The New Testament and Controversy - Part 1
There are at least two basic attitudes, held by religious people, toward controversy: (1) that it is not Christlike (and, therefore, is unchristian) to engage in controversy about religious matters and (2) that for the effort of local churches (and thus, that of the individual Christian involved) to be in proper balance, there must be, not only the proclamation of the positive message of the gospel but also the willingness to defend that gospel against various challenges which may be offered against it.
The Basic Problem
Since the two attitudes stated in the preceding paragraph are contradictory of one another, they both cannot be true. As I will explain later, the question involved is a crucial matter for those who would be acceptable followers of Christ.
The question arises: what is an acceptable procedure to adopt in seeking the right answer to this crucial matter? While Alexander Campbell was simply an uninspired man (like the rest of us since the days of the apostles), and, thus, what he said is not to be regarded as authoritative (only God’s word is authoritative, 2 John 9-11), it is nevertheless true that, generally speaking he was an outstanding student of God's word. Campbell's concern for the correct answer to the problem of religious controversy was very apparent from his writing. No doubt this concern grew out of his recognition that the Bible devotes considerable attention to the matter of religious controversy. In light of the fact that the Bible itself attaches great importance to the question (as I shall show), it must not be regarded as a trivial one. It would be a mistake for any man not to regard the question as a truly crucial one.
The problem is a crucial one because it is determinative of the approach which the church is to take in regard to the all-important matter of preaching the gospel to the whole world (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:45-49; Acts 1:5-8). Consequent to one's decision as to the resolution of this problem, one of two paths will be chosen: (1) the path of militant proclamation of the gospel (with love and kindness, of course), or (2) the path of constantly striving to avoid all controversy—a path which cannot be trod successfully and which will lead, inevitably, to compromise.
The problem is of great importance because whether the individual Christian (child of God) is faithful to Christ depends upon a proper resolution of this problem. Involvement in controversy (that is conducted in a spirit of Christian love) is either right or wrong: there can be no middle ground. Therefore, if an individual makes the wrong decision on this matter, he will be guilty of sin. If such actions are unchristian, they then should not be engaged in by anyone. But if such actions are enjoined upon us by the New Testament, then one must be involved, somehow, in order to be pleasing unto God.
Due to the lack of time, in this lecture, I will not be able to prove: (1) that God exists, (2) that the Bible is His inspired word, (3) that whatever the Bible teaches on this or any subject .is true. Yet all of these three propositions are true and can be proved to be true. It is the Bible, not the writings of Alexander Campbell, which is held to be the inspired word of God. Only the Bible is held to be authoritative.
Further, I do not have time to prove that biblical truth is both absolute and attainable. But I do strongly affirm that such is the case. The Bible presents commands and exhortations to preach the gospel—and only the gospel—by both teaching and living it. Such commands show that the presentation of truth in the Bible is sufficiently clear that man can learn and understand; his basic responsibilities before God. Therefore, it is clear that truth is absolute and attainable. A number of passages which show this to be the case are found in the Bible. Mark 16:15,16; 2 Timothy 4:1-5; 1 Timothy 3:14,15; 4:3; John 8:32; 1 Corinthians 15:1-5; Galatians 1:6-9; 2 Thessalonians 2:10-12; Revelation 22:18-19; 1 Corinthians 9:16; Ezra 7:10; 2 Timothy 2:15; Ephesians 1:13; Col. 1:5; John 8:24; 45-46; Hebrews 11:6; Romans 10:1, 3, 14,17; James 1:18; Acts 15:7; 8:30; Romans 1:18-32; 2 Corinthians 11:4-6; 1 John 2:21; 3:19.
I. Campbell's Position on Religious Controversy
From the opening paragraph of an article on this matter, an effort was made by Campbell to clear up a common misconception. The article was concerned basically with the question: who is involved in religious controversy? He notes that many people are under the impression that only those who are actual participants in public debates and discussions are entangled in such controversy, in strict contradiction to such an impression, Campbell makes three points in his first paragraph. First, he notes that such people fail to understand their own situation. He stresses that any man who attempts to live a good life should be; and, as a matter of fact, is forced to be involved in controversy. Campbell notes that because of the failure of some men to recognize that such is the case, they quickly and adamantly condemn any who are involved in public defense of the truth. He continues by suggesting: “. . . That no man can be a good man who does not oppose error and immorality in himself, his family, his neighborhood, and in society as far as he can reach. . . .” Campbell thus claims that it is hypocritical to claim to be a good man while refusing to be opposed to error! Campbell holds that if one opposes error, he will be forced into controversy. It is clear, from Bible teaching, that Campbell's view about this is true!
Secondly, Campbell states that this point should be understood within an instant of thinking on the matter. However, he offers his third point of contradiction by stating that it will require more than mere arguments to achieve genuine success in relation to such a task. He does not mean to deny the essentiality of arguments, but he does mean to affirm that one's manner of life must be in harmony with what he teaches if that teaching is to be truly successful. Thus, he holds that in order to oppose error in a proper way it is necessary to live a life in harmony with Bible teaching as well as to offer sound biblical arguments on whatever topic may be a point of controversy (Philippians 1:27; 2 Corinthians 3:1ff.)
Just how important, in Campbell's view, is the matter of religious controversy? That view is set out in the following sentence by him "There can be no improvement without controversy." Campbell suggests that the only persons who need not be involved in controversy are (1) those who are perfect (and who thus need no personal improvement) and (2) those who are living in a perfect society. But if one neither is himself perfect nor lives in a perfect society, then at least some improvement at some point or other is needed. If one is not perfect, then he is under obligation to try to improve his own character and life. If his neighbor is not perfect, then he has an obligation to try to help that neighbor to become more what God would have him to be. Since no one is perfect, it follows that each person must be involved in efforts toward improvement. In either case (whether self or neighbor), efforts toward improvement will result in involvement in controversy. Campbell says, "Improvement requires and presupposes change; change is innovation, and innovation always has elicited opposition, and that is what constitutes the essentials of controversy.” By this statement he is voicing several generally accepted facts which center around change in human character and actions. It is understood that any improvement demands change, but Campbell also notes that some people will oppose any efforts to bring about significant changes in their own lives. It is this opposition to change, he holds, which brings about controversy. Campbell re-emphasizes an earlier statement of his when he classifies all of those who attempt to reform themselves as being in controversy with themselves because of such an attempt. After discussing the imperfect man's necessary involvement in controversy, he asks the rhetorical question: who could refute such a position? But his elevation of the importance of this matter carries to the point of his holding that all who have the ability to contend against error have the obligation to do so. In order to emphasize this point, he says, "But yet, plain and obvious as the preceding remarks may be, many will contend that religious controversy, oral or written, is incompatible with the . . . genuine Christian. . . ." He even suggests that those who hold to such a view also believe that such controversy is a promoter of strifes, tumults, and factions even to the extent of being "destructive of true piety towards God and of benevolence towards man." In response to this basic attack on controversy, Campbell charges that such "is a prejudice arising from abuses of controversy." He then asks: "Admit for a moment that it were so, and what would be the consequence?" In reply to his own question, Campbell answers that such a procedure would "unsaint and unchristianize every distinguished Patriarch, Jew, and Christian enrolled in the sacred annals of the world." He argues that such is the case because all of the Bible's great and good men were engaged in religious controversy. He goes on to say,
Whenever it was necessary, all—yes all the renowned men of antiquity were religious controversialists. Moses long contended with the Egyptian magi. He overcame Jennes and Jambres, too. Elijah encountered the prophets of Baal. Job long debated with the prince of Edom. The Jewish prophets and the idolatrous kings of Israel waged a long and arduous controversy. John the Harbinger, and the Scribes and Pharisees, met in conflict. Jesus and the Rabbis, and the Priesthood long debated. The Apostles and the Sanhedrin; the Evangelists and the Doctors of Divinity; Paul and the Sceptic, engaged in many a conflict; and even Michael fought in 'wordy debate' with the devil about the body of Moses; yet who was more meek than Moses—more zealous for-God then Elijah—more patient than Job—more devout than Paul—more benevolent than John?
He continues this basic affirmation in a forceful way by pointing out some conditional situations in regard to controversy. It is crucial to the understanding of Campbell's basic contention to realize that he defines controversy as "another name for opposition to error, real or supposed." Campbell further elucidates his point by presenting (1) some "if-then" type arguments and (2) some "but-then" type arguments. The first of these "if-then" clauses suggested by Campbell is: "If there was no error in principle or practice, then controversy ... would be unnecessary." Then he presents a second such group of conditional circumstances: "if it were lawful, or if it were benevolent, to make a truce with error, then opposition to it would be both unjust and unkind." And, thirdly, he suggests: "If error were innocent and harmless, then we might permit it to find its own quietness, or to immortalize itself." In each of these cases, the proper second premise would result in the negation of the consequent (what follows the "then") in each of these "if-then" statements. This falsifies the antecedent. This is highly significant. Campbell then shifts to the "but-then" type of clauses as he replies to the implications of the situations described in the "if-then" statements. "But so long as it is confessed that error is more or less injurious to the welfare of society, individually and collectively considered, then no man can be considered benevolent who does not set face against it." Campbell further contends that insofar as a person is both intelligent and benevolent he will oppose whatever error is a part of his immediate world, it follows that all intelligent and benevolent people will be involved necessarily in controversy with error. In emphasizing that Jesus, the Son of God, was involved constantly in religious controversy during his public earthly ministry, Campbell said, "Hence the Prince of Peace never sheathed the sword of the Spirit while he lived. He drew it on the banks of Jordan and threw the scabbard away."
He said this, no doubt, because he understood that Christ knew that His ministry would be characterized by an almost constant warfare between truth and error (Matthew 10:34, cf. Jude 3).
To be like Christ, then, is to be an ardent controversialist, Campbell suggests that: if men only would consider thoughtfully the history of the preceding centuries they easily could realize that they are indebted to Christ and His faithful disciples down through the centuries, all of whom were involved in religious controversy for both religious and political blessings. He gives additional emphasis to the view that controversy has given special opportunities to the spread of true religion. For example, he said, "Let the opponents of controversy, or they who controvert controversy, remember, that had there been no controversy, neither the Jewish nor Christian religion could have ever been established ..." The establishment of the Jewish nation, under the Law of Moses, was preceded by strenuous conflict with the Egyptians. The establishment and growth of the church of Christ was accompanied by the confrontation between truth and error.
Campbell hypothesizes the situation: "[I]f all men were equally in love with truth, as well as rationality, intelligence also equally disinterested, then changes in society could be brought about in a rather simple way." He shows that, even though an argument may be well formulated and well presented, false pride can cause an individual to reject the conclusion which the evidence warrants. There are people who prefer to attempt to defend their position rather than change in order to be correct in their conclusions. He holds that it is the case that not all the people are equal either in their ability to weigh evidence or in their honesty in dealing with it. The fact that a given matter can be understood clearly by one person does not necessarily mean, Campbell argues, that it will be understood by someone else. In effect, he presents the view that no matter how much evidence, no matter how many unanswerable arguments are presented, it still is the case that some people will not accept them, "The more clearly and forcibly an unpopular truth is argued, the greater will be the dislike to it by all who are interested in representing it to be error." In the, same article Campbell enlarges upon this point by asserting: "A little experience will convince the most astute that the clearness and force of argument will not subdue opposition. It very frequently provokes the greater resentment."
To indicate the zeal which must characterize God's people in the proclamation and defense of the faith, Campbell said,
When error has but a single ally in the corruptions of the human heart, it is very formidable; but how strong when pride, passion, and interest become its auxiliaries! To overcome these, reason and logic must be strong indeed, and rhetoric most persuasive. Pride, ambition, and selfishness, are all powerful allies of error. Hence double, triple, and quadruple the evidence necessary to convert a layman, will not often convince a priest. The pride of the understanding is the most invincible of all sorts of pride, and more especially when religion is the problem. A bigoted sceptic, a prejudiced sectarian, and an interested priest, are more without the pale of reason, and more beyond the reach of controversy, than the errorists of any other school. But while error lives, and falsehood has an auxiliary upon earth, controversy will be necessary, and argument indispensable.
Campbell is surely correct in contending that such characteristics as pride, ambition, and selfishness are powerful allies of error and, by implication, that humility, logic, and sincere love for the truth are allies of truth. In some hearts pride and prejudice lurk. In other hearts humility and honesty dwell. When truth is preached and defended, some men will receive it gladly (Acts 2:41) while others will reject it (Acts 24, 26). But this mixed reaction to the proclamation of truth must not be allowed to become a deterrent to a militant proclamation of the truth by God's people. Jesus made clear that many will be lost while few wilt be saved (Matthew 7:13-14).
It must be noted that it is not required of God's people that they be "successful" (i.e. in leading a large number of people to obey the gospel) but that they be faithful in carrying out the Lord's instructions (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:44-45). It is the sad case that many are misled by "bigness" into becoming unfaithful. Of course, we would like to baptize every person in the world, but we must not compromise the truth in order to do it. "To obey is better than sacrifice ..." (1 Samuel 15:22).
Having considered the attitudes of those who listen to the proclamation and defense of the gospel, Campbell then turns his attention to a consideration of the attitudes of those who are involved in controversy. He holds that the first and most productive (of good) attitude for those who engage in religious controversy is a benevolent one. This is the case, he contends, because this method is not only the most successful (in bringing good results) but also the less injurious for those involved.
Campbell suggests the second method by stating: "But when argument and debate are dictated by resentment, prompted by pride, or controlled by the lust of power, the hearts of the combatants must be polluted, and their passions inflamed." It is clear that Campbell holds that the procedure of controversy is to be carried on in a Christian attitude and with the behavior of the participants being in harmony with gospel teaching. These are essential elements in any truly successful effort in controversy.
However, Campbell offers another aspect of this matter which, he holds, should be considered carefully. He does this by asking and answering his own question: "But because it (controversy) has been abused shall we desist from the use of it? This would be to make a covenant with death, and an agreement with destruction." As noted briefly, in an earlier statement, he argues that the abandonment of controversy would have destructive results. He contends that those who contribute to such abandonment also reject the examples of many faithful Bible characters who were involved in controversy in a very strenuous way. He submits that the following of such a viewpoint would cause one to live and die without honor.
For so long as error in principle and in practice exists, so long will it be the duty and the felicity of the intelligent and the good to oppose it! And as long as there are conflicting creeds, sects, and divisions among religionists, so long will it be our duty to contend for the faith once delivered to the saints.
Campbell maintains this to be of great importance because he believed that there was a great need for humble study, a pleasant presentation, and firmness in the purpose (resolution) of the one who defends the truth. He also urges acceptance of the view that men may be honest even while rejecting, for a time at least, the truth.
In pointing out how Jesus and His early disciples varied their presentation of the gospel according to the character of their auditors, Campbell argues at some length as follows:
It is nevertheless true that our great models, the prophets and apostles; nay, the Savior himself, though often mild as the genial influence of spring, were sometimes severe and surly as the winter's blast. At one time, and amidst one class of opponents, they were like the mountain storm roaring through the cliffs. Soft and persuasive were their words and arguments to those who appeared honest in their convictions, but severe and tart were their reproofs to such as appeared obstinate in error. Hence Paul, who instructed his son Timothy to imitate him in all things, admonished him to instruct some opponents 'with all meekness' and 'sharply to rebuke and confute others.' So did Peter and June in their epistles. ‘Make a difference,’ says Jude, 'between those who are complainers, who walk according to their own lusts, whose mouths speak great swelling words, and admire men's persons for the sake of gain, have compassion upon other errorists.' ... No man ever spoke more severely of certain teachers than Peter in his second epistle . . . when we find persons . . . obstinately intent on covetous courses, for the sake of others we must not spare them ...
Campbell is here pointing out the need both to become aware of and to understand the individual's view toward the word of God in each discussion of the Bible. This is the case, because at times soft, kind words will be the most effective whereas, at other times, very stern ones may be. He is showing that there are occasions for both methods of teaching the Bible. The variant element, which is the factor determining which approach should be used, is the attitude of the auditors.
In a later article, Campbell considers the character of a reformer or controversialist. He does this by examining the lives of Elijah and John the Baptist. It was his purpose to consider in detail the spirit, temper, and behavior of John who, according to Campbell, was the type of controversialist of which Elijah was the prototype. According to Campbell, John was a humble man who was willing to sacrifice to the point of self-denial.
“As a teacher, he was clear, forcible, bold and severe." Campbell thinks that John took into account the attitude of the individual with whom he was talking. He says of John that "while mild, conciliatory, and accessible to the sincere and inquisitive, he was inflexible, unaccommodating, and unyielding to the prejudices of the times. He was no respecter of persons ..." In Campbell's view, John skillfully synthesized the proper qualities for a successful controversialist.
Campbell believes that Elijah and John were even more alike than are twin brothers. Campbell says, "I speak not of the many remarkable coincidences in their history, but of their spirit and behavior." Both of these great men lived in the wilderness. They both were viewed with disdain by the royal courts of their day. Campbell contends that each of them was devoted to the God of Israel, that each was brave and served God faithfully. Campbell elucidates his point by saying that Elijah was "sharp, fierce, and unsparing in his opposition to the corrupters of the people…” He further holds that not only were Elijah and John known for the fact of their reproofs of the royal courts of their respective days but also for the manner in which each one carried out his own reproofs. "They both set their faces like a, flint against iniquity and hypocrisy, and made no truce with the corruptions of men ... they were both reformers of one spirit, and of the same people. . . .” Campbell concludes.
Such have ever been the prominent traits of character, the temper, and spirit of all real and useful reformers. Great moral courage, boldness, independence of mind, untiring zeal for the glory of the Lord, and unaffected benevolence for men, are essential to a reformer ... He that wants nerve to oppose errors can never reform them ... It is an arduous, and it is an invidious, and often a thankless work. But it must be done. All things are prone to deterioration, and if there were no reformations the world could not exist.
He thus considers the basic character of a successful reformer. To at least some degree. these qualities must be a part of any truly successful controversialist. Certainly one would need to be courageous, bold, and zealous for such an area of work. But the only independence of mind which is needed is that from man and not from God.
Campbell wisely ascertains and keenly points out that many people are inconsistent (self-contradictory) in regard to at least one aspect of this matter. He contends that some people highly praise such men as Paul for defending the truth, but at the same time they would have been ashamed to have been involved with him (Paul) in his involvement in controversy. They talk and discuss certain elements and phases of Paul's life, but overlook other parts of it. Even though they might preach sermons based upon one of Paul's epistles, they would still condemn those who might be involved in defending the gospel as he did.
Campbell then points out that the preaching of many different doctrines (contradictory of one another) by the various religious bodies involves rejection of the basic character which the Bible teaches men should have. He condemns contemporary preachers who, with one breath, praise the apostle Paul but who, with the next breath, condemn all who engage in controversy. Of this point he says,
... but in this article I intended no more than to lay before the mind of the reader the character of two of the greatest reformers in sacred history, actuated by the same spirit, not as if they were exclusively models, but because they give us, in the boldest relief, the most prominent traits essential to all who are public reformers. I do it, too, to correct that squeamishness of taste—delicate to a vice, which condemns as unchristian, as anti-evangelical, the clear, forcible, and pointed exhibition of error—the severe exposure of corruptions and unsparing development of the schemes of pride, arrogance, and hypocrisy, which we know exist in our own generation ... So we derive peculiar instruction from the character of John, because ... while he prepared the way of the Lord, he reproved all the errors of the time, clearly developed the principles of reformation, and with a zeal, boldness, courage, faithfulness, and perseverance which was never surpassed except by him who was the founder of the New Institution. This shall be our model, sanctioned as it was by the great teacher sent from God, by the most distinguished of the apostles and prophets, and all the more illustrious servants of God in every period of the world.
Campbell closes his second article by offering a challenge to anyone who thinks he can show that the position, which he (Campbell) has advanced relative to controversy to be unchristian. He further points out that only evidence from the New Testament could be used properly to show that he had erred. No other evidence would be relevant. If such evidence can be presented, he claims that he is willing to make the proper corrections.
But as at present advised, we shall, God willing, with all impartiality, fairness, boldness, and courage, reprove, exhort, beseech, and expostulate, until there is no longer need for these means—always cultivating that benevolence, good will, and affection for them who love the truth and the God of truth; always cherishing that holy spirit, that peace of God, and unfeigned brotherly love, without which Christianity is but a name, death terrible, and heaven unattainable ...
Since the Bible is the word of God (1 Thessalonians 2:13), it is inspired, inerrant, and authoritative. No other source can be viewed properly as the basis of authoritative judgments. No other ground can be used properly to say to Campbell that he has erred in his view of the role of controversy in the spread of the gospel of Christ. Campbell's contention at this point is sustained not only by various New Testament precepts but by the New Testament descriptions of the actions of various men who were faithful to God (such as Elijah, John, Jesus, Peter and Paul.)
I now direct your attention to an article in which Campbell discusses the Christian spirit. He does this by examining the character of Jesus Christ himself. It was Campbell's view that the Christian spirit is very much misunderstood and very seldom exhibited. He also holds the opinion that the phrase "Christian spirit" is exceedingly abused. Campbell defines the Christian spirit as being the spirit like that of Jesus Christ. "But it is better understood from a close examination of the sayings and doings of Jesus Christ, than from any abstractions or contrasts which can be set forth upon paper."
Campbell begins his presentation of the character of Jesus Christ by pointing out that He rejected a condescending spirit. Campbell is quick to point out that Jesus was not a respecter of men. The rich and/or powerful did not receive any special treatment or attention from Jesus. He did not "curry their favor"! Further Jesus did not have a dislike or disdain for poor people. He did not "look down" on them because of their lack of material possessions. Campbell points out that humble, poor individuals were often the people with whom Jesus consorted. The "common people" heard him gladly.
But goodness, whether clothed in rags or decorated with scarlet, which, however, is an attire seldom worn by goodness, was that which caught his attention and captivated his heart.
A second characteristic of a Christian spirit, as Campbell views it, is that of sympathy for others. He suggests that Jesus Christ was unequaled in any attribute and. of course, was unequaled in sympathy. "No son of sorrow, no child of anguish ever sought his aid in vain. Alive was he to all the pains and all the maladies of the unfortunate. He felt the sorrows which he saw, and wept with those that wept."
Campbell next points out that Jesus was candid in spirit and was always willing to give credit to whom credit was due. "Those whom Jesus most denounced for intolerance, if they had a good property at all he gave them credit for it."
Campbell turns to yet another trait of the Christian spirit: it rejoices in truth, not in iniquity. He emphasizes that Jesus was a lover of the truth of God. So it must be with any of his faithful followers. In presenting the proper view of the Christian spirit, Campbell provides a barrier against misunderstanding the true Christian spirit. By presenting the spirit that Christians should have, Campbell gives approval to it and disapproves of any other spirit one might possess. This is an example of how even the positive presentation of the gospel, and related matters, is involved in controversy.
But some men may raise such questions as: "Is it not the case that Paul and other followers of Jesus severely denounced those who opposed them? Does such conduct not show that the followers of Christ did not have a kind spirit?"
In reply, Campbell points out that the faithful disciples of Jesus did not oppose the individual; rather, they opposed the false doctrine which they taught. "They had no personal ill will; nay, they prayed for them whom they denounced as enemies of the true gospel."
Campbell defends his position (of hating the false teaching while loving the teacher of it) by giving biblical evidence for his view. He does this even to the point of calling the names of individuals and making known certain sins.
It is quite compatible with the meekness, mildness, and tenderness of a Christian spirit, to reprove, rebuke and expose hypocrites and false pretenders to truth and righteousness. Had it not been compatible with such a spirit, why should the advocates for the true religion have been commanded by the apostles to reprove sharply and rebuke with all boldness false teachers and pretenders? . . Alexander the coppersmith has done I many evil things... There are many unruly talkers and deceivers ... The Cretans are always liars, evil beasts... rebuke them sharply that they may be healthy in the faith ... I do not, either, set I myself up as a judge of the character of my opponents. By their overt acts I know them. I do not 'gather grapes of thorns, nor figs of thistles.' I will bear evil treatment, and I will in meekness instruct some opponents, and with sharpness I rebuke others.
Campbell shows that there are two “sides” to the Christian character: (1) one that is meek and mild, and (2) one that is able rebuke false teachers (even to their faces) in loving concern for their souls.
[The second installment, conclusion, and works cited to this article to follow.]
Lindsey Davis Warren, the only son of the late Dr. Thomas B. and Faye Brauer Warren, was born August 24, 1950, and died September 24, 2009. He was a graduate of Freed-Hardeman College, Harding University, Harding Graduate School of Religion, and Oklahoma University from which he received the Ph.D. Lindsey was the father of Thomas Bart Warren, one of the founders of Warren Christian Apologetics Center, and who also serves as Associate Editor of Sufficient Evidence: A Journal of Christian Apologetics, published by the Warren Center.