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Unbelievers, even though their hearts and minds are opposed to God’s truth, sometimes have more spiritual insight than we give them credit for. At least that is what I learned as a junior in college. As a religion major at a secular university, I often found myself in the middle of classroom debates about the inerrancy of Scripture, the exclusivity of Christ, and other matters. I wish that I could tell you I was always charitable and irenic in my attempts to keep teachers and students from turning the teaching of Jesus on its head. Unfortunately, my excitement for the core truths of the gospel sometimes manifested itself in less-than-edifying ways. Raised tones, an eagerness to interrupt my opponents, and so on were often a part of my arguments. Too often, I was more concerned with winning a debate than I was with showing grace in my defense of the truth.
Such displays marked my sophomore year, when I took my first religion classes, but I never thought about the impact they had on my fellow students. That changed during my junior year when one of my classmates came up to me after a calm and respectful class discussion between me and the professor on the exclusivity of Christ for salvation. This girl was not a Christian. In fact, she was a practitioner of Wicca. But she remarked to me at the end of class that there had been a noticeable change in how I argued from the previous year. She did not agree with my argument, but she was commending me for my manner of presentation. It was almost as if she was thanking me for presenting my Christian argument in, well, a Christian manner.
To say that I have always displayed charity in my arguments since that day would be a lie. However, I like to think that I at least try, during my better moments, to consider what the public might be thinking and expecting when I take a stand as a Christian. After all, whether we like it or not, other believers and even the world are always watching us. The manner in which we argue, therefore, will have a spiritual influence on the public, for good or for ill. That is what John Newton would have us remember in the second portion of his letter “On Controversy.”
Newton mentions three groups who make up the community that may witness us in the midst of controversy. The first group consists of those with whom we have clear differences in principle. Some of these will be Christians and some of them will not. Either way, they have settled religious opinions. How should we consider these observers?
Concerning these I may refer you to what I have already said. Though you have your eye upon one person chiefly, there are many like-minded with him; and the same reasoning will hold, whether as to one or to a million.
So at this point, I commend to you the previous article in this issue of Tabletalk.
The second group of observers are those who have no settled religious opinions but know the virtues that mark true Christians. Such individuals have a proper expectation of how believers are to engage in debate. In other words, they can tell when we are not being meek, humble, or loving. These individuals are looking for such slipups to justify their rejection of the truth. Essentially, Newton counsels us to behave in a Christian manner so as not to add fuel to the fires of rejection.
Before we unpack his advice regarding this group any further, let us make a distinction between those who have a proper expectation of Christians and those who have an improper expectation. In today’s world, many people misunderstand the Christian virtues of meekness, humility, and love. They believe that taking a stand on anything is inherently arrogant and unloving. Sadly, this view may be more prevalent within the church than it is even within secular culture.
Newton refers to those who have a basic understanding of what true humility, meekness, and love mean, not those who have false expectations based on false understandings of the aforementioned virtues. The people to whom he refers know that humility is not the refusal to stand for truth but the willingness to affirm that we do not argue for truth on our own authority. Such people know that making a case is a deep expression of love, especially if the case is clearly being argued for the good of one’s opponent and his audience.
These arguments should be
fairly drawn from Scripture and experience, and enforced by such a mild address, as may persuade our readers, that, whether we can convince them or not, we wish well to their souls and contend only for the truth’s sake; if we can satisfy them that we act upon these motives, our point is half gained; they will be more disposed to consider calmly what we offer; and if they should still dissent from our opinions, they will be constrained to approve our intentions.
In other words, observers and opponents alike should have no doubt that we are contending for the truth because we love them and not because we want to look smarter or wiser than others.
The final group of observers that make up the watching public, says Newton, are those who are disposed to agree with us. We can greatly edify these people, or we can do them great spiritual harm.
It is easy to “rev up” a crowd of like-minded people. We see it all the time at political rallies and in other cases where the speaker is “preaching to the choir.” Much good can arise when we argue for the truth before those who are on the same basic page as us. Their understanding of doctrine can be sharpened, and their love for Christ can be deepened. But these observers are paying attention not only to the content of what we say but the way in which we say it. If they are convinced of the truth of our words, then they are more apt to be convinced that our manner of presentation is sound as well. This is fine if we are presenting the truth in humility and love. Yet if we are arrogant and want to increase our own following more than we want others to love truth, we encourage people to do the same, poisoning trees that should be bearing the fruit of the Spirit in all circumstances.
Standing for the truth, even if it creates controversy, is essential at times. At the same time, Newton recognizes the self-righteousness that motivates far too many arguments:
The best of men are not wholly free from this leaven [of selfrighteousness]; and therefore are too apt to be pleased with such representations as hold up our adversaries to ridicule, and by consequence flatter our own superior judgments. Controversies, for the most part, are so managed as to indulge rather than to repress his wrong disposition; and therefore, generally speaking, they are productive of little good. They provoke those whom they should convince, and puff up those whom they should edify.
Both Christians and non-Christians are watching us. Let us, therefore, be willing to stand firmly for the truth of Christ, but let us do so with wisdom that discerns the hills on which we should die from those on which no essential truth is at stake. Moreover, let us also stand in such a way that our love and humility can never be legitimately questioned.