On the Ethics of Controversy -- By: Tom Wells

Journal: Reformation and Revival
Volume: RAR 05:4 (Fall 1996)
Article: On the Ethics of Controversy
Author: Tom Wells

On the Ethics of Controversy

Tom Wells

It is the unhappy lot of any man who cares a fig for truth to be called on to engage in controversy. He may embrace it as a purse of gold or despise it as a putrefying sore, but he can no more escape it than he can escape the atmosphere or the common cold. In a fallen world, truth and controversy are bedfellows.

It is true: we cannot make progress by controversy alone. Real progress toward unity is the work of God. This is also true, however: We are unlikely to make progress without controversy. All Scripture bears this out, not least when it couples the sovereignty of God with the use of means in the highest interests of the soul. We do not simply hope for the day in which all will be absolutely in one accord. No, we seek by means to bring “every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).

A man may spend valuable time bemoaning that fact, but what is needed is a way to come to terms with it as a godly man, a way to carry on controversy with a minimum amount of damage to his opponent and to the interested bystander and the maximum amount of good to the cause of God and truth.

But how to do it?—that’s the question. How shall we carry on the controversies that have been laid upon us by the providence of God? Let me propose a few rules for guidance in the minefield of vigorous controversy, especially among those who with us profess faith in our Lord Jesus.

Show Respect for the Persons with Whom You Differ

In an article titled, “The Scope and Center of Old Testament Theology and Hope,” Kenneth Barker lays down a number of points that are crucial to his theme. For example, as his fifth point he writes, “To say that the Old Testament is the testament of law but the New Testament is the testament of grace is a false dichotomy.” Both his stated subject and

this fifth point show that his interest is biblical and theological. The surprising thing, however, is his first point in this biblical and theological discussion. Here Barker writes:

Dispensational premillennialists and amillennial, covenant theologians of orthodox persuasion should treat each other more like brothers in Christ and less like adversaries or even heretics.1

Clearly this plea by Barker is off the subject—or is it? The very fact that he thought it needed saying as a major point in a biblical and theological discussion is a sad commentary on the state of controversy among evangelicals in the late twentieth century.

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