Scripture is the source of the church’s life. The church does not precede Scripture but arises in response to Scripture. The church obeys and preaches the Scriptures, not judges them. While the church hears Scripture, Scripture stands in judgment over the church. If controversy is churchly, then it must be characterized by Scripture, for attention to Scripture defines the nature of church life.
Church meetings can be contentious. When controversial topics are up for it is worthwhile to reflect on an essay by John Webster contained in his book The Domain of the Word, entitled “Theology and The Peace Of The Church.”
Webster consistently addressed topics by following the “material order” of theology: God in himself prior to God’s works. Here he moves starting from God through creation, redemption, church, theological reason, finally to controversy. This ensures that the nature and conduct of controversy is rightly understood by its place within God’s economy. The result is an extended theological meditation for approaching controversy.
I aim to highlight four lessons from Webster’s essay for consideration. First: Webster views peace primarily as an indicative reality, accomplished by God—not merely as an imperative. Second: Webster articulates a distinction between sinful anger and faithful zeal. Third: Webster distinguishes between controversy within the fellowship of the saints and sinful conflict. Fourth and finally: Webster emphasizes that Scripture is the rule of controversy.
In doing this, while I have my own perspectives on the various controversial topics, my goal is to avoid explicitly advocating any specific position—though I will use some of the topics for discussion. Rather, my goal is to use Webster as a source of reflection on the proper conduct of controversy.
Lesson 1: Peace as Indicative
Webster consistently emphasizes God’s sovereignty. The opening line illustrates: “in order to speak about conflict…theology must first speak about peace” (150). Why? Because peace is the condition, established by God, in which conflict occurs. It is therefore both real and primary. And it starts within God: “Theology must first speak about the God of peace” before it can speak of peace in creation which God establishes (150).
To explain the sovereign reality of God’s peace, Webster tells us that “God is both pattern and principle of creaturely peace” (153). Many acknowledge that God is the pattern of peace, but we must recall that he is also the principle, or the ground and cause, of peace. To see him as merely an example which we must actuate is to follow Pelagianism, where Christ is merely an assistant to our efforts. But to see him as the principle of peace acknowledges the reality that God creates peace, and we do not achieve it by our efforts. Created peace flows out of the fullness of God’s own life: “his peace is neither enhanced by created peace nor diminished by its absence” (154).
If God creates peace, and it is therefore fundamental to the nature of the church, why do we see conflict? Because peace unfolds in creation: “God secures the peaceful movement of created being” towards perfection (156). Webster reminds us that God’s peace is eschatological – it is both already (real) and not yet (perfected). So when Col. 3:5 commands “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,” the precept “is directed, not to making peace real, but to making it visible” (159). Conflict is then merely “the lingering shadow which the rising sun has yet to chase away” (162). To truly know and see this reality requires us to acknowledge God’s work as primary, and ours as derivative.
So what bearing does this have for our conduct of theological controversy? It means that we may conduct controversy humbly and gently, even while passionately. The work of redemption does not hang on the outcome of our controversy. God’s action frees us from the responsibility (and stress) of guaranteeing a lack of conflict, as well as from guaranteeing perfection in the church. This actually enables us to more honestly approach disagreements. We don’t need to cover over disagreements for the sake of maintaining peace, because God’s peace is already real. Only by acknowledging and addressing disagreements can God’s peace truly be seen.
God’s peace in the church also gives us confidence. Controversy which is undertaken honestly, for “the furtherance of communion, not its erosion” trusts God to settle disagreements (168). In this, all parties to a conflict can acknowledge that they are seeking obedience to God and peace with each other: even as that requires that God move them to repentance. This position and intention is not victory at any costs, but rather obedience and love, preventing “self-conceit, mutual provocation and envy” (169). Controversy is no place for pride or achievement, but a place for repentance. It is not a place for self-justification, but for obedience. God has spoken. Controversy listens.
Lesson 2: The Character of Zeal
Much of Webster’s essay is taken up with the previous theme. But as one of the final movements in his argument, he includes a discussion of the proper attitude for theological controversy. Who is the peaceful theologian? Out of inner peace (derived from Christ’s rule in the heart), the theologian is not disturbed or agitated by his conversation partners. The contrast between anger and zeal explains this. Evil anger follows the passions – it is moved by one’s opponent and reactive. Zeal “is cooler and more objective,” even while an intense and deep spirit of opposition to evil (167).
Zeal can be corrupted by either deficiency or excess. Deficiency in zeal is “indifference, weariness” which leads the church into error (167). It too easily declares a false peace by finding points of unity. But this is a self-established peace, not a God-established one—and a minimalistic one at that. Zeal requires controversy to occur, that God’s truth may be obeyed.
Zeal in excess however, is also dangerous. It too quickly becomes unrighteous anger. Zeal may be tempered from excess by reinforcing the first theme: peace is from God. If it is accomplished by God, then zeal is not for making peace, but for showing peace. Webster prompts reflection by a helpful and thought-provoking, statement: “Zeal in a world in which God’s peaceful judgement is utterly real is a very different undertaking from zeal in a world where evil will not be stopped unless I shout it down” (168). By refusing to concretely define the difference, he invites us to ponder it with Scripture.
Zeal must not let divergences in opinion “become weapons of the will” which divide the unity of Christ (169). Zeal must start from the position of peace, and therefore must recognize that God’s peace is established not just between him and man, but also as “a society in which hostility is put to an end and peace is made” (157). Controversy is conducted within the fraternal love of the church.
Lesson 3: Controversy, not Conflict
This churchly nature of controversy is one main way in which Webster differentiates between “controversy” and “conflict,” which is a sinful fight for dominance over others. This theme comes into focus especially throughout Webster’s five rules “for edifying controversy” at the end of his essay (168). In fact, the first four rules all in some way highlight this churchly nature of controversy.
Perhaps the most important thing to be kept in mind about the churchly nature of controversy is Webster’s third rule, which distinguishes “divergence of opinion” from “divergence of will” (169). Are there “fundamental divergences about the Gospel” at stake in the controversy? The situation is either within the church, or a disagreement concerning what the church is. Only in the latter situation, where there are such “fundamental divergences about the Gospel” does controversy leave the bonds of a united will (169).
This provides an easy temptation in two ways though. Certainly, some issues in current controversies can be seen as affecting the Gospel. Does the divergence on the issue of sanctification and homosexuality constitute such an issue? Or is there a more moderate diagnosis whereby a “fundamental divergence” can be distinguished from what is correctible error? Certainly none of us is perfect, and this is a question that must be decided by every member of the controversy. The temptation to over-diagnose an error into a charge of heresy must be combatted. So must (and oftentimes more) the temptation to under-diagnose an error. Surely the principles of Presbyterianism, while allowing certain latitudes, are not in any way “latitudinarian.”
Perhaps a few questions about divergences can help to illuminate the nature of certain controversies. First: how is the Gospel articulated? And then, secondly: how is obedience to the Gospel instructed in pastoral counsel? A difference in articulation is no doubt cause for concern. But our sin often implies our failure to practice what we preach. Thus, agreement in articulation might camouflage a practical difference. Since divergence is not only in opinion, but may also be in will, the second question further illuminates divergences. What pastoral counsel is given, that characterizes the shape of obedience to the Gospel? Is it pastoral counsel which declares the perfection of God’s redemption, and exhorts trusting him alone in faithful use of his means of grace? Or is it pastoral counsel which declares a possible redemption, and encourages a routine of works and achievement, looking to works as the sign of acceptability before God?
While this may not be a total divergence in will, there is no doubt that it tends towards one. The question of sanctification is certainly important, and requires characterization. But there should be no doubt that some other questions, such as the composition of the PCA’s Standing Judicial Commission (SJC), do not even approach being divergences about the Gospel—even while remaining important questions. It is less a matter of what obedience is, than it is about the precise manner which best actualizes such (agreed upon) obedience.
One final thing may be mentioned under this heading:
If controversy is within the church, then this shapes church discipline as controversy. Discipline is not to be regarded as an evil process. Too often, instead of distinguishing between controversy (good and rightly conducted) and conflict (the evil corruption of controversy), we are prone to view discipline as a “necessary evil.” But if it is necessary, it cannot be evil because evil can never be necessary. Conflict is sin, but controversy is the right response to sin’s presence and work. Discipline’s reality is not necessarily a pronouncement of sin on anyone involved. It is the context in which such a judgment, as to whether or not there is sin, may be made in obedience to Scripture.
Lesson 4: The Rule of Controversy
Webster’s final rule follows from the previous themes. Controversy is ruled by Scripture. He challenges the church of today: “Once confidence in the power of Scripture to determine matters in the church is lost, the politics of the saints quickly slides into agonistic practices in which we expect no divine comfort or direction” (170).
One may see a similar principle in the Westminster Confession of Faith: “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.”
The Scripture is God’s instrument of revelation and rule. Because God’s peace is the primary reality, it is only seen and actualized by attention to his Word. This attention is given by submission to Scripture. Controversy can only make God’s peace visible if it is focused on hearing and obeying Scripture.
The Scripture is what zeal loves. Zeal does not respond to offense, nor even to error considered in itself. Zeal responds only from love of Scripture, which grounds it. Zeal does not guard my own position or rightness. It guards obedience and submission to God’s Word. And so, when in controversy, zeal focuses on Scripture instead of on persons or secular philosophies.
Finally, Scripture is the source of the church’s life. The church does not precede Scripture but arises in response to Scripture. The church obeys and preaches the Scriptures, not judges them. While the church hears Scripture, Scripture stands in judgment over the church. If controversy is churchly, then it must be characterized by Scripture, for attention to Scripture defines the nature of church life.
God is the God of peace. Let us give attention to him and his work above our own, trusting him to resolve our controversies by listening to his Word alone in conducting them.
Albert D. Taglieri is a member of Reformed Presbyterian Church of San Antonio.
 John Webster, “Theology and the peace of the church” in The Domain of the Word, 150-170. Further citations from this essay use parenthetical page numbers.
 WCF 1.10