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The Benefits and Dangers of Controversy – Iain Murray

Category Book Excerpts
Date June 13, 2024

This is the text of an address delivered at the Leicester Ministers’ Conference, 28 April, 2012. It is included, along with four other addresses, in Iain H. Murray’s Evangelical Holiness and Other Addresses.

J. Gresham Machen once wrote: ‘If we are going to avoid controversy, we might as well close our Bibles; for the New Testament is a controversial book practically from beginning to the end.’ Then he made this prediction about the future:

I do not know all the things that will happen when the great revival sweeps over the Church, the great revival for which we long. Certainly I do not know when that revival will come; its coming stands in the Spirit’s power. But about one thing that will happen when that blessing comes I think we can be fairly sure. When a great and true revival comes in the Church, the present miserable, feeble talk about avoidance of controversy on the part of the servants of Jesus Christ will all be swept away as with a mighty flood.1J. G. Machen, What is Christianity?, p. 220.

You understand that in speaking of revival, Machen was not speaking simply of a time of blessing or excitement in a local church; he was referring to the kind of awakening in the churches and in society which turns attention to God, brings conviction of sin, humbles people, and even changes the course of history. But is his prediction, that such an event will be accompanied by controversy, justified? I believe that it is. Church history shows that all the great turning points in history have been times of controversy and there is good reason why that is the case. It is because every great advance of the kingdom of God takes place in conjunction with the recovery of biblical truth, and when the truth is known in its power opposition will not be absent. Thus when the book of Acts tells us, ‘The word of God grew and multiplied’, we go on to read that the Christians were seen as a ‘sect’ and ‘everywhere spoken against’ (Acts 28: 22). Before we speak of the benefits of controversy, I note three examples of controversies that marked turning points in history.

1. The great Reformation of the sixteenth century. There are those today who think that the Reformation, and the division that gave rise to the Protestant churches, were things that might have been avoided. There ought, it is said, to have been more tolerance and less passion on both sides. The differences, they believe, were more over words than over fundamental issues. Such spokesmen concede that some Reformation of the church was necessary, but suggest that it might have been carried on peacefully had there been better mutual understanding. This argument overlooks something: there were people who thought in just that kind of way at the time of the Reformation. Erasmus, the Renaissance Dutch scholar, is their best representative. Erasmus believed in the need for the Bible to be translated and known; and he supported the reform of abuses in the church. At the same time he thought that all this might be achieved peacefully by a cautious policy of education. So he complained that Martin Luther was a threat to the peace and unity of the church; the German reformer was too dogmatic—he treated opinions, and ‘doubtful and unnecessary’ beliefs, as though they were certainties. Erasmus blamed Luther for his ‘delight in assertions’.

It was to this thinking of Erasmus that Luther replied in The Bondage of the Will, a book which showed that Erasmus was not a real believer in the doctrines of the Bible at all. The Dutchman’s thinking, Luther wrote, meant regarding ‘Christian doctrines as nothing better than the opinions of philosophers and men: and that it is the greatest folly to quarrel about, contend for, and assert them, as nothing can arise therefrom but contention and the disturbance of the public peace.’2The Bondage of the Will (Grand Rapids and London: Eerdmans and SGU, 1931), p. 23 A new translation was edited by J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston (Cambridge: Clarke, 1957).

He replied to Erasmus:

Allow us to be assertors, and to study and delight in assertions: and do you favour your Sceptics and Academics until Christ shall have called you also. The Holy Spirit is not a Sceptic, nor are what he has written in our hearts doubts or opinions, but assertions more certain, and more firm, than life itself. 3Ibid., p. 24.

Erasmus, Luther says, made keeping peace of ‘greater consideration than salvation, than the word of God, than the glory of Christ’, and the cause of his mistake was that his viewpoint was fundamentally different from that of the Reformers. He saw the controversy over the Reformation as a difference between men. For Luther it was much more than that: it was a movement of the Spirit of God. Men were called to take part but God was the true agent. In the words of John Knox, ‘God gave his Holy Spirit to simple men in great abundance.’ In essence, the Reformation was a revival. God sent forth light and truth, and the hostility that erupted was exactly what Scripture warns us to expect. The uproar in the sixteenth century did not come about because of ‘opinions’; it came from enmity to the Bible and to God. ‘The carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be’ (Rom. 8:7).

2. The Evangelical Revival of the eighteenth century, or as it became known in the American colonies, ‘The Great Awakening’. This also was attended by controversy, not now between Protestants and Roman Catholics but between Protestants themselves. Yet the issue was very similar to the main issue at the Reformation. The devil’s constant strategy is to seek to merge the church and the world so that the people of God lose their distinctiveness and be no longer as ‘a city set upon a hill’. The primary way for Satan to achieve this is to confuse what it means to be a Christian. He uses false prophets to make entrance into the kingdom of God broad and not narrow, and so becoming a Christian is just a matter of belonging to the institutional church. ‘Be baptized, profess Christianity, attend church’, and that is all. This was largely the position on both sides of the Atlantic in the eighteenth century, as it had been two centuries earlier. When Whitefield and Wesley began to preach the necessity of being born again people heard it as though it was a new religion. Typical was the testimony of Thomas Webb, a parish clerk in England, who had listened to many sermons in his lifetime, and yet confessed, ‘The new birth, justification by faith only, the want of free will in man to do good works without the special grace to God, was as it were, a new language to me.’4George Whitefield’s Journals (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1985), p. 327. He writes that it was his sermon on the ‘Nature and Necessity of our Regeneration or the New Birth, which under God began the awakening at London, Bristol, Gloucester and Gloucestershire. Ibid., p. 86. Archibald Alexander, who was brought up among Presbyterians in the Shenandoah Valley, says the same thing. The day came in his life when, away from home, a Baptist millwright asked him

Whether I had experience the new birth. I hesitated and said, ‘Not that I know of.’ ‘Ah’, said he, ‘if you had ever experienced this change you would know something about it!’ Here the conversation ended; but it led me to think more seriously whether there were any such change. It seemed to be in the Bible; but I thought there must be some method of explaining it away; for among the Presbyterians I had never heard of anyone who had experienced the new birth, nor could I recollect ever to have heard it mentioned.’5James W. Alexander, Life of Archibald Alexander (New York: Charles Scribner, 1854), p. 41.

The fundamental controversy in the eighteenth-century revival was about the nature of vital, life-changing Christianity. The evangelicals appealed to the testimony of the New Testament on such truths as the power of the Holy Spirit in conviction of sin, and his work in giving assurance of salvation, and they were told such things were no longer necessary in ‘Christian’ countries. It was ‘fanaticism’ and highly offensive to preach to churchgoers as though they might not be Christians. Take one particular instance of this controversy. Jonathan Edwards, leader in the Awakening in colonial America, was dismissed from the church at Northampton which he had served for twenty-three years. The cause of his dismissal was that he had come to see the wrongness of allowing churchgoers to come to the Lord’s Table although they could give no testimony to their personal faith in Christ. When he sought to persuade his people that the Lord’s Table, and the purity of the church, needed to be guarded, there was such an outcry against him that it terminated his ministry.

3. The Modern Controversy over Scripture. In the last century practically all the historic denominations of the English-speaking nations, from America to New Zealand, fell into serious decline. Whole communities where light once burned brightly were left in darkness. This happened because the leadership in these churches took the wrong side in controversy over whether the whole Bible is God-given revelation which is to be obeyed in all it says. Now although this controversy continues to be contemporary, we are all aware that it did not begin yesterday. It came out into the light in the 1880s, and it was at its height until about the 1920s, when tragically the mainline churches in our countries gave in to the teaching that the Bible contains both truth and error. The majority argued that this change of belief was simply the inevitable result of a better understanding of the nature of the Bible. No one should be disturbed about this discovery, they said, because faith does not rest upon a Book but upon the living Christ. The claim was, ‘It is Christ we worship, not a book!’ Such was a common way in which falsehood was presented and it was promised that there was no danger in accepting it. After all, they said, there is a difference between believing the Bible and ‘believing in theories about the Bible’. The historic Christian belief in the inerrancy of all Scripture was only ‘a theory’ produced to explain its composition. Other possible explanations were not to be excluded. In 1888 a prominent English Baptist leader, John Clifford, defended this thinking in a major speech which he entitled ‘The Battle of the Sacred Books’.6I have written more fully on this controversy in Archibald G. Brown: Spurgeon’s Successor (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2011). ‘Books’ in the plural was central to his thesis. There are other ‘sacred books’; Christianity cannot be exclusive in its claim to have revelation from heaven. The Bible is only ‘superior revelation’, but in saying this, he added, ‘Let me carefully note that we speak of the Bible ITSELF, and not of any human theories concerning its composition.’ Without stating whom he was attacking, Clifford referred to those of orthodox belief as ‘scholastic system-builders, and priest-bitten ecclesiastics’. They are people, he said, who think ‘geography and statistics as equally vital with redemption and ethics’—a veiled way of saying that if matters of fact are wrong in the Bible that should not trouble us. It is, he said, ‘fatal’ to forget ‘that our faith does not rest, in its last support, upon the qualities and forces of the Scriptures, but on God . . . Jesus did not say to His disciples, “Go, preach to everybody, everywhere, and lo, a book is with you; but, lo, I am with you.” Our trust is in a living Leader; not in a book we read.’

Clifford was only repeating an idea already becoming popular and supposedly the result of the progress of scholarship. It was thirty-six years after his speech that a document called the Auburn Affirmation was published in the United States, signed by 150 Presbyterian ministers and then by others until the number grew to about 1,300. This Affirmation claimed that men of liberal belief in their theology had the same right to be in pulpits as traditionalists. They all ‘believed the Bible’, it was just ‘certain theories concerning the inspiration of the Bible’ over which they differed.

But by the 1920s the distinction between the Bible and ‘theories’ was worked out more widely. It was now said that one could believe in the cross of Christ without accepting any ‘theory’ of the atonement. Or one could believe in ‘the resurrection of Christ’ without determining whether it was a bodily resurrection. Bodily resurrection was only a ‘theory’, and the liberals were equally entitled to their theories.7Commenting on the Auburn Affirmation, Gresham Machen wrote, ‘A document which will affirm the resurrection but will not say that our Lord rose from the dead with the same body in which He suffered—this is simply one more manifestation of that destructive Modernism which is the deadliest enemy of the Christian religion in practically all the larger churches of the world at the present day.’ Modernism and the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the USA, (1933), pp. 23-4.

In some great controversies the leaders on the side of truth are not always seen to win in their lifetimes. It was so in this controversy. The two foremost leaders in opposition to liberal theology were C. H. Spurgeon in Britain, and J. Gresham Machen in America. Both men saw the tide go against them. Spurgeon saw a majority failing to support his call for subscription to a definite creed, and Machen was suspended by the Presbyterian Church, after a heroic defence of the faith. Both men died in their mid-fifties. Books by other faithful men have since demonstrated that the position defended by Spurgeon and Machen is the position taken by Scripture itself. Yet these books were largely ignored. What cannot be ignored is the providence of God in bringing spiritual desolation in all the denominations where the unbelief of liberalism was accepted. Once fruitful churches became a wilderness. Disbelief cannot coexist with the sanction of the Holy Spirit.

The benefits of controversy

That great blessings may result from controversies is an evident lesson of history.

1. Controversy leads to closer and clearer definitions of the truth. The great creeds and confessions of the churches have been born out of controversies. Heresies that might have ended Christian testimony have been overruled to establish the truth more brightly.

In the year 1555 error had come in like a flood in England, and those who opposed it were being put to death in numbers. Yet when Hugh Latimer died at the stake, October 16, 1555, he could say to his fellow martyr, ‘Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England, as I trust shall never be put out.’ His belief that controversy and persecution would be overruled for good was correct. ‘There must be divisions among you’, Paul told the church at Corinth, ‘that those approved may become more manifest’ (1 Cor. 11:19). As Charles Hodge says: ‘It is a great consolation to know that dissensions . . . are not fortuitous, but are ordered by the providence of God, and are designed, as storms, for the purpose of purification.’ Or, in the words of the Puritan, Samuel Bolton: ‘God suffers errors to arise to bring us back to the original word of God, that there we might rectify all. If there had not been such clashing and disputing in former ages, our way had not been clear to us, in many glorious truths.’8‘They that purify silver to the purpose, use to put it in the fire again and again,that it may be thoroughly tried. So is the truth of God; there is scarce any truth
but hath been tried over and over again, and still if any dross happen to mingle with it, then God calls it in question again. If in former times there have been Scriptures alleged that have not been pertinent to prove it, that truth shall into the fire again, that what is dross may be burnt up; the Holy Ghost is so curious, so delicate, so exact, He cannot bear that falsehood should be mingled with the truth of the Gospel.’ Thomas Goodwin, quoted by James Stalker, Imago Christi (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1893), pp. 292-3.

Jonathan Edwards’ sufferings at Northampton had the same consequence. They were not in vain. More attention came to be given to the need for a credible evidence of a change of heart in order to permit admittance to the Lord’s Supper, and this led to a very general change in practice of many churches.9See Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (London and Edinburgh: Nelson, 1874), p. 569. In Thomas Murphy’s valuable book, The Presbytery of the Log College; or, The Cradle of the Presbyterian Church in America (Philadelphia, 1889), p. 180, he lists the settling of the right conditions for admission to the Lord’s Supper as one of the results of the eighteenth-century revival.

Judged in purely numerical terms, the decline of the mainline churches into liberalism a hundred years ago was a tragedy, but it prompted many faithful men and women at home and on the mission fields to take a stronger stand on the inerrancy of Scripture.

2. Controversy has brought divisions that are a blessing to the world. There are times in history when the call of Hebrews 13:13 is again appropriate: ‘Let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach.’ First-century Christians were to leave a dead Judaism; they belonged to the Jerusalem ‘which is above,’ outside the Jerusalem which ‘is in bondage with her children’ (Gal. 4:25, 26). The call to separation is sometimes the call of God.

It is true that there have been times when earnest resistance to error in a denomination has been owned of God for its recovery, but there are also times when believers have to find spiritual life outside churches that are dead. There are religious institutions where believers have remained even after all attempts at recovery have proved futile.10See N. B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen, A Biographical Memoir (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), p. 310. Those who did not leave the Presbyterian Church with Machen were to find this. Henry Coray, a witness of the 1930s’ controversy, commented on that point fifty years later: ‘One is constrained to look back and ask the question, “How goes the battle?” The answer had to be: the battle is over and the mopping up process is going on. The warriors have sheathed their swords. Where is there in the (now) United Presbyterian Church a single rallying point, a stalwart uncompromising post where the conflict is raging?’11Henry W. Coray, J. Gresham Machen, A Silhouette (Grand Rapids; Kregel, 1981), pp. 111-2.

Certainly, as I will argue, divisions arising out of controversy are not always beneficial, but both the Reformation and the eighteenth-century Awakening demonstrate the great blessings that have come to nations in times of disruption. It is not romanticising history to say that vast benefits, spiritual, moral, and economic, followed the Reformation: society was uplifted, tyrannies put down, and freedom of speech established.


1. The danger of Christians not recognising when serious controversy is justified and when it is not. I believe that the three controversies noted above warranted controversy and division. The truths involved were fundamental and worth suffering for. We are commanded to ‘contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints’. But that does not mean we are to contend over every difference that arises. There are fundamental truths, lesser truths and matters which belong more to the sphere of speculation. If the line between these is not correctly drawn then great damage is liable to be done. The understanding of the best of men remains imperfect, and that means that a determination to secure or insist on unanimity in all things, will only multiply disputes and divisions. There are many instances where this has happened in church history, when the kingdom of God has been injured by believers engaging in disputes among themselves on issues not fundamental. This was part of the reason why the Puritan movement in England lost its ascendency. Men like-minded on the gospel fell out over the issue of how the church is to be governed. Now that is not a trivial subject. The Bible speaks on church government. But godly men differ on how parts of the biblical teaching are to be interpreted. The difference between those of Presbyterian and Independent views weakened their whole cause. In the last sermons Puritans preached before they were put out of their churches in 1662, there are pleas for more brotherly love, but by that date much damage had been done.12Thomas Watson’s probably last morning sermon to his congregation in 1662 was on ‘A new commandment give I unto you.’ On the same date one of the ‘legacies’ left by Thomas Brooks to his people was: ‘Labour mightily for a healing spirit. This legacy I would leave with you as a matter of great concernment. Away with all discriminating names whatever, that may hinder the applying of balm to heal your wounds. Discord and division become no Christian; for wolves to harry the lambs, is no wonder; but for one lamb to worry another, this is unnatural and monstrous. God hath made his wrath to smoke against us for the divisions and heart-burnings that have been amongst us. Labour for oneness in love and affection with everyone that is one with Christ; let their forms be what they will: that which wins most Christ’s heart, should win most with ours, and that is his own grace and holiness.’ Baxter wrote to John Eliot in 1668, ‘Twenty years long we prayed peace and unity but lived as a peace hating generation.’ Puritan authors addressing this subject include: Jeremiah Burroughs, Irenicum, To the Lovers of Truth and Peace. Heart Divisions Opened (1646); Richard Baxter, The Cure of Church Divisions, 1670; and John Howe, ‘The Carnality of Religious Contentions’ in Works, vol. 3 (London: Tegg, 1848).

Or consider what happened among Bible-believing Presbyterians in the United States in the 1930s. Those who rallied round Machen formed a new denomination, but it was to split over such questions as unfulfilled prophecy, and whether the wine drunk at the Lord’s Supper should be alcoholic. Again these points are not incidental, but they were claimed to justify the breaking of fellowship between men who had stood together on fundamental truths.

If good men, as these men were, failed to draw the distinction between first and secondary truths, and between mistakes which are tolerable and errors which are not, it underlines the difficulty that often enters into controversy. One lesson to be drawn is that not all Christians are called to be engaged in controversy. To play a useful part in a controversy means being a teacher of others, and Scripture is clear, not all Christians are called to teach: ‘Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren’ (James 3:1). For a start that rules out women taking any lead in controversies. Others are also ruled out. While all are called to be faithful, not even all teachers are gifted for controversy. Some may be eminent in one sphere but not in this one. It was an old Methodist who once said that the Methodists are good for leading sinners to Christ but no good in controversy. John Duncan, speaking about the early church Fathers, said, ‘The primitive Fathers were very poor divines. I don’t think Polycarp could have stood a theological examination by John Owen; but he was a famous man to burn.’ That is to say, God qualified Polycarp for what he was called to be, a martyr for Christ.13David Brown, Life of John Duncan (Edinburgh: Edmonston & Douglas, 1872), p. 474. For another writer in the same tradition, see The Works of Andrew Fuller (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2007), pp. 370-1; 704-5. This is not an argument to justify theological pacificism, yet it needs to be said that not all are called to be leaders in controversy. Unhappily it has too often been that men of a contentious spirit have taken this role for themselves.14‘The mere controversialist, who would always be in the thick of the fight with error, is no more worthy of respect than the pugilist. The controversial minds are like the lean cattle of Egypt; they are very greedy, and are none the fatter for their feeding.’ John Duncan, Colloquia Peripatetica, ed. William Knight (Edinburgh: Oliphant, Anderson,& Ferrier, 1907), p. 70.

2. The danger of being distracted from what is of first importance. Potential controversies are ever present and it is easy to become participants. The warnings of Scripture are relevant to this phenomenon: we are told not ‘to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies’ that lead to ‘fruitless discussion’ (1 Tim. 1:4, 6). ‘Avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and strife and disputes about the Law, for they are unprofitable and worthless’ (Titus 3:9). The nature of the controversies to which Paul refers is not clear; what is clear is the continuing existence of many debatable subjects which are not fundamental to the work of the gospel ministry. The Puritans used to say, ‘The devil never lets the wind of error blow long in the same direction.’ His purpose is to keep side-tracking Christian leaders from their main work.
Professor John Frame has listed twenty-one controversies which he believes have engaged evangelical Reformed Christians among themselves in the last seventy years.15See his chapter, ‘Machen’s Warrior Children’, in Alister E. McGrath and Evangelical Theology, ed. Sung Wook Chung (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003). Whatever one thinks of the issues Frame covers, it is surely a sad thing how much time was taken up in these disputes. Ministers of the gospel are called to awaken sinners and to lead them to Christ and glory. The time is short in which to do it. Our strength is small. Unless we are watchful, precious time will go to little purpose and opportunities for greater things be lost forever.

Matthew Henry gave this wise counsel:

Ministers should avoid, as much as may be, what will occasion disputes; and would do well to insist on the great and practical points of religion, about which there can be no disputes; for even disputes about great and necessary truths draw off the mind from the main design of Christianity, and eat out the vitals of religion.16W. T. Summers, The Quotable Matthew Henry (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming Revell, 1982), p. 71. Related to this subject is the question how far Christians should engage in apologetics. Spurgeon, when reviewing two orthodox authors who were defending the Scripture from the attacks of men claiming to speak on behalf of science, believed that their efforts were ‘to little purpose. . . . Were you to take our advice, you would not argue. Love the gospel; live the gospel; practise the gospel; shame the adversaries. May be, God will give them repentance unto life.’ He argues that to try to answer unbelievers on rationalistic grounds is to miss their real problem. (The Sword and the Trowel, 1883, p. 196.)

In eighteenth-century Scotland a Secession took place from the Established Church of Scotland that incorporated numbers of the best people and preachers in the land. The Secession was an evangelistic and missionary force for good. But the congregations which adhered to it were drawn into repeated controversies among themselves and with others. One of their most eminent ministers, John Brown of Haddington, left this testimony: I look upon the Secession as indeed the cause of God, but sadly mismanaged and dishonoured by myself and others. Alas! for that pride, passion, selfishness, and unconcern for the glory of Christ and spiritual edification of souls, which has so often prevailed. Alas! for our want of due meekness, gentleness. Alas! that we did not chiefly strive to pray better, preach better, and live better, than our neighbours.17Life of John Brown, with Select Writings (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2004), pp. 70-71n.

3. The danger of treating matters of belief as the only priority. Truth is indeed a priority. Error is to be resisted. False teachers are to be exposed. But it is not the only priority. If one asks the question, What should be the chief features of Christian behaviour according to the New Testament, it would be hard to argue that contending for the faith stands alone at the top of the list. Consider how much is said in Scripture on the believer as a peacemaker. ‘Peacemakers’, says our Lord, ‘shall be called the children of God’ (Matt. 5:9). ‘If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men’ (Rom. 12:18). ‘Pursue peace with all men’ (Heb. 12:14). Within the church, the duty is ‘being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Eph. 4:3). ‘Have peace one with another’, is the command of Christ (Mark 9:50); ‘Be at peace among yourselves’ (1 Thess. 5:13).

Or consider the biblical emphases on brotherly love. ‘A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one to another’ (John 13:34, 35). But what if a fellow-Christian sins against you? The answer is, ‘forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you’ (Eph. 4:32). What such texts teach us is that the Christian life is more than a matter of knowledge and correct thinking. Spiritual life does not reside only in the intellect. A person can hold the right beliefs and not be a Christian at all. Where there is the new birth there is not only light to the mind, but love in the heart and grace in the spirit. Orthodox belief is not the only mark of true Christianity. When controversies begin between Christians they are tempted to forget this and attention may begin to turn solely on the points of difference. This was one of the problems of the church at Corinth. Knowledge was being treated as if it alone mattered. Some believed that they had got better knowledge and opinions than others, and there was something fundamental missing in their controversies. ‘Knowledge makes arrogant’—‘puffeth up’— ’but love edifies’ (1 Cor. 8:1). ‘Though I have all knowledge . . . and have not love, I am nothing’ (1 Cor. 13:2). The truth defended without love is not genuine Christianity. When disputes and differences arise they are not likely to be solved only by argument. Supernatural aid is needed. Thomas Manton wrote: ‘In our contests about religion, God must especially be sought unto for a blessing . . . disputing times should also be praying times. Prejudices will never vanish till God “send out his light and truth”, Psa. 43:3; and if the devil be not prayed down, as well as disputed down, little good cometh of our contests.’18Manton, Works, vol. 5, p. 264.

4. The danger of underestimating how much combustible material there is still in the best of Christians. Controversy can easily be the spark that ignites pride, conceit, ambition, and thus gives scope to the worst in human nature. It is sadly clear that some controversies in the churches show little concern for the glory of God. Archibald Alexander wrote: ‘It has long been remarked, that no spirit is more pungent and bitter than that of theologians in their contentions with one another; and it has often happened, that the less the difference, the more virulent the acrimony.’19Quoted in James M. Garretson, Princeton and Preaching (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2005), p. 135. How is such a thing possible if there are Christians on both sides? It is because in the heat of controversy the weakness and imperfection which beset us all are ignored. And we have an adversary who is well able to tempt us to wrong judgments and suspicions about other Christians. ‘Satan knows that nothing is more fit to lay waste the kingdom of Christ than discord and disagreement among the faithful’ (Calvin). One temptation of the devil is to lead Christians to think that so long as they are defending the truth, and ‘upholding the church’, then other duties may be temporarily suspended. Who does not know that in controversy there are duties which almost pass out of sight? Christ’s ‘Golden Rule’, ‘Whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do you even so to them’ (Matt. 7:12), is laid aside.20Richard Baxter comments: ‘In way of controversy we have many temptations to do as we would not be done by.’ So is the royal law, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself ’, and the apostolic command, ‘Let each esteem other better than themselves’ (Phil. 2:3).

When controversies start brotherly love can degenerate into meaning loving those who agree with me, or loving those who belong to the same party or denomination as I do. Robert Candlish has the evidence of church history supporting him when he writes of how brotherly love can turn into sectarianism and partisanship:

You love as brethren those who happen to agree with you in holding certain opinions, pursuing certain ends. But if your unity is simply the result of your unanimity, it may make you strong as an ecclesiastical corporation; it may make you proud and happy as a select spiritual company, dwelling apart, nearer the throne than many. But it does not enlarge or elevate the heart. It is of the earth. It breeds earthly passions,—censoriousness, superciliousness, the bigot’s mean intolerance. Such brotherly love has been the bane and curse of the Church in all ages, the scandal of Christianity, the fruitful mother of strife among its professors.21R. Candlish, ‘The Christian’s Sacrifice and Service of Praise,’ an Exposition of Romans 12 (Edinburgh: Adam and Black, 1867), pp. 132-3.

5. The danger of not foreseeing what desolations controversy can cause in the churches. The evidence of church history is that times of controversy between Christians have commonly been followed by times of much deadness and lack of evangelistic success. That is not surprising, for contentions between Christians and churches grieve the Holy Spirit and encourage unbelief in the world. Unbelievers commonly may not understand the points of difference in controversies, but they can understand a worldly spirit, and when they see that operating among Christians they judge there is nothing supernatural in the faith.

Charles J. Brown, Free Church of Scotland leader of the nineteenth century, says this on Paul entreating the Christians at Philippi to unity: ‘He knew that contention at once eats into the vitals of the Church itself, and exposes it to the ridicule and scorn of the world, stops the progress of the Gospel in Christians themselves and paralyses all their efforts to make it known to others. Therefore is he so intensely desirous to crush this evil in the bud.’22Published sermon by Brown (1806–84) on ‘The Evils and Remedy of Discord in Religious Communities’, from Philippians 2:1-4. Henry Coray, a witness to the divisions among men of Reformed persuasion after the death of Machen in 1937, left this testimony in 1981:

In retrospect, there is probably not a person living who passed through those tumultuous years who does not look back on the fragmentation with sorrow and regret. Unfortunately in controversy emotions too often color principles, feelings run high, statements are tossed off that should never be voiced, personality clashes with personality, and scars of battle will be carried to the cemetery.23Coray, J. Gresham Machen, A Silhouette, pp. 121-2.

How often we miss the warning of Scripture: ‘The beginning of strife is as when one letteth out water’ (Prov. 17:14), on which Charles Bridges writes: ‘One provoking word brings on another. Every retort widens the breach. Seldom, when we have heard the first word, do we hear the last. An inundation of evil is poured in, that lays desolate peace, comfort, and conscience. Does not grace teach us the Christian victory, to keep down the expression of resentment, and rather bear provocation, than to break the bond of unity?’

John Newton as an example

John Newton was a peace maker. He lived at a time when there were some sharp disputes between evangelical Christians, and he stressed the catholicity that should mark all who belong to Christ:

I profess myself to be of no party, and to love all of every party who love the Lord in sincerity. If they preach the truth in love, live as they preach, and are wise and watchful to win souls, and to feed the flock, I care not much whether they are called, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Churchmen, Kirkmen, or Methodists . . . In some of the great shops of London, there are several counters; and servants at each attend the customers. If these servants are faithful and have their master’s interests at heart, they will not be jealous of each other, they will not affront the customers by saying ‘Why do you not come to be served on my side of the shop?’ If they are all well served and pleased, it signifies not to which counter they come. Now what are we but servants of one great master? What are our denominations and distinctions but as the several counters? 24Wise Counsel: John Newton’s Letters to John Ryland Jr, ed. Grant Gordon (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), p. 371.

Newton was not the kind of easy-going pacifist who did not believe in controversy at all. But he has a good deal to say to gospel ministers, and especially to young ministers, on being drawn into controversy. We find him, for example, in correspondence with John Ryland Jr, a young preacher who has recently escaped from hyper-Calvinism. He now believed, as Newton believed, that the gospel is to be offered to all people. But his father, a veteran preacher, still leant on the side of hyper-Calvinism and put his belief into print. The son writes to Newton and asks whether he should go into print with his views, contrary to those of his father. In reply Newton grants the father has some failings, and then comments: ‘He has not left many equal to him, in some respects. I would no more write against such a man, though he is not my father, than I would use my right hand to wound my left.’ Newton gently suggests that Ryland Jr was too ready to get into combat, and writes: ‘It seems errors are breaking out in the several places you mention, and you are on the point of writing to suppress them. But if there was a fire in all these towns, must they be burned to ashes, unless you can go with your bucket of water to quench the flames?’ He urges him to concentrate on preaching the truth and to take ‘less pains to combat and confute error’.25Ibid., pp. 256-7. Elsewhere Newton writes of the need for an earnest defence of the faith, but while he underlines that such work is praiseworthy and honourable, he says it is also dangerous: ‘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. . . . 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!’26Letter ‘On Controversy,’ Works of John Newton, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1988), p. 273. The same letter is in Letters of John Newton, (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2011), p. 111. If a Christian is convinced of his duty to enter into dispute with men teaching errors, then, Newton says, first, commend your opponent by earnest prayer ‘to the Lord’s teaching and blessing’. Then consider whether the opponent is to be regarded as a believer. In that case the Lord loves him, is patient with him, and ‘you must not despise him, or treat him harshly. . . . In a little while you will meet in heaven; he will then be dearer to you than the nearest friend you have upon earth is to you now. Anticipate that period in your thoughts; and though you may find it necessary to oppose his error, view him personally as a kindred soul, with whom you are to be happy in Christ forever.’

But supposing you think the opponent is unconverted (a conclusion not to be reached without good evidence), then, ‘He is a more proper object for your compassion than your anger. If God in his sovereign pleasure, had so appointed, you might have been as he is now. You were both equally blind by nature. If you attend to this, you will not reproach or hate him, because the Lord has been pleased to open your eyes and not his. Of all people who engage in controversy, we, who are called Calvinists, are most expressly bound by our own principles to the exercise of gentleness and moderation. If, indeed, they who differ from us have a power of changing themselves, if they can open their own eyes, then we might with less inconsistency be offended at their obstinacy.’27Newton, Works, vol. 1, pp. 269-70. In addition to Newton’s letters, we have valuable information from another source on how he sought to practise his principles. The Rev. Thomas Scott served a parish not far from Newton’s at Olney. When they first met, Scott did not believe in the Trinity and treated evangelical beliefs as matters for amusement. ‘Once’, Scott writes, ‘I had the curiosity to hear him [Newton] preach; and, not understanding his sermon, I made a very great jest of it.’ Yet he was drawn to Newton, and when Newton gave him an evangelical book, he wrote to him in the hope of engaging him in ‘a controversial discussion of our religious differences’. ‘My arguments’, he believed ‘would prove irresistibly convincing’. Accordingly about nine or ten letters passed between the two men, but to Scott’s annoyance Newton would not debate theological points with him; instead he wrote of such things as the nature of true faith and how it is to be sought and obtained. For an interval of sixteen months this correspondence was dropped, but Newton treated his proud critic as a friend, and at length, when personal discouragements drove Scott to Olney for help, that friendship became one of the means God used to make Thomas Scott a new man and a leading evangelical writer. The whole story is told by Scott in a piece of autobiography, The Force of Truth, An Authentic Narrative.28The Force of Truth (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1984). Newton’s eight letters to ‘Rev. Mr. S ****’ were printed in Cardiphonia (see Works of Newton, vol. 1, pp. 556-618), or for five of these letters, with a good account of what took place, Josiah Bull, Letters of John Newton (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2007), pp. 240-71.


1. Men need to know themselves. Some by temperament are inclined to be pacifists in all disputes, and to decline controversy even when it is necessary. In that way errors and evils are often allowed to take root in churches unopposed. But much damage is also done by those who are too ready to take up issues, and even to enjoy strife. Thomas Scott, after his conversion, reflected on this problem, when he wrote, ‘Mr Newton is, I think, too much afraid of controversy; others are too fond of it.’29John Scott, Letters and Papers of Thomas Scott (London: Seeley, 1824), p. 123; see also pp. 316-7. Certainly all preachers should be very sparing in taking up current controversies in the pulpit; a diet of criticism regularly delivered will produce a censorious people.

2. It is essential that time and energy be given to the main things. As Baxter wrote: ‘Unholiness is the great point of difference . . . our towns and countries have two sorts of people in them; some are converted and some unconverted; some holy and some unholy; some live for heaven and some are all for earth; some are ruled by the word of God and some by their own flesh and wills.’30Baxter, Practical Works, vol. 4 (London, 1847), p. 662. ‘It is the principles and fundamental truths that life and death doth most depend upon, in which the essentials of Christianity do consist . . . Get well to heaven, and help your people thither, and you shall know all these things in a moment.’31Quoted by N. H. Keeble, in Richard Baxter, Puritan Man of Letters (Oxford, 1982), pp. 25, 29.

3. In all controversy unnecessary adverse comment on persons is to be avoided, and likewise the use of pejorative names and titles. After his early ministry, Spurgeon stopped describing fellow evangelicals as ‘Arminians’, while he continued to indicate his disagreement with their thinking. The use of offensive labels is more calculated to alienate brethren than to help them.

4. Brotherly love and humility are the great antidotes to wrong controversies. It is for the exercise of these graces that Paul entreats the disagreeing Christians at Philippi (Phil. 2:1-4). On which verses Charles J. Brown observed:

There would be very little fear indeed, of Christians differing from each other, in anything of material consequence,—anything which they would find it necessary to make a matter of controversy in the Church,—if only they were thoroughly joined together in love and mutual affection. No doubt even the most attached and endeared Christian friends might differ in minor shades of opinion. But they would infallibly come to an agreement in things important and vital, so as to be, to all practical purposes, ‘perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment’. It will be found to be the failure of love that principally, and in the first instance, gives rise to all formal and avowed differences and oppositions of sentiment among Christians.32In this valuable sermon, Charles Brown further noted: ‘“Only by pride cometh contention.” The reason is clear. Pride consists in the cherishing an extravagant opinion of oneself, one’s rights, opinions, talents, acquirements, whatever. Pride concentrates its whole desires and affections upon the one object of self-advancement and gratification. Pride would take all, and give nothing. The happiness of the proud lies in seeing others beneath them. Humility, on the other hand, carries the soul away from self. The more humility, the more room in the heart for others. Loosening the affections from self, humility sends them forth upon all around. Opening the mind first to the glorious God, it next opens it to his creatures, his children.’

5. This subject enforces our need of repentance. How great is the unrecognized damage done in this area! We may be looking for spiritual success and yet at the same time be grieving the Spirit of God in God-dishonouring controversies. We too often treat contention with brethren as though it were contention against the world, forgetting the words of Samuel Rutherford; ‘Why should we strive? For we be Brethren, the sons of one father, the born citizens of one mother Jerusalem . . . We strive as we are carnal, we dispute as we are men, we war from our lusts, we dispute from diversity of star-light and day-light.’33Quoted from Divine Right of Presbyteries by John MacPherson, The Doctrine of the Church in Scottish Theology (Edinburgh: MacNiven & Wallace, 1903), p. 67. I have written on the issue of unity between churches in A Scottish Christian Heritage (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2006), pp. 277-310. How much damaging, discouraging strife can be found alongside a profession of faith in Christian unity! We confuse man’s wisdom with the wisdom which is ‘first pure, then peaceable, gentle and easy to be entreated’ (James 3:17). How many of our words will be found as ‘wood, hay, stubble’ when ‘the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is’ (1 Cor. 3:12, 13)? Boldness in opposing serious error is a need of the hour, but prayer for peace makers has surely taken too low place in our priorities, and we suffer for it.

6. Wrong words arise from wrong thinking. Hence the concluding exhortation of the apostle to believers whose unity was in danger. After reminding them of how prayer is indispensable for the possession of the peace of God, he tells them what they are to do with their minds—some things are always to be thought about, to be pondered: ‘Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things . . . and the God of peace will be with you’ (Phil. 4:8, 9). ‘Finally, brethren . . . be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you’ (2 Cor. 13:11).


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