If we would be faithful to our Lord we will prayerfully consider when, how and for what end we enter into controversies. Defending the truth is a necessary thing in a fallen world. When the people of God are threatened by error, the ministers of the Gospel have a responsibility to warn and instruct them. Above all, we must be prayerfully pouring over the Scriptures so that we will be able to better expose error and defend truth for our own hearts and the hearts of those in the body.
Debate in theological matters is necessary in a fallen world. God commands believers to “contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). We are to be zealous for the defense and propagation of the whole counsel of God for His own glory and the building up of His people. Ministers and local church members, in many Reformed churches, take vows to “study the peace and purity of the church.” This includes purity in doctrine. But, there are also wisdom principles that must accompany a desire to defend the truth. In every battle there is fallout. There are dangers that we need to seek to avoid when entering into theological debate.
In recent years, there has been a growing debate over the doctrine of sanctification. Some of the questions involved in this debate include: Does justification produce sanctification? Is sanctification “getting used to your justification?” What role does sanctification play in the subjective assurance of salvation in the life of a believer? Does justification make union with Christ possible, or does union make justification possible? In addition to these questions, a myriad of others have been–and ought to be–raised for the sake of clarity and the defense of truth. There are, however, several dangers that come with controversy.
The Danger of Infection
There is a danger of infecting others with false teaching–even while trying to refute it.
Under their section titled “On the Preaching of the Word,” in The Directory for the Public Worship of God, the Scottish Divines give us a very short and very wise statement about the ministers’ responsibility to refute false teaching in the church. What is most captivating about this brief statement is that it gives us instruction concerning 1) the dangers of talking about false teaching, and 2) the necessity of refuting false teaching in the church. They wrote:
In confutation of false doctrines, he [i.e. the minister] is neither to raise an old heresy from the grave, nor to mention a blasphemous opinion unnecessarily: but, if the people be in danger of an error, he is to confute it soundly, and endeavor to satisfy their judgments and consciences against all objections.1
Since beliefs inevitably have consequences on our lives and actions, the Divines first warn against our “raising an old heresy from the grave, nor to mention a blasphemous opinion unnecessarily.” They do not say this to be censorious, or to bury their heads in the sand. Rather, they raise this warning because of the nature of false teaching.
When I was a young Christian, a friend taught me that “whenever false teaching is taught in a nuanced fashion there is the danger that some who hear it will be drawn into it.” He went on to explain that this is true within the realm of relationships, as well. Whenever we start to enter into debate with those with whom we disagree we are in danger of getting closer to them and become more susceptible of being influenced by their beliefs. It is not guaranteed that this will happen, but it is certainly a very real danger.
Tragically, in recent years, my friend embraced a sinful lifestyle due in part to the public discussions about, and approval of, it. I have also watched a minister of the Gospel walk away from Protestantism in the midst of engaging, on church court levels, with a man who was being tried for holding to aberrant theological views on the sacraments and soteriology. Whether his engagement with this man’s views were the cause of his departing from the truth or not, I cannot help but wonder what impact the aberrant teaching had on this man.
This danger must be highlighted within the realm of teaching in the church. There are some who thrive on debating theological issues. This can be harmful to the members of a church because a) some members already have misguided beliefs, and b) some have a very small knowledge of doctrine. In the case of the first group, introducing old heresies can encourage more confusion.
I have, time and time again, seen such individuals start to dabble with heresy because they already had misguided beliefs in their knowledge of Scripture. In the case of the latter group, introducing theological error–even if it is in the name of “discernment”–can end in filling the minds of God’s people with falsehood when they ought to be filling their minds with the truth. Far better to teach them the nuances of the truth of Scripture so that they will be able to discern falsehood when confronted with it. You don’t study a counterfeit dollar bill to spot a counterfeit; you study the real dollar bill so that you will be able to spot the counterfeit.
A man may be defending a more biblical position than his opponent, and yet do harm to the cause of truth by the tone in which he contends. He may inadvertantly push someone to embrace falsehood by not modeling the humility and godly speech that ought to accompany debate within the church. The punishment must fit the crime. If a man pulls out an M-16 when he should use a ruler, he might help push those on the fence to the error he is seeking to combat. We will take this up in the last point of this post.
There is a danger of infecting believers with a hyper-critical spirit.
Additionally, we may inadvertently encourage a hyper-critical spirit among church members. Followers are usually worse (and almost always are more dangerous) than leaders. We have all seen churches that are full of theological heresy-hunters. While I don’t like to bandy that term around (since there is a right “heresy rejecting” to which all believers are called to engage), feeding on a “seeking out of error” is a highly toxic thing in the life of believers. The Scottish Divines were warning against these two dangers that might become a reality if an old heresy, or an unnecessary blasphemous opinion, is raised in a church. (Read more thoughts about the statement in the Directory here).
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