In Scripture we are told to avoid being contentious (Tit. 3:9); Paul tells Timothy he should not keep company with such contentious men (1 Tim. 6:4), and he lists “strife” & “variance” as fruits of the flesh in Gal. 5:20. We are commanded: “Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4:3).” So, many Christians take this as a command to avoid controversy, argument, debate. But is this really the way Scripture would have us understand and obey these passages? Many Christians have seen churches ripped apart by bitter debates and have resolved “never again” would they be a part of something so nasty.
Yet, if we are truly interested in unity, we must also be interested in the hard work it takes to keep the unity. This means we will be required to argue, but we must do so without being a boor. It seems counterintuitive, but unity and argument are not foes, they are friends. The reason many of us have the taste of bile in the back of our throat when we think of argument is that we have rarely witnessed grace-filled argument. Instead we are all too familiar with the bitter shouting matches that are the common depiction of argument. It seems impossible that argument could be at all good!
Others have spent time in a community that has firm guidelines which demands adherence to all sorts of rules; the leadership shoehorns everyone into unity, but there is never any room for dispute, concern, or even discussion. Those who have experienced such controlling churches are left disillusioned by the acridity of the entire situation, and some even abandon the faith altogether.
We should expect that mature believers will be able to argue in such a way as to augment and invigorate unity.You can have sinful unity, and sinful argument. Yet it is rare to see godly argument in the context of godly unity. However, if the Church is intended to grow up into maturity, then we should expect that mature believers will be able to argue in such a way as to augment and invigorate unity.
Paul exhorted the Ephesian church with these words, “Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4:3).” This same Paul “withstood [Peter] to the face, because he was to be blamed (Gal 2:11).” Yet he also stated in another place, “Do all things without murmurings and disputings (Phl 2:14).” Luke tells us, however, that Paul spent three months “disputing” daily in the synagogue of Ephesus (Acts. 19:8-9). Is Paul being the über-hypocrite? What are we to make of such a seeming blatant contradiction?
We must understand that when Paul exhorts the saints to “endeavor to keep the unity”, he is making quite the telling statement. Endeavoring (spoudazō) implies exertion, diligent attention, and hard work. Paul doesn’t tell the Ephesians that unity will wash over them if they sing a praise chorus for 10 minutes. Rather, he calls them to endeavor to keep. Yes, God has given us “one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all (Eph. 4:4-6).” All these “one” statements immediately follow his command to endeavor to keep the unity. God has given His Church one faith and one body, i.e. unity; but that gift comes with the hard work of keeping unity.
Godly argument, disputing, and debate must not be thought of as a hindrance to unity, but one of the primary means of keeping the unity.Godly argument, disputing, and debate must not be thought of as a hindrance to unity, but one of the primary means of keeping the unity. A car engine without oil will quickly seize up due to the friction of the gears. If some sponger of a guy wants his car to run correctly, but without going to the effort of adding and changing the oil, he shouldn’t be surprised when it doesn’t work at all. Humans in community with each other must necessarily create friction; but this is what makes the vehicle actually go. However, it also needs the oil so that it continues to function, and do so smoothly. Argument without unity, is like an engine without oil.
Unity without argument, however, is like an engine that you never turn on! You’ve got an engine by the looks of it, but does it run? You’ve got a system of unity, of sorts, “Hey, its one engine isn’t it?” Yet, in order for the engine to fulfill its mission, the gears, valves and pistons all have to roar to life. The engine can sit in a form of unity for a hundred years, but if we turn the key and try to get it moving, we may find out that it has a busted part and the whole system can potentially be harmed to the point of uselessness. There goes the façade of unity. All because of a fear of the hard work it takes to get all the parts working together. The engine may have known all along that one of the cylinders was cracked, but so long as it refused to bring it up, no one noticed. It takes the rattle and hum of actually running to find out where the weak spots are, and then go about the toil of getting things working!
Here is how one pastor expressed his concern with churches that refuse to argue for the sake of so-called unity and peace, “I truly wonder if the modern evangelical church is better off for the tacit decision to ‘agree to disagree’ over such important issues as the nature of God’s work in salvation (e.g. Arminians vs. Calvinists), the subjects of baptism (e.g. Adult Baptists vs. infant Baptists), or eschatology (prelims, postmils, amils, ‘panmils’).”1Wagner, Roger. Tongues aflame: learning to preach from the Apostles. Fearn: Mentor, 2004. pg. 190 In many churches and denominations, the “agreeing to disagree” approach has resulted in engines that aren’t running at all. The result is that we have whole churches full of what missionary C.T. Study called chocolate soldiers2Studd, C.T. “The Chocolate Soldier.” Gutenburg.org. Accessed May 25, 2017. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/22331/22331-h/22331-h.htm.. When the heat of difficulty comes, they melt into puddles of impotent cowardice. Surely, we want the people in our churches to be strong, resolute, and manly.
This doesn’t mean that humility, cooperation, deference and other such virtues are not needful. What it means is that we are not called to a sort of unity that is found in a library. It is quiet, tidy, and everything is in its place; regardless of all the wildly different viewpoints present on the shelves.
Rather, the unity we are to strive to keep is more akin to an offensive line on a football team. There we see sweat and sinews, planning and failure, communication and cooperation, accountability and advancement all aimed in the same direction of victory. The players are all on the same team, but they have to fight and practice to run the same play. If one guy goes right when he should have gone left, there will be justifiable reason–and even need–for his teammates to argue with him and show him where he went wrong, even if he thinks he made the correct move. Their arguing will force them all to go back to the playbook, take a long look at it, and see what it really says; maybe the rest of the team discovers they were actually doing the wrong thing. This could only be discovered by argument; but remember their argument is helpful only when they do so in the context of being on the same team trying to win the game together.
Roger Wagner points out that, “In a day like ours, when churches are more and more eager to avoid controversy, sometimes at any cost, we need to be reminded that, as Christians, but especially as ministers, we are ‘to earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3).”3Wagner, Roger. Tongues aflame: learning to preach from the Apostles. Fearn: Mentor, 2004. pg. 189 Christians must remind themselves they are on the same team with each other and they have one Lord, one faith, one baptism. We know the other team wants to beat us, but we must be able to contend for the faith amongst ourselves. This is especially true when we see that the way we are playing, and the plays we are running will only result in us beating ourselves!
If a member of the team is making a repeated mistake that is causing us to lose, it would be foolish to think that not bringing it up is the best course of action. Rather, if we are to contend for our faith, we need to be willing to contend for it on our own team. Christian ministers and parishioners must be willing to correct, rebuke, dispute and argue as a means of keeping the unity. We have to be willing to come into contact with those we are in relationship with.
My wife and I have often discussed that when we have a disagreement over a specific child-rearing decision, rather than pit ourselves as two opposing sides, we remind each other that both of us want to see our children raised in the fear and admonition of the Lord. Our argument is then rooted in how we can raise our children to glorify God and enjoy Him forever4Westminster Shorter Catechism. Accessed May 25, 2017. http://www.reformed.org/documents/WSC.html., rather than how I can get my way or she get hers. It focuses our discussion and dispute around our primary goal as a team, and lets the cloudier matters gain clarity as we go to the Word and pray to seek wisdom as to what choice we should make.
We need to be mindful of what has come before us. Many of the doctrines we can easily take for granted (i.e. justification by faith alone, baptism as the sign of the New Covenant, the Triune nature of God, the deity of Jesus, etc.) are the result of many long (sometimes centuries long) debates and arguments. After all, “Students of Church history know that the Church’s understanding of biblical doctrine has often taken great steps forward through controversy.”5Wagner, Roger. Tongues aflame: learning to preach from the Apostles. Fearn: Mentor, 2004. pg. 189 It was Luther’s debating and disputing that sparked the Reformation, and he simply was arguing for that one word: alone. We should also remember, as a warning lest we think argument unnecessary, that “the Christian religion has produce more heresies than any other religion, and the heresies it produces are more tenacious than those of any other religion.”6Brown, Harold O. J. Heresies: heresy and orthodoxy in the history of the church. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000. pg 6 Some might see this as evidence of the fact that we Christians just can’t get along, when in reality it is by reason of the fact that: “Christianity consists of a message that claims to be absolutely true and that is at the same time deeply and perplexingly mysterious.”7Brown, Harold O. J. Heresies: heresy and orthodoxy in the history of the church. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000. pg 6
It is precisely because we believe in One true God–Who has given us a clear and authoritative Word which reveals to us the true faith–that we have unity; and because of this presupposition of unity, we recognize the great need for argument and dispute whenever error or heresy rears its ugly head. Argument is not an enemy of unity, it is unity’s right hand man!Argument is not an enemy of unity, it is unity’s right hand man! Schism, error, lies and heresy are, in fact, the weapons of our Enemy. Satan, and his servants, parade as an angels of light (2 Cor. 11:14). Irenæus wisely instructed the early church:
“Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced (ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than the truth itself.”8Irenaeus. St. Irenaeus of Lyons against heresies. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Place of publication not identified: Ex Fontibus, 2010. pg. 28
If we are concerned about unity, we must also be concerned about defending it. If we delight in disputation, we ought to remember that argument is to lead us to unity. This of course requires wisdom, and humility, even patience. Far too many arguments have resulted in schism simply because both parties were unwilling to be “in it for the long haul.” This is not an indictment on argument, but of their lack of long-suffering, joviality, and humility.
We should love unity, and we should love defending it at all costs. This is why Paul could, as referenced earlier, rebuke Peter to the face; it wasn’t simply that Paul was a class-A jerk. Rather, Paul was courageous and loving enough to warn Peter that his actions were stumbling both the Jewish and Gentile believers, and he should recognize his error. Again, same team mentality.
This is why John the Baptist and Jesus were not unloving by declaring the Pharisees to be whited tombs and a brood of vipers. We see courageous men throughout Scripture who stood for unity by disputing, rebuking, and arguing. C.T. Studd remarks on Nathan the prophet: “[Nathan] went to his king and rebuked him to his face […] and unlike the Chocolate Soldiers of today who go whispering about and refusing either to judge, rebuke, or put away evil because of the entailed scandal forsooth. Veritable Soapy Sams. They say ‘It is nothing! nothing at all! A mere misunderstanding!’ As though God’s cause would suffer more through a bold declaration and defense of the truth and the use of the knife, than by the hiding up of sin, and the certain development of mortification in the member, involving death to the whole body.”9Studd, C.T. “The Chocolate Soldier.” Gutenburg.org. Accessed May 25, 2017. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/22331/22331-h/22331-h.htm.
In essence, there isn’t nearly enough argument in the church. There certainly is defective argument–full of pride and envy, and grounded on tradition, statistics and polls. But this is defect of argument not excess. We mourn our lack of unity, but we are cowards when it comes to being willing to argue like men of God. We want the muscle but hate the exercise.
We are finite creatures, attempting to proclaim the message of the infinite love and grace of an infinite God who sent His Son to pay the immense cost of our eternally damnable sin. Trying to articulate that clearly and faithfully takes hard work, patience, and good ol’ fashioned arguments in order for us to lovingly guard each other against error. Surely, in eternity, we shall no longer need argument; but the discipline and role of argument will most certainly be somehow glorified into something more marvelous and fitting for that heavenly kingdom. We shall be one in Christ, and every nation, tribe, tongue, and faithful denomination will be there; which means somehow all those differences will reconcile perfectly.
|↑1||Wagner, Roger. Tongues aflame: learning to preach from the Apostles. Fearn: Mentor, 2004. pg. 190|
|↑2, ↑9||Studd, C.T. “The Chocolate Soldier.” Gutenburg.org. Accessed May 25, 2017. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/22331/22331-h/22331-h.htm.|
|↑3, ↑5||Wagner, Roger. Tongues aflame: learning to preach from the Apostles. Fearn: Mentor, 2004. pg. 189|
|↑4||Westminster Shorter Catechism. Accessed May 25, 2017. http://www.reformed.org/documents/WSC.html.|
|↑6, ↑7||Brown, Harold O. J. Heresies: heresy and orthodoxy in the history of the church. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000. pg 6|
|↑8||Irenaeus. St. Irenaeus of Lyons against heresies. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Place of publication not identified: Ex Fontibus, 2010. pg. 28|