[* Handing a website card to a friend, and saying it contained writings by godly men, some of which may surprise or even shock her; she responded immediately and said, “I hope it’s not controversial, but I’ll have a look …” – Ed.]
To-day every truth is challenged, every doctrine assailed, every landmark assaulted, and every battle has to be fought over again. The crisis has its dangers, but it also enters like iron into the blood: for all who rest on the infallible Word of God, enormous accession of strength comes with every truth mastered afresh for oneself. Controversy, therefore, can be a channel charged with blessing, as well as the occasion of very subtle peril. In the words of Archbishop Whately:- “We must neither lead men, nor leave them, to mistake falsehood for truth. Not to undeceive is to deceive.”
But it is well, first of all, to keep some consciousness of our peril steadily before us. Wise words were written by John Newton more than a century ago:- “There is a principle of self, which disposes us to despise those who differ from us; and we are often under its influence, when we think we are only showing a becoming zeal in the cause of God. Whatever it be that makes us trust in ourselves that we are comparatively wise or good, so as to treat those with contempt who do not subscribe to our doctrines, or follow our party, is a proof and fruit of a self-righteous spirit. Self-righteousness can feed upon doctrines, as well as upon works; and a man may have the heart of a Pharisee, while his head is stored with orthodox notions of the unworthiness of the creature, and the riches of free grace. If ever the defence of the truth were seasonable and expedient, it appears to be so in our day, when errors abound on all sides, and every truth of the Gospel is either directly denied, or grossly misrepresented. And yet we find but very few writers of controversy who have not been manifestly hurt by it. Either they grow in a sense of their own importance, or imbibe an angry contentious spirit, or they insensibly withdraw their attention from those things which are the food and immediate support of the life of faith, and spend their time and strength upon matters which at most are but of a secondary value. This shows that if the service is honourable, it is dangerous. What will it profit a man if he gains his cause and silences his adversary, if at the same time he loses that humble, tender frame of spirit in which the Lord delights, and to which the promise of his presence is made?”
CHRIST AND CONTROVERSY
is critical to observe how our Lord, dealing with an identical situation,
acted; for it is written (1 Pet. 2: 21) that
He left us an example, that we should follow his steps. One writer (A. G. Knott, B.Sc.) has well expressed it thus:-
Gospel is steeped in controversy.
It would be difficult to find many pages in any of the four Gospels,
except the prayers of Jesus in
For now we confront the command:- “Contend earnestly for the Faith” (Jude 3). Every problem is at bottom a religious problem, and religion, being deeply felt, deeply divides: that a question is ‘controversial’ means that it is burning and alive, and cannot be touched without storm. If all controversy is avoided, Satan has but to stir up controversy on a given truth, to silence its testimony for ever. The mere statement of truth is a challenge to error: to speak on justification by Faith was once violently controversial. Now the call not to flinch is imperative. Why? Because truth may be one thing, while what a man thinks to be the truth may be quite another, and gulfs asunder; and no sincerity or devotion will save the man from the consequences of his error. A doctor writes a prescription, containing deadly ingredients: may a man not a chemist, and wholly ignorant of dispensing only he be sincere, be trusted to make up the prescription? If so, the patient goes in peril of his life. Do we put in a railway signal-box, to manipulate its complex levers, a man wholly ignorant of the code of signals, the scheduled timetable, and the block system, if only he be honest and sincere? If so, the passengers go in hourly peril, of their lives. How much more is it a matter of life and death to know truly and to state rightly the facts of the Gospel out of which alone springs the salvation of God: in contending for the Faith we are fighting for the very life of the world. So also with the Church. “Sanctify them through Thy truth” (John 17: 17): truth unknown, or ignored, or disobeyed makes sanctification impossible; and each truth is designed for its own specific sanctification: so in contending for the truth, we are fighting for the very life of the Church.
How are we to contend? The merely contentious spirit is so obnoxious to God as to disqualify a disciple from holding office (1 Tim. 3: 3, R.V.), and the Church is responsible to see that this prohibition is enforced. The word Jude uses is our word ‘agonize’: not, contend bitterly, or angrily, or uncharitably; for the moment we are angry, we have ceased to contend for the truth, and have begun to contend for ourselves: but (as the word means) contend, standing firmly planted on that which the enemy is trying to drag from under us: “agonize over the Faith.” But thus to contend for the Faith, we must know exactly what the Faith is; which means hard, close, comprehensive, and unprejudiced study of Scripture: and it calls for a character so richly ripened as to speak the truth in love. If (as someone says) it is personal, drop it; if it is principle, die for it. So far as what we utter is the truth, and so long as we keep our tempers, all that is of grace and God in our opponent is on our side. The Spirit enforces the Truth. Had those who first deeply disturbed the writer on his own early doctrinal positions, and so ruined his worldly prospects, withheld for peace’ sake, he would not have thanked them, as now he will throughout eternity. But it was done in love. Bishop Brent has a suggestive and warning word: “Conference is a measure of peace; controversy a weapon of war. Conference is self-abasing; controversy exalts self. Conference in all lowliness strives to understand the viewpoint of others; controversy to impose its views on all comers. Conference looks for unities; controversy exaggerates differences.” Let us ponder the word of Carlyle:- “Sarcasm is the language of the Devil.”
Who are to engage in this sacred toil of controversy? “The Faith once for all delivered” - not to apostles or prophets, for how then could the truth have been expounded in ages which had neither? not to universities, or schools of theology; not even to evangelists or pastors or teachers: but – “to the saints.” The saving Faith has been committed to the saved; the saints of every age are responsible to pass it on intact to the saints of every succeeding age; and all the saints are responsible for all the truth, and its transmission, pure, whole, and undefiled. Every saint is responsible to contend earnestly for all of the Faith that he knows: we are “set for the defence of the gospel” (Phil. 1: 16), as well as for its dissemination. Lift the enforced controversies out of the life of Christ, and how much of each Gospel remains? With what giant strokes Paul lays about him, felling fearful errors: “be ye imitators of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11: 1). “To-day,” as Dr. Campbell Morgan has said, “there is a tolerance abroad which is high treason. There is a passion saturating the air for a comprehension which sacrifices the very heart of the Christian religion, and the very core of the Gospel of the Nazarene.”
THE FRUIT OF CONTROVERSY
Without controversy no truth was ever yet established, or, when established, preserved; and it can be most rich in its outcome. We quote Mr. A. G. Knott again:- “The outcome of true controversy always results in revolutions taking place in men’s thought and actions. Many a person has been compelled under the imperious demands of truth, mediated to them through controversy, to change their values and re-orientate their whole personal and social living. Controversy has constrained men to alter their faith, choose the way of poverty, offer their lives to holy causes, re-think their Christian beliefs, change their whole attitude to money and re-interpret their personal relationships to one another. Further, in controversy many have heard the voice of God as they have heard His voice nowhere else. Their weaknesses have been exposed, their insincerities have been shown to them, their faith has been tested as to what stuff it was made of, their spirit has been deepened and they have been led out into a larger place where ‘His will’ has been seen and felt.”
D. M. PANTON.
* * *
R. H. BOLL
If in the midst of the multitude of religious bodies and denominations, which make up the professing Christendom of our day, a number of men should rise up professing themselves simply Christians, and as not identified with any sectarian body whatsoever, but as belonging only to the one Church of the New Testament, it would be proper and right to ask them a few pertinent questions. On what ground do you try to distinguish yourselves from the various bodies and denominations around you? By what right do you appropriate to yourselves that universal, non-sectarian name ‘Christian’? Are you standing on such a free, broad, universal Christian ground that the simple name ‘Christian’ describes you and your position? If so, what is your position and in what respect does it differ from that of the various denominations? And by what right do you claim to belong to the very New Testament Church itself, alone, in contrast with all the denominational world?
are fair questions and demand a fair answer. It
is evident that no man has the right to call himself simply a Christian if he
belongs to some peculiar and distinctive clan or sect. Nor can he honestly and honourably claim
to be simply a member of the
WHEN IS A MAN JUST A CHRISTIAN?
A Christian (if he is just that and nothing else) is a man who belongs to Jesus Christ - one who has accepted Him as Lord, Saviour, and as the Christ, the Son of the living God. And of course, that means as the only Lord and Saviour and Christ. Such a one is therefore wholly and exclusively committed to Christ for everything. From Him alone he has his life, in Him alone he rests his hope. From Him alone he takes orders; from Him alone he receives light, instruction, truth, guidance.
He has no other spiritual authority; no other master, rabbi, teacher. The Lord Jesus is the one only source of light and truth to him; and Christ and Christ’s Word is his only standard and criterion. The Word of Christ’s inspired messengers, the Apostles, is to be expressly included in this statement as being Christ’s; but all outside and human authority, and all merely human standards are expressly excluded.
Now if one who confesses Jesus as Lord does at the same time acknowledge other lordship and authority in spiritual matters, he ceases to be simply a Christian. He is then of a special kind and stripe, according to the kind of alien authority to which he owns allegiance. He is, as it were, a ‘hyphenate’ Christian, one whose loyalty is divided, and whose obedience to Christ is limited and modified by the human overlordship to which he is subject. His allegiance to man’s creed and authority makes him an adherent of the particular sect and party which adopts those particular human standards. And in all fairness and honesty he should not pass as a simple Christian, but should adopt some appropriate human name by which he can be known or distinguished.
WHAT IS THE
of any relative merits of any questions involved in any particular controversy
- this is a matter of principle. It is
fundamental. The very existence of
THE UNITY PLEA
It may be urged, however, that unity must be maintained, and that therefore disturbing teachings must perforce be excluded. This principle has its measure of truth, but can with the greatest ease be abused and turned into a weapon of spiritual tyranny. This false unity-plea is really the genesis of all authoritative human creeds. They were all ‘unity’ measures at first; and they have all been the fruitful cause of division and sectarianism. “You must cease to teach this or that, or there will be division,” say some reputed leaders. And straightway they themselves see to it that there is division. They, will have their way, and their doctrine, or nothing. If a man will not submit he must be marked and avoided (Rom. 16: 17, 18) because, forsooth, he is causing division. Now if any man can distinguish this from creed-making, and see any difference between this sort of procedure and the way of the sects, he must have a better microscope to detect fine lines than the rest of us possess. That is not the way of unity: it is the exercising of arbitrary jurisdiction over the minds and hearts of God’s people: it is the imposition of a human yoke. Nay, already it is altogether a fault in us if the honest presentation by a brother of what he has found (or, say, what he thinks he has found) in God’s Word should cause ‘trouble’ in the Church. Why should that cause trouble? To be sure, if the offending brother had denied the Lord Jesus Christ, or the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures, or if he had rejected the Gospel, or if he had claimed for himself some special right to depart from the Word of God, or if he had tried to form and lead off a faction, or had tried to introduce some practice which would force a separation among God’s people - we must needs deal with such a one according to the instructions of Rom. 16: 17, 18. But if it is merely a case of some thinking that they have the very last word on Bible truth and wishing to cast off any who differ with them - it ought to be obvious that such are assuming pope-ship over God’s heritage, and that they do not know and perhaps have never known what New Testament Christianity is.
it is argued that if trouble is caused over non-essential doctrines, say, about matters of
prophecy, such doctrines ought to be suppressed. We can be saved without them. It is not necessary to bring them up at
all. It is mere wantonness to stir
up trouble over such matters. No
one knows or can know anything about it at any rate, they think, and every man
should keep his ideas on prophecy to himself. This specious and fallacious reasoning seems to have weight with
some. They do not see that it finally
rests on the authority of men who presume to lay down to their brethren what
is, and what is not, necessary, and therefore what is, and what is not, to be
taught. It would be strange if
a Christian, having the Word of God in his hands, needed somebody to define for
him what part of it is necessary and what superfluous; and what can be
understood and what cannot; and what should be taught and what should be left
out. Surely no sectarian leader
would wish any wider concessions than that, and any
man given that right would have no difficulty in constructing a human creed for
the Church. What part of
God’s Word is unnecessary?
What is the irreducible minimum of essential doctrine? Perhaps only a few verses - say fifty,
or a hundred? And shall we discard
all the rest, then, if someone challenges it, lest it cause trouble? And what if the man who sorted out the
essential from the non-essential made a mistake? Is any part of the Word to be
set aside as valueless? Granting,
however, that a man could be saved without a knowledge
of Bible prophecy - ought not that to be the best reason for mutual tolerance
on the subject? But with strange
perverseness some will make that very thing an excuse for intolerance. The
sin of division lies not with those who differ, on one side or another of any
question of scripture interpretation, but with either side, whichever sets up
its view as an authoritative standard of fellowship and doctrinal
soundness. Any contingent that does
this is no longer the simple
“For freedom did Christ set us free: stand fast and be not entangled again in a yoke of bondage.” This admonition applies especially to those who would be simply Christians. Here also it is true that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. But liberty is not licence. We do not advocate individualism and self-will. The free Christian will feel all the more responsibility to consider his brother’s interest, to weigh well his speech and guard his teaching, because of his liberty; for through love we must be servants one of another. But watch we must for ever more; for on one pretence or another, under one cover or another, comes the danger of thraldom to man’s creed. The high position of the simple Christian and of the un-denominational Church must be zealously maintained against all encroachment of false authority and against the spirit of sectarianism.
‑Word and Work.*
* It is exceedingly interesting that Mr. Boll, who is among the rare souls
who understand Scriptural Catholicity and can express it, was once a Roman
Catholic. Roman ‘catholicism’ is a right
‘universality’ applied to the
totally wrong substance; for it is the
universal communion of all the infant-sprinkled (for