A guide to godly disputation
Bill Kinnon and others have written about the controversies between various factions within the church. How do you confront those we think need it? How do we receive correction? Whether you’re the one confronting or being confronted, it’s hard to respond appropriately.
It’s hard and it shows, because few of us are doing it well.
That’s why one of Tim Keller’s talks at the EMA was so important. From my notes:
Can we go back through every single criticism wrapped in these horrendous doctrinal proposals and catch the core of valid criticism, no matter how poorly motivated and exaggerated?…There is a whole slew of younger leaders out there. They are watching us….We’re going to win the younger leaders if we are the most gracious and the most kind and the least self-righteous in controversy toward people on the other side of the boundary.
The next day, Keller referred to John Newton. Newton said that the devil gets you two ways in controversy. The two errors we can fall into are compromise and self-righteousness. Either way, we’re in trouble.
Newton wrote to a fellow minister, who was about to write an article criticizing a fellow minister for his lack of orthodoxy:
As to your opponent, I wish that before you set pen to paper against him, and during the whole time you are preparing your answer, you may commend him by earnest prayer to the Lord’s teaching and blessing. This practice will have a direct tendency to conciliate your heart to love and pity him; and such a disposition will have a good influence upon every page you write.
It seems a laudable service to defend the faith once delivered to the saints; we are commanded to contend earnestly for it, and to convince gainsayers. If ever such defenses were seasonable and expedient they appear to be so in our own 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 that are the food and immediate support of the life of faith, and spend their time and strength upon matters that are at most but of a secondary value. This shows, that if the service is honorable, it is dangerous.
Be upon your guard against admitting anything personal into the debate. If you think you have been ill treated, you will have an opportunity of showing that you are a disciple of Jesus, who “when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not.” This is our pattern, thus we are to speak and write for God, and “not rendering railing for railing, but contrariwise blessing; knowing that hereunto we are called.” The wisdom that is from above is not only pure, but also peaceable and gentle; and the want of these qualifications, like the dead fly in the pot of ointment, will spoil the savor and efficacy of our labors. If we act in a wrong spirit, we shall bring little glory to God, do little good to our fellow creatures, and procure neither honor nor comfort to ourselves.
John Wesley once wrote to Newton, “You appear to be designed by divine providence for an healer of breaches, a reconciler of honest but prejudiced men, and an uniter (happy work!) of the children of God.” That was before Newton’s relationship with Wesley ended in 1762 over a doctrinal issue.
We all still have lots to learn about how to do this.