I spend a good deal of my time engaging people who are hostile to Christian belief. This includes those who outside as well as many who claim to be inside the Christian community. There is no question that we need to stand against those claims that exalt themselves against the knowledge of Christ. And these claims come from without and also from within the visible Christian community. But as is true with anything else, this practice can be perverted unless it is disciplined with godly humility and Christian charity. And I will be the first to admit that I have crossed that line more than once. It is a hazard that everyone who is concerned with the proclamation and defense of truth must be concerned about. Otherwise, a profound darkness can emerge where there should be only light. Keep reading and I will explain what I mean.
One of the most convicting texts of Scripture, at least for me anyways, is 1 Tim. 6:4-5. One of the descriptions of the false teacher, according to Paul, is that he has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words. I have seen this in the cults, the agnostics, militant atheists, and even some Christian apologetics sites. And I have to wonder if others have seen it or felt it in me. To be sure, there is a difference between contending and defending, and just plain old being contentious any everyone regarding almost everything. I am convinced I have crossed that line on more than one occasion. I pray for grace that God would grant me the ability to see where that line is and the strength to resist my sinful urge to cross it. Some of us, and I am including myself in this group, have a proclivity in that direction. That isn’t all bad. But it can move from good to bad in a hurry. It’s like drinking an ice-cold drink just a little too fast. There is no stopping the brain freeze.
According to Paul, one of the behaviors that is common with the teacher who teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound or healthy words of Our Lord is that he has an unhealthy craving for controversy. Now, I don’t think this only applies to false teachers. It is obviously a behavior that even solid teachers can fall into just like any other sin. Good teachers can be guilty of envy and slander which are words Paul uses to describe these false teachers. It only stands to reason then that good teachers can also let themselves get carried away with chasing one controversy after another but worse than that, blowing every disagreement up into a serious controversy when they are actually nothing more than imperfect men doing their best to understand the teachings of Scripture. In our discernment, we must be able to tell the difference and that is very often not easy to do. It is especially not easy to do if you do not know the person you are critiquing and if it is not clear that the person is in serious error. It is always better to begin with grace, humility, love, and patience and to work forward from there. It is best, when possible, to give someone the benefit of the doubt rather than rushing to judgment. Perhaps it would be useful if I included a couple of scenarios in order to help drive this point home.
The Greek word rendered unhealthy craving is νοσέω (noseo). It falls within the semantic domain of “Attitudes and Emotions” and the sub-domain, A desire, wish, want. It carries the sense of an unhealthy or morbid desire for something. It is quite literally a sick desire for something. In some languages, it means a desire for something that one should not have. This seems to be a theme in the pastorals. 1 Timothy 1:4 says, for example, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. There is an underlying warning regarding baseless speculation and wrangling about words that shows up in the pastoral epistles. We would do well to keep this in mind as we promote and defend the truth of the gospel. Paul commands Timothy to avoid worthless discussions because it leads people into more and more ungodliness. (1 Tim. 2:6) There is no question that there is a need for apologetics, for correction, for rebuke. But it is equally clear that there are some of us who have a natural proclivity to seek out controversy after controversy because, well, we like a good fight. That sin is in us. It is part of our fallen nature. It is a desire that we must learn to discipline and keep in check. Far too often we do not give this desire the attention and supervision it needs and as a result, not only do we accomplish some good by calling out true heretics and enemies of the faith, we also end up doing harm by attacking good men who love the Lord with whom we just have a disagreement. We can and must do better.
Everyone, including the good guys, becomes a target
Paul commanded Timothy to conduct himself in this way: Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. 24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (2 Tim. 2:23-26)
First of all, the servant of the Lord must have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies. Literally, Paul says that Timothy must have nothing to do with the foolish and ignorant debate (controversy). I have not always successfully and consistently obey this command. I must do better. We all must do better. These controversies do nothing but breed quarrels. We so often address issues that are well within the bounds of Christian freedom as if they are not and because someone takes a different view of the issue, we feel the need to engage. Removing civil war era statues is a perfect example. I may have no position on the question while you might. My only position is that tearing down statues will not purge sinful behavior and it is never a good idea to erase history. Nevertheless, I should question my urge to debate people on an issue like this. Such a scenario can quickly deteriorate into a foolish, ignorant controversy, and from there, further deteriorate into endless quarrels. We damage relationships that ought not to be damaged when we behave this way. There is room for grace, always, and kindness, and respect and charity, and most important, humility. We must learn to patiently endure evil. What does that mean? It is an interesting phrase and the context is of great help.
To be quarrelsome is to be unkind. Paul says the servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be kind to everyone. To quarrel is to engage in a heated or emotional dispute. Timothy has apparently been pulled into some disputes that Paul deems unhelpful, unhealthy, and distracting. In fact, these disputes threated the real mission of the gospel: repentance. Instead, the servant of the Lord must be gentle to all. This word gentle comes from the Greek ἤπιος (epios). It falls into the semantic domain of gentleness, mildness. It is used in 1 Thess. 2:7 of nursing mothers. How kind is a nursing mother to her child? This is the picture Paul is giving Timothy of the soldier of the Lord!
Be a competent teacher. The phrase “able to teach” is the Greek word didaktikos, and it means a skilled teacher. Those who take up the practice to correct and engage and defend the faith must not only be kind and gentle like a nursing mother, but they must also be skilled teachers. This is necessary if you are going to help others see the error of their ways. Modern culture has devalued human beings, especially on the internet. Insults fly a million a minute. Rhetoric substitutes for sound arguments far more often than not. And if we are not careful, we fall into the very same behavior. Helping others see their error is our goal and repentance is our hope. Being a skilled teacher is a requirement. Being kind and gentle are required behaviors.
The servant of the Lord must be tolerant. We must be able to endure error and patiently correct it. We also must be able to recognize what is serious error and what is not. It is one thing to take on heresy and serious error and another to see every disagreement as a candidate for serious dispute. Removing civil-war era statues is an example of an issue about which Christians really have no business engaging in serious dispute. We may have small talk about the matter and come to different conclusions but that should in no way affect our relationships or create tension. Getting emotional over such issues is an indication of ego and pride. This can easily serve as an impediment to Christian unity. And that is a far more serious issue than a statue. For some reason, unity has been devalued by many of us with an apologetics bent. This ought not to be the case.
The servant of the Lord must correct those who are in opposition with gentleness. We are literally commanded to educate with gentleness. The word gentleness in this case is the Greek word πραΰτης (prautes). It is different from the word Paul uses in v. 24. This word expresses the quality of not being impressed with one’s own self-importance. It means to be courteous and considerate. It is in the same semantic domain as the word ἤπιος used above in v. 24. Paul then says something very interesting: God may perhaps grant them repentance. The idea seems to be that it is because that God may grant the offender repentance that we should conduct ourselves in a certain way. Peter says the same thing in his great apologetics text in 1 Peter 3:15-16.
The error with which we are dealing should determine how we deal with it as well as the person promoting it. Should I attack John MacArthur because I reject the rapture theory? Should I obsess about it and fire at him every chance I get? Should I devote tremendous time to James White’s recent decision to hold dialogue with Muslims? First, I am not convinced that Dr. White was right or wrong. It is an issue that I hold without expressing an opinion at this time. But I am convinced that those who are attacking him are in error themselves. The attacks seem to me to be unmeasured and misplaced. Dr. White is a man of the gospel. No one who knows him or is familiar with his ministry can accuse him of being weak on Scripture or the gospel. And his apologetic work on Islam is unimpeachable.
The charlatan is treated differently than the brother in Christ with whom we disagree. And in the context of 2 Tim. 2, the error seems to be substantive. Despite that fact, Paul is still demanding that we treat the offender with respect and courtesy on the possibility that God may grant them repentance. It seems best to me that the servant of the Lord error on the side of caution.
In summary, it is not easy to treat those who contradict with courtesy and respect. Far too often we take “shutting their mouths” in the modern sense and use it as a license to be rude, condescending, unloving, and totally lacking in Christian charity. The truth is that we shut the mouth of the opponent with a kind, measured, educated, gentle correction of truth. We give them the truth of the gospel of Christian revelation with conviction but we do so in love, respecting them as being created in God’s image. Second, every issue is not a matter of the gospel. There are a number of issues that are subject to Christian liberty. Is dispensationalism heresy? Are Arminians not saved? Is everyone who talks about racism just talking about it to look good before men? No, no, and no. Perhaps a little humility would go a long way in helping us treat one another better when we are in disagreement over some of these matters. Perhaps we should ask ourselves just exactly how much error exists in our own theology at the moment before we toss others to the curb. All I am suggesting is that we increase the humility meter a bit and do better when it comes to treating others with dignity. If we don’t know someone personally, they should get the benefit of the doubt. It is amazing how getting to know someone can make all the difference in the world. Only then do we see them as God’s object of love, as God’s creation. It’s about awareness. The purpose of this blog is to help those who do what I do become a little more aware of themselves, how they come across, and of others. It’s mostly a therapeutic post for me. I need to read this post as much or more than most. Should you benefit from it, then hey, even better.
See Justin Taylor’s post here: