On Controversy

Excerpt from The Works of John Newton, Letter XIX “On Controversy.” (original source here)

A minister, about to write an article criticizing a fellow minister for his lack of orthodoxy, wrote to John Newton of his intention. Read Newton’s response below or browse the May 2012 issue of Tabletalk magazine that was dedicated to the subject of controversy.

Dear Sir,

As you are likely to be engaged in controversy, and your love of truth is joined with a natural warmth of temper, my friendship makes me solicitous on your behalf. You are of the strongest side; for truth is great, and must prevail; so that a person of abilities inferior to yours might take the field with a confidence of victory. I am not therefore anxious for the event of the battle; but I would have you more than a conqueror, and to triumph, not only over your adversary, but over yourself. If you cannot be vanquished, you may be wounded. To preserve you from such wounds as might give you cause of weeping over your conquests, I would present you with some considerations, which, if duly attended to, will do you the service of a great coat of mail; such armor, that you need not complain, as David did of Saul’s, that it will be more cumbersome than useful; for you will easily perceive it is taken from that great magazine provided for the Christian soldier, the Word of God. I take it for granted that you will not expect any apology for my freedom, and therefore I shall not offer one. For method’s sake, I may reduce my advice to three heads, respecting your opponent, the public, and yourself.

Consider Your Opponent

As to your opponent, I wish that before you set pen to paper against him, and during the whole time you are preparing your answer, you may commend him by earnest prayer to the Lord’s teaching and blessing. This practice will have a direct tendency to conciliate your heart to love and pity him; and such a disposition will have a good influence upon every page you write.

If you account him a believer, though greatly mistaken in the subject of debate between you, the words of David to Joab concerning Absalom, are very applicable: “Deal gently with him for my sake.” The Lord loves him and bears with him; therefore you must not despise him, or treat him harshly. The Lord bears with you likewise, and expects that you should show tenderness to others, from a sense of the much forgiveness you need yourself. In a little while you will meet in heaven; he will then be dearer to you than the nearest friend you have upon earth is to you now. Anticipate that period in your thoughts; and though you may find it necessary to oppose his errors, view him personally as a kindred soul, with whom you are to be happy in Christ forever.

But if you look upon him as an unconverted person, in a state of enmity against God and his grace (a supposition which, without good evidence, you should be very unwilling to admit), he is a more proper object of your compassion than of your anger. Alas! “He knows not what he does.” But you know who has made you to differ. If God, in his sovereign pleasure, had so appointed, you might have been as he is now; and he, instead of you, might have been set for the defense of the gospel. You were both equally blind by nature. If you attend to this, you will not reproach or hate him, because the Lord has been pleased to open your eyes, and not his.

Of all people who engage in controversy, we, who are called Calvinists, are most expressly bound by our own principles to the exercise of gentleness and moderation. If, indeed, they who differ from us have a power of changing themselves, if they can open their own eyes, and soften their own hearts, then we might with less inconsistency be offended at their obstinacy: but if we believe the very contrary to this, our part is, not to strive, but in meekness to instruct those who oppose. “If peradventure God will give them repentance to the acknowledgment of the truth.” If you write with a desire of being an instrument of correcting mistakes, you will of course be cautious of laying stumbling blocks in the way of the blind or of using any expressions that may exasperate their passions, confirm them in their principles, and thereby make their conviction, humanly speaking, more impracticable.

Consider the Public

By printing, you will appeal to the public; where your readers may be ranged under three divisions: First, such as differ from you in principle. Concerning these I may refer you to what I have already said. Though you have your eye upon one person chiefly, there are many like-minded with him; and the same reasoning will hold, whether as to one or to a million. Continue reading

Cowardly Complaining

Say-SomethingTom S. Rainer writes:

The moment they hear it, but the meaning is still similar. “People” is never defined. The true complainer is never identified. It is one of the most frustrating and demoralizing sentences pastors and staff will hear. Here are some reasons for the frustration:

The complainer lacks the courage to speak for himself or herself. So he or she hides behind the deceitful veil of “people are saying.” Leaders in churches know that when complainers lack courage to speak for themselves, or when they have to hide behind anonymous complainers, they are trouble in the making.

The leader has no recourse or action to take. These complainers never identify the source or sources. So the pastor or staff person cannot follow up and speak directly to the dissidents. He or she is left with a complaint that cannot be resolved due to anonymity.

The leader immediately questions the motive of the complainer. The moment the ministry leader hears those words, “People are saying . . . “, he or she doubts the credibility and the heart of the complainer. The approach is cowardly; it thus is always seen through the lens of doubt and frustration.

This approach is a double frustration for the ministry leader. First, he or she has heard yet another criticism. Most ministry leaders have to deal with criticisms too often. Second, the ambiguity of the complaint and the source of the complaint can leave a leader wondering if the problem is really bigger than reality. He or she can waste a lot of emotional energy on something that really may not be such a big deal.

Indirect criticisms can be the most painful criticisms. Most ministry leaders deal better with someone who is direct and precise in his or her concerns. But indirect criticisms such as “People are saying . . . “ or “I love you pastor, but . . . “ hurt more because cowardly actions and duplicitous behavior are added to the criticism itself.

As a leader in a local church and in other places, I got to the point where I did not entertain such veiled criticisms. I tried to be polite and say, “I am sorry, but I cannot listen to you further because you will not give me the specific sources of the concerns. If you are willing to name those people specifically or, even better, get them to speak to me directly, I will be happy to hear the concerns.”

Has my approached worked? Frankly, I don’t recall any of these critics being happy with my response. But I have had to learn that there are certain people in churches and other organizations who have the spiritual gift of complaining. And they will exercise that gift frequently and with vigor.

I have to move on to those who have positive and encouraging solutions. Life is too short to deal with cowardly complainers.

Picking Your Battles Wisely

Rightly Dividing or Wrongly Fighting? (an article by Rev. Steven Warhurst – Steve is the Associate Pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church, Kingsport, Tennessee. He is married to Susan and is a father to seven children.)

Some things are worth arguing about. You should fight for the truth. You should defend the faith. In a world gone mad, where lies, heresies, and worldliness surround us on every side, you do not have to look far to find a foe. So much is wrong with the church and the world, the feisty warrior has much to keep him busy.

Some people, however, just like to argue, and they will argue about nothing and everything. They criticize people for what they say and for what they do not say. They pick specks out of the eyes of everyone around them, while whacking everyone in the head with the logs hanging out of their own eyeballs. Timothy was dealing with just such a crowd at Ephesus. They loved to argue about words and enter into foolish and ignorant disputes. So Paul wrote to Timothy teaching him how to deal with petty self-proclaimed preachers, persnickety parishioners, and plain false prophets (2 Tim 2:14-26). What do you do when they park their unpleasantness in the church’s pews? Continue reading

Dangers in Theological Controversy

Nicholas T. Batzig writes with much insight in the following article (source):

Debate in theological matters is necessary in a fallen world. God commands believers to “contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). We are to be zealous for the defense and propagation of the whole counsel of God for His own glory and the building up of His people. Ministers and local church members, there are also wisdom principles that must accompany a desire to defend the truth. In every battle there is fallout. There are dangers that we need to seek to avoid when entering into theological debate.

In recent years, there has been a growing debate over the doctrine of sanctification. Some of the questions involved in this debate include: Does justification produce sanctification? Is sanctification “getting used to your justification?” What role does sanctification play in the subjective assurance of salvation in the life of a believer? Does justification make union with Christ possible, or does union make justification possible? In addition to these questions, a myriad of others have been–and ought to be–raised for the sake of clarity and the defense of truth. There are, however, several dangers that come with controversy.

The Danger of Infection

There is a danger of infecting others with false teaching–even while trying to refute it.

Under their section titled “On the Preaching of the Word,” in The Directory for the Public Worship of God, the Scottish Divines give us a very short and very wise statement about the ministers’ responsibility to refute false teaching in the church. What is most captivating about this brief statement is that it gives us instruction concerning 1) the dangers of talking about false teaching, and 2) the necessity of refuting false teaching in the church. They wrote:

In confutation of false doctrines, he [i.e. the minister] is neither to raise an old heresy from the grave, nor to mention a blasphemous opinion unnecessarily: but, if the people be in danger of an error, he is to confute it soundly, and endeavor to satisfy their judgments and consciences against all objections.1

Since beliefs inevitably have consequences on our lives and actions, the Divines first warn against our “raising an old heresy from the grave, nor to mention a blasphemous opinion unnecessarily.” They do not say this to be censorious, or to bury their heads in the sand. Rather, they raise this warning because of the nature of false teaching. When I was a young Christian, a friend taught me that “whenever false teaching is taught in a nuanced fashion there is the danger that some who hear it will be drawn into it.” He went on to explain that this is true within the realm of relationships, as well. Whenever we start to enter into debate with those with whom we disagree we are in danger of getting closer to them and become more susceptible of being influenced by their beliefs. It is not guaranteed that this will happen, but it is certainly a very real danger. Tragically, in recent years, my friend embraced a sinful lifestyle due in part to the public discussions about, and approval of, it. I have also watched a minister of the Gospel walk away from Protestantism in the midst of engaging, on church court levels, with a man who was being tried for holding to aberrant theological views on the sacraments and soteriology. Whether his engagement with this man’s views were the cause of his departing from the truth or not, I cannot help but wonder what impact the aberrant teaching had on this man. Continue reading