Contentious Christians: How should we handle controversy?

UnknownMost bloggers establish some ground-rules for those who want to participate in the discussion. And that’s a good idea, especially considering the tone of much of what’s online today. Some of the rules are obvious to most of us (I hope). If you use any vulgar or obscene language, or if you insult other commenters, your comments will be deleted. But, as Christians, I think we’re called to a higher standard than just not being obscene or insulting.

John F. Kennedy once observed that “too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” Unfortunately, this is all too true today, even among evangelical Christians. It’s human nature to polarize and divide over issues. We see this polarization running rampant in our political system and, sadly, we frequently see it at work in the church as well.

As those who worship the one who not only exemplifies truth but, in some profound way, is truth, we should be expected to carefully examine each issue, to ensure that we truly understand differing viewpoints, and to know the underlying reasons for any disagreements. However, people―Christians included―have a tendency to listen to only one perspective. Many receive all of their information from “their side” and rarely give their opponents a fair chance to explain their views. Those who are politically liberal tend to listen to liberals. And usually the only time they hear conservative viewpoints is when they hear other liberals describe what “those conservatives” believe. Of course, if you’re not liberal, don’t get smug just yet . . . because most conservatives do the very same thing.

This way of “being informed” creeps into the body of Christ and affects how we handle controversial issues. We often end up talking past each other without making any impact because we don’t really understand where the other side is coming from. We haven’t learned some important lessons taught in the book of Proverbs: “The first to speak in court sounds right―until the cross-examination begins” (Proverbs 18:17), and “Spouting off before listening to the facts is both shameful and foolish” (Proverbs 18:13).

The manner in which we sometimes express our disagreements also greatly concerns me. When researching differing viewpoints online, there are times when I’m dismayed by the unloving and unchristian animosity displayed toward opponents who are brothers and sisters in Christ. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t debate, and debate vigorously. But who are we to impugn the motives and intentions of fellow believers? Can we see the heart? Are we qualified to judge it? Sometimes the interaction becomes so mean-spirited and vitriolic that I have to check and make sure that it’s actually spewing from a “Christian” site. Brothers and sisters, this should not be.

So how should we handle controversy in the church? Here are a few suggestions (and expectations for this blog):

1. Begin with an attitude of love

From what Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13, we can have all of our doctrinal t’s crossed and i’s dotted, but if we don’t have love it doesn’t amount to much of anything. This doesn’t mean that truth is optional. Speaking the truth is imperative, but we must speak the truth “in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Remember when the lawyer asked Jesus which commandment was the greatest? Jesus gave him two commandments, both having to do with love. Love God; love each other. He said that all of the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments (Matthew 22:34-40). Jesus also said that the defining characteristic of his people would be the love they have for one another (John 13:35). If we were truly loving toward each other in our debates, do you think this might eliminate much of the hostility? If the world saw a church where Christians consistently showed love for each other―even when they strongly disagreed―could that maybe have an impact on people looking for a faith that’s real? one that really makes a difference in people’s lives?

2. Watch out for pride

Ego creeps in so easily! It begins to be all about my views, our side, what we believe. Us vs them. Once we’re looking at an issue this way, it becomes very difficult to fairly listen to the “other side.” We see this in politics all the time. We lionize our leaders and demonize theirs. We try to justify whatever our party does, no matter how despicable, and when the opposing party does something commendable we pick it apart. Why? Because we have to be right; we have to win! It becomes a matter of pride. Before we look at the actual issue, we need to acknowledge: it’s not about me. It’s not about what will make me look good. It’s not about helping my side win. Instead, our focus needs to be: What is true? (Whether I like it or not.) We need to sacrifice our egos. Are you willing to admit it when you’re wrong?

(Notice that before we’ve examined any specific issue, we’ve examined our own attitudes. If we entered into discussion and debate with right hearts―before God and toward each other―it would alleviate most of the rancor in our disagreements.)

3. Seek the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth

What this doesn’t mean is checking out an issue until I’ve amassed enough catchy points to win the argument! Remember, it’s not about winning arguments. It’s not about defending my position. It’s about actually understanding an issue and discovering what is really true. Seeking the truth also doesn’t mean listening only to my side’s explanations of the views of our opponents. It means having the courtesy to truly listen to opposing viewpoints and fairly consider them. It’s not compromising the truth to give another person a fair hearing. You don’t have to be convinced . . . but are you willing to be? Remember the old saying: If you never have to change your mind, you’re probably not using it! Are you so focused on the truth that you’re willing to change even a long-held position? Which is more important to you: truly being right, or having everyone think you’re right?

4. Be fair with your opponent

If it’s not all about winning, this shouldn’t be such a problem. But too often it is. If you’ve read many books on Calvinism, you’ve probably found descriptions of what Arminians believe that no Arminian would ever recognize as their own! And Calvinists can make the same complaint. If we are explaining the position of our opponents, they should be able to listen to us and say, “Well put! That’s how I would explain it too.” We need to be scrupulously fair in the way we describe the beliefs of others. Do you like to be misrepresented? Do you enjoy it when you’re falsely accused of motives you don’t have and beliefs you don’t hold? Then let’s make sure we don’t do that to others. Express your opponents’ views accurately and fairly.

5. Try to persuade instead of winning arguments

If you’re truly convinced that your brother or sister is wrong, if you’re concerned that this error is potentially harmful to them, and if you have a loving attitude toward this person, how will you interact with them? By bombastically hitting them with every argument within reach and overpowering them with your array of facts and bulletproof logic? By hounding them until they’re forced to concede that they’re wrong? Is this really the way to change someone’s heart and mind? Perhaps we might be more effective if we adopt a more scriptural style of interaction:

A servant of the Lord must not quarrel, but must be kind to everyone, be able to teach, and be patient with difficult people. Gently instruct those who oppose the truth. Perhaps God will change these people’s hearts, and they will learn the truth.

2 Timothy 2:24-25

6. Distinguish between essential truths and non-essential viewpoints

We must not compromise the essential truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ. But there are a number of secondary issues that we routinely fight about that are not worthy of dividing over. The manner of Christ’s return is a wonderful, blessed hope and a fascinating topic for discussion. But it’s a little silly for us to be so dogmatic over something of which we are still so ignorant. Some issues require a firm, unyielding stand; others invite ongoing consideration, discussion and illumination. We should seek the wisdom to appropriately distinguish between them.

7. Realize that you won’t convince everyone . . . and that’s okay

It’s not our responsibility to change people’s hearts. We communicate the truth, the Holy Spirit works in their hearts, and they eventually either respond or resist. When people don’t come around to our way of thinking right away, it doesn’t mean that we’ve failed or that they are automatically rejecting God. We can’t control this process or the timing. Even if some Christians don’t agree with you, they’re still your brothers and sisters, and you still need to treat them with love and respect. And we just might be the ones who need to reconsider our viewpoints! Keep these passages in mind:

Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.
Romans 12:18

Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters:
You must all be quick to listen,
slow to speak,
and slow to get angry.
Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires.
James 1:19-20

I think that sums it up quite well.

28 thoughts on “Contentious Christians: How should we handle controversy?

  1. “Just Curt”
    Regarding James 1:19-20,
    I listened to a minister who wisely said there are “twice as many slows as there are quicks”. True if we including, especially including myself were twice as slow to listen and anger in life we would be able to navigate life with more sensitivity and with less regret. Quick, slow, slow… would make a good dance step wouldn’t it.

  2. This is a great article. I too have often reflected in amazement at some of the poisonous banter I’ve heard and read in American political, religious, social, and philosophical debate. Really, I think this is the number one area where Christians have the opportunity to immediately distinguish themselves. We are not to engage in futile arguments and get involved in the personality clashes of fools. We are not to hate as the world does, but to love each other as Christ loves us. That is our standard, and it’s a painfully high one. But Jesus showed us how it can be done, by the perfect life that he led. However, it can’t be done in the presence of ego, pride, bitterness or envy. We must be humble enough to admit when we’re wrong, just as you said (and we are ALL wrong at certain times.) We must learn to submit to one another out of deference to Christ. And we must learn to forgive. In my personal experience, I have found these to be among the most difficult and painful learning experiences of the Christian way. But they are also the avenues by which we can experience the most dramatic and immediate spiritual victory over darkness that we can imagine. Let’s not get dragged into the petty squabbles that can bring shame upon the Gospel, nor allow ourselves to be defeated by our own fear, insecurity, and spiritual ignorance. Remember: “Do not be overcome by evil. But rather, overcome evil with good.”

  3. Hi Curt! I just got a link to your blog from Audrey Ling! How cool we’re connected on the blogosphere! How is Kelly? Please say hi to her for me… ! Wonderful post here, Curt! What a blessed church to have you & Kelly!

  4. Hey, Bonnie! It’s great to hear from you! Thanks for the encouragement. This doesn’t look nearly as professional as your blog (very impressive), but hopefully it will be helpful for some. I hope you and your family are all doing well. Take care! Keep being a faith(ful) barista.

  5. Thanks for this. I have Ephesians 4:29 – “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” – in my blog’s sidebar.

    I’d be interested to know how you distinguish between essential truths and non-essential viewpoints. 🙂

  6. Richard, that’s a great verse. Really says it all, doesn’t it?

    Unfortunately, the question of what is essential and what is non-essential can, itself, become divisive! Historically, many have distinguished the esse (being) of the church from the bene esse (well-being) of the church. (And some have added plene esse for the full, undiminished life of the church.) But I guess that’s really just saying the same thing. Most of us would distinguish truths that are necessary for salvation (salvation in Christ, salvation by grace through faith, etc.) from those that are not. These salvational truths go to the heart of our faith.

    Practically, some level of agreement on other issues is necessary for people to function together harmoniously as a church. Should we baptize infants? Should there be speaking in tongues during the church service? Just because a believer disagrees with me on these kinds of issues doesn’t mean they’re not a genuine brother or sister. But, even though we have the utmost respect and affection for one anther, our disparate views will likely impair our ability to work together in the same church fellowship.

    There are many other beliefs that could make ongoing fellowship a little challenging, but not undoable. Is the private speaking of tongues a legitimate gift for believers today? Different views on this question shouldn’t keep people from fellowshipping in the same church. We’ve had members of our leadership team who felt differently about this issue. I would see many of the varying positions on the millennium and rapture in this light.

    On the other hand, if someone claims that a certain truth is necessary for salvation when most others would disagree, then this can turn a non-essential teaching into an essential issue. I doubt whether Paul would have viewed circumcision as an essential issue, but for the Galatians who were attaching this standard to salvation, addressing the issue was suddenly of paramount importance. If someone is claiming that people must speak in tongues to be saved, then there is a greater urgency for coming to a biblical consensus.

    This is some of what I would consider in seeking to distinguish essential truths from non-essential viewpoints. As I wrote in the post, we need to seek wisdom to do this appropriately.

    Thanks for the comment!

  7. Great question, Larry. I do agree that sharp dialogue is sometimes appropriate. There are issues of such great importance that it’s right—even necessary— that we discuss them vigorously. But we can still do this fairly and lovingly.

    Regarding Paul’s sarcastic comment in Galatians, we should remember that as an apostle of Christ his teachings were inspired, the teachings of Christ himself. But his whole life wasn’t inspired, and we don’t believe that Paul was perfectly infallible in everything he did and said. In this particular statement, Paul isn’t directly teaching the Galatians a spiritual truth, he’s revealing his feelings on the matter. I’m not saying he was necessarily wrong, but we also can’t use this to teach a similar attitude.

    It was said of Jesus, “a bruised reed he would not break, and a smoldering wick he would not snuff out.” Yet he had some pretty strong things to say to the Pharisees! Something I’ve noticed with both Jesus and Paul is that they seem to display a gracious, gentle demeanor, but when anyone is binding another or preventing them from coming to Christ, they react with a controlled anger. There is a time and place for us to be more pointed in our exchanges. We don’t want to fail to take a stand for the sake of “peace.” Unfortunately, in the church today we all too often fall to the other extreme.

  8. I appreciate your perspective in this post, but is there ever a place to be sharp in dialogue when we disagree? The principles you have laid out are a great help for having an intelligent, well-informed discussion about various issues, but what about Paul’s approach to the Judaizers in his letter to the Galatians Christians?

    As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! (Galatians 5:12 NIV84)

    Am I interpreting this incorrectly, or does Paul seem a little harsh?

  9. i am very proud to have stumbled onto your site. i was searching on keeping controversy
    down in business meetings. i have never pastored a church before, but hope to one day.
    i am well schooled in the bible and fill the pulpit when our pastor is away from our small
    church. i spend all my time reading and studying. thank you for the info.
    james vandevander

  10. Pingback: Minimalist Christianity | Eternal Vigilance

  11. brother, this is good. if you have a few, you may want to check out my ‘house keeping’ page and my recent post on ‘christian fight clubs’ and let me know what you think. thx again for being faithful to Jesus and His people.

  12. Praying for those struggling to speak kindly and with love in their heart for all human beings.


    Bob Vance – Alabama

  13. Thank you for your good counsel to Christians. I would like to add some scriptural support for your point 6. Distinguish between essential truths and non-essential viewpoints

    In Romans 14, the Apostle Paul warns Christians about non-essential viewpoints such as eating meat to cause division. He warns that such divisions can actually cause other believers, especially new believers, to stumble. Paul pleads with the early Christians to aim for harmony in the church, to build each other up, and to avoid tearing apart the work of God over such minor difference.

    Here are the commands from Romans 14:

    • Live in such a way that you will not cause another believer to stumble and fall. [Romans 14:13]
    • Don’t let your eating ruin someone for whom Christ died. [Romans 14:15-16]
    • Aim for harmony in the church. [Romans 14:19]
    • Try to build each other up. [Romans 14:19]
    • Don’t tear apart the work of God over what you eat. [Romans 14:20]
    • Remember, all foods are acceptable, but it is wrong to eat something if it makes another person stumble. [Romans 14:20]
    • (Don’t) eat meat or drink wine or do anything else if it might cause another believer to stumble. [Romans 14:21]
    • (If you eat meat or drink wine and it might cause other Christian believers to stumble, then) keep it between yourself and God. [Romans 14:22]
    • Be considerate of those [Christians] who are sensitive about things like this. [Romans 15:1]

  14. Robert, thank you for your summary of Romans 14. Nicely done. In this passage, Paul is focused primarily on practices that aren’t defined in Scripture as inherently right or wrong (eating meat, drinking wine, observing holy days, etc.). We do have a tendency to argue about these issues, so this would definitely relate to my 6th point in the original post. I was focused more broadly on secondary doctrinal disagreements that are addressed in Scripture (the rapture in relation to the tribulation, speaking in tongues, the security of the believer, etc.). In fact, we often tend to think these teachings are crystal clear in the Bible, and can’t understand how anyone could disagree with us! But Romans 14 is a helpful example of how we should handle controversy regarding debatable practices. Thanks.

  15. This was a very helpful piece especially during my theological research on christian approaches to contentious issues

  16. This is a good topic for discussion! I think one thing to keep in mind is the Holy Spirit’s part in what we say and believe. We can only voice our opinions and feelings. We cannot make others believe them or see things as we do. We deliver what we believe to be the truth and leave it at that. Only the Spirit can open that person’s eyes (or our own) to the truth. We can do nothing in ourselves but pray. You will never argue someone into changing their mind, bit the Spirit can.

  17. i’m late to this conversation….but it’s timely and helpful for me.
    Thanks so much for the post. And the comments were helpful/thoughtful too.

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