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How and why to have a godly controversy with a fellow believer

A while back I read a book by John Piper called The Future of Justification (available online), in which he thoroughly, lovingly and systematically showed why a fellow brother’s (N. T. Wright) understanding of the doctrine of justification is biblically incorrect. In this book he begins with a chapter discussing the biblical necessity of engaging in controversy and the attitudes that should characterize believers as they engage one another in these discussions of truth.

On our cafebiblia blog you can read the text of the entire chapter from this book (and I encourage you to read the entire post there). I wanted to include just brief excerpts here to clarify why it is that pastors must engage in godly but careful analysis, and even disagreement, with fellow Christians on matters of truth. These statements are quotes from Piper’s chapter, which discusses the particular controversy he is addressing, as well as the general need to engage in controversy from time to time.

The reason I take up controversy with N. T. Wright . . . Wright is a popular and compelling writer as well as a rigorous scholar. Therefore, he exerts significant influence . . . [yet] Wright loves the apostle Paul and reverences the Christian Scriptures. That gives me hope that engaging with him will be fruitful . . .

When we are arguing about the meaning of the gospel, it is important to do it “in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). If Bible-believers are going to disagree about the meaning of the Bible, we should try to do so biblically [he means in a godly fashion]. To that end, I offer the following encouragements . . .

But is it really necessary? Must we contend? Cannot we not simply be positive, rather than trying to show that others are wrong? . . . [in response he quotes J. Gresham Machen, who said,] . . . Men tell us that our preaching should be positive and not negative, that we can preach the truth without attacking error. But if we follow that advice we shall have to close our Bible and desert its teachings. The New Testament is a polemic book almost from beginning to end . . .

Piper longs for unity, and considers it “heart-wrenching” that controversy and disagreement exists in the church. In light of that he offers this objective and realistic observation.

. . . one of the groanings of this fallen age is controversy, and most painful of all, controversy with brothers and sisters in Christ. We resonate with the apostle Paul–our joy would be full if we could all be “of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Phil. 2:2). But for all his love of harmony and unity and peace, it is remarkable how many of Paul’s letters were written to correct fellow Christians.

The assumption of the entire New Testament is that we should strive for peace . . . [however] The unity we strive for in the church is a unity in knowledge and truth and righteousness. We grow up into the one body “joined and held together” as we “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph. 4:13, 16). “Grace and peace” are multiplied to us “in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord” (2 Pet. 1:2). And paradoxically, the weaponry with which we wage war for “the gospel of peace” begins with “the belt of truth” (Eph. 6:14-15) and ends with “the sword of the Spirit,” the Word of God (6:17).

Piper also observes with frankness and clarity that the Apostle Paul’s controversies involved issues that transcended just “damning heresy,” but included matters of “secondary importance” (I use quotes to make sure you understand that I mean all truth is important, but not all errors will damn the souls of those who embrace it).

For the sake of unity and peace, therefore, Paul labors to set the churches straight on numerous issues–-including quite a few that do not in themselves involve heresy. He does not exclude controversy from his pastoral writing. And he does not limit his engagement in controversy to first-order doctrines, where heresy threatens. He is like a parent to his churches. Parents do not correct and discipline their children only for felonies. Good parents long for their children to grow up into all the kindness and courtesy of mature adulthood. And since the fabric of truth is seamless, Paul knows that letting minor strands continue to unravel can eventually rend the whole garment.

Indeed, he is right. The adoption of every wrong teaching will lead to a “rending of the garment of truth” to some degree, and this is something that careful, loving shepherds cannot avoid if they are to care for the flock of God among them.

At the same time, Piper graciously reminds us that shepherds, and all those who engage in controversy, must always display godly character as they engage in the discussion or disagreement itself. He says,

Paul teaches that elders serve the church, on the one hand, by caring for the church without being pugnacious (1 Tim. 3:3, 5), and, on the other hand, by rebuking and correcting false teaching.

In our postmodern society where truth is considered unclear, uncertain or relative, and in a day when ecumenical cries for unity in the church are incessant, it is difficult to even speak definitively without “rocking the boat” and inviting criticisms of some kind. Piper encourages the people of God to be uncompromising in both their commitment to truth, and in their commitment to exhibiting character in the presentation of truth.

Faithful Christians do not love controversy; they love peace. They love their brothers and sisters who disagree with them. They long for a common mind for the cause of Christ. But for this very reason they are bound by their conscience and by the Word of God to try to persuade the church concerning the fullness of the truth and beauty of God’s word.

We live in a day of politicized discourse that puts no premium on clear assertions. Some use language to conceal where they stand rather than to make clear where they stand. One reason this happens is that clear and open statements usually result in more criticism than ambiguous statements do. Vagueness will win more approval in a hostile atmosphere than forthrightness will.

May God help us all to love the church by enabling us to lovingly, graciously and humbly express “clear assertions” of the truth and “persuade the church concerning the fulness of the truth and beauty of God’s word.”

Your servant,

Brian Sayers

About Brian Sayers

Brian has been an elder, and staff pastor, at Christ Community Church since September of 2000. He is a 1998 graduate of The Master's Seminary (M.Div).

2 Comments

  1. robinmay03 on August 30, 2008 at 9:19 pm

    Pastor Brian, this is a subject that I struggle with not just because I love peace but also because I shy away from conflict. I am thankful that you are addressing it. It is very important to struggle to confront error even when it is hard or painful to do. I fail so much in doing it and doing it right. This is definitely an area I need to work hard to understand and if “there is no temptation but such as is common to man…,” then I would guess that there are others who need to work hard too. (1 Cor. 10:31)

  2. Brian Sayers on September 2, 2008 at 12:48 pm

    Thanks for the encouraging comment. Keep on “struggling” your way to faithfulness, and I am confident that the Lord will reward you, and bless your ministry to others.

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