Controversy–Sometimes It is Right to Fight

Posted: October 13, 2013 in Uncategorized

After writing about the inclination to “fight” against liberal theology, the question of whether or not controversy is a good thing was raised. I have addressed that before and will post some of what I stated in 2010. In short, I do believe that controversy can be good. We see the helpfulness of engaging in doctrinal controversy in both Scripture and Church history.

What follows is part of a larger post that you can read here.

“Controversy within the body of Christ has historically had the tendency to accomplish some good things and is even somewhat expected according to Scripture.  Jude 3 calls us to “contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.”  This passage itself calls us to some type of controversial posture. We see such contention played out unto good ends through controversy in the book of Acts. In Acts 15 we find the Jerusalem Council debating a hot-button issue: the necessity of circumcision in salvation.  The result of the controversy was a clarification of the gospel, namely that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone!  There is still more controversy in Acts 15.  Paul and Barnabas have a disagreement over John Mark tagging along on their next missionary journey.  They can’t agree.  The result of the disagreement was the creation of two missionary teams instead of one. Controversy was a means to good ends.   

Even church history shows us that engaging in controversy is, at times, necessary.  Athanasius knew this.  He spent his life engaged in controversy.  He would, during a time when it seemed the whole world abandoned orthodoxy, engage in a battle to defend the deity of Christ.  Athanasius was deemed contra mundum (against the world).  John Piper says, “he (Athanasius) stood steadfast against overwhelming defection from orthodoxy, and only at the end of his life could he see the dawn of triumph” (John Piper, Contending for Our All:  Defending Truth and Treasuring Christ in the lives of Athanasius, John Owen, and J. Gresham Machen (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006), p. 41.).  This life lived in controversy would help give us our orthodox understanding of the deity of Christ.  

Fast-forward from the fourth century to the sixteenth.  Martin Luther engaged in a battle to see the recovery of the doctrine of justification by faith alone.  His stand for the truth of the gospel, years after it had been clarified at the Jerusalem Council, sees the gospel begin to be recovered and clarified once again.  

One last historical figure to note is J. Gresham Machen.  As the winds of liberalism began to blow through the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A, Machen took a stand.  In March of 1935 he was found to be insubordinate for not monetarily supporting “the officially authorized missionary program of the Presbyterian church” (Piper, Contending for Our All, 118).  Machen left Princeton Seminary and founded Westminster Seminary to carry on the legacy of men like Charles Hodge and Benjamin B. Warfield.  Thus taking a controversial stance against the winds of liberalism within his own denomination, Machen founded a conservative Presbyterian seminary committed to the truth set forth in the Bible.  From Machen’s efforts a conservative Presbyterian denomination would also emerge (The PCA). 

Clearly I think the examples found in the Bible and as witnessed in church history teach us that controversy is not necessarily bad and is in fact often needed.  As J. Gresham Machen has said, “Controversy of the right sort is good; for out of such controversy, as Church history and Scripture alike teach, there comes the salvation of souls” (Gresham Machen, What is Faith? (1925; Reprint: Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991), p. 42-43.).  Francis Schaeffer said it well.  “As a matter of fact, we have a greater possibility of showing what Jesus is speaking about here, in the midst of our differences, than we do if were are not differing” (Francis Schaeffer, The Mark of Love, in The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, Vol. 4, A Christian View of the Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1982), pp. 193-194).”



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