life-giving truth. Running from it is a sign of cowardice. But enjoying it is usually a sign of pride. Some necessary tasks are sad, and even victory is not without tears—unless there is pride … Humility delights to worship Christ in spirit and truth. If it must fight for worship-sustaining truth, it will, but that is not because the fight is pleasant. It’s not even because victory is pleasant. It’s because knowing and loving and proclaiming Christ for who he really is and what he really did is pleasant.2
I started this essay by pondering the differences of opinion Christians have about differences of opinion. It seems to me that this is more than a passing personal experience of my own. I rather suspect it will be one of those issues that divide evangelicals in the years to come. We will find ourselves believing a lot of the same things, ticking the same boxes, singing the same songs, but not picking the same fights. Or perhaps, disagreeing about the need to have the fights in the first place.
This is cause for some soul-searching and biblical reflection, for God has a double word for us: don’t be quarrelsome, but don’t be too timid or sophisticated to speak out when the time comes. Be forbearing in love and grace and kindness, but also be strong to fight for the truth, to avoid religious hypocrites, and to silence foolish talkers.
Choosing what to do in the particular situation in front of us requires thought and discernment. It takes a mind soaked in the gospel and theology of Scripture in order to perceive what constitutes an error worth critiquing, as opposed to a stupid or unhelpful controversy worth avoiding. It usually takes time—time to understand the new or alternative views properly on their own terms, and time to weigh them against Scripture. How dangerous it is to rush to judgement about someone’s faults, or to leap to conclusions about the dangerous implications of some new teaching.
It also must be said that it takes Christian maturity. When Paul tells Timothy to “flee youthful passions” in 2 Timothy 2:22, we immediately assume he is talking about sexual desire. But the context makes it clear that he is talking about the tendency of young men to enter into foolish disputes. “Flee youthful enthusiasms” might be a better translation!
In choosing when to criticize and when to let an issue pass as a matter of freedom or triviality, some have suggested that the key criterion should be whether it is a ‘gospel issue’. This intuitively sounds correct, but some care is required in defining what a ‘gospel issue’ is. It will not always be obvious. In Galatians 2, Paul saw that Peter’s choice of dinner partners was a serious, gospel-threatening issue, even though Peter had said nothing against justification by faith alone, and would, no doubt, have gladly signed the apostolic doctrinal basis. Elsewhere in this Briefing, Mark Thompson considers this question in detail. What is a matter worth fighting about, and what is a matter of indifference—an adiaphora? I would commend you to his very insightful conclusions.
However, even if we have decided that it is now time to say something—to offer some rebuke or criticism—there is still the vital question of how we are to administer it. To return to Sue Scarcella’s example, even if I was justified in offering a critique of some aspects of Hillsong’s teaching, did I do so in the right way? To that, and all the related questions of how critique, dispute and controversy should be conducted, we will turn in part 2 of this essay.
Part 2 of ‘Fight the good fight’ will appear in the April edition of The Briefing.
1 Such, in exceedingly simplistic terms, was the burden of Professor O’Donovan’s recent New College Lectures on ‘moral wakefulness, admiration and resolution’. These are available for download at http://www.newcollege.unsw.edu.au/newcollege_lectures.html.
2 John Piper, Contending for Our All: Defending Truth and Treasuring Christ in the Lives of Athanasius, John Owen, and J. Gresham Machen, Crossway, Wheaton, 2006, p. 17.