Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
April 12, 1951
NUMBER 48, PAGE 2,15b

Controverting Controversy

Bill J. Humble, St. Petersburg, Florida

Denominational preachers seemingly recognize a double standard in respect to the discussion of controversial issues. When considering such themes as baptism, the plan of salvation and the scriptural name with those who are either unable or unwilling to contradict their assertions, such preachers are zealous in pressing their arguments; but when confronted by a gospel preacher who stands in defense of the truth, sectarian preachers retreat into a hollow shell of "tolerance" and protest that nothing can be accomplished by a discussion of differences.

Such, at least, was the attitude displayed recently by Dr. Lawrence Acker, speaker on the nationally broadcast Lutheran Hour. In response to queries from a young lady Dr. Acker wrote a long letter in defense of the Lutheran name and doctrines. These arguments were carefully analyzed in a letter to the Lutheran preacher, which was published in the Gospel Guardian, Jan. 11, 1951. Dr. Acker has recently replied to this letter, indicating no inclination to continue the discussion, and stating simply, "I regret deeply that you have found yourself in disagreement with the doctrinal position of our church." In writing to a young lady, not likely to have become acquainted with theological terms, Dr. Acker wrote extensively, appealing to "hermeneutical principles" which would justify his doctrines; but when confronted by a gospel preacher, he regrets that we cannot agree with the Lutheran doctrinal position but shows absolutely no desire to attempt a defense of this position. Such an attitude appears to me to be anything but intellectual honesty!

A basic question is raised by this prevailing unwillingness of denominational preachers to discuss our differences. The question is: what good may be accomplished by controversy between religious teachers of different persuasions? Sectarians answer that no good is to be accomplished. When Dr. Acker was invited to participate in a public discussion of the issues which he had raised in his earlier letter, he declined, explaining, "I cannot help but feel, however, that no particular purpose would be served through a discussion such as that you have suggested." A contrasting answer is that given by Christians who have always believed that when honest men discuss differences much good can be accomplished. This conviction has been translated into action; for members of the churches of Christ have always been noted for their willingness to "give a reason" for the hope that is within them.

To the preacher who believes that nothing constructive is to be achieved through controversy, it must be a shocking revelation to discover that the New Testament is a volume filled with controversy. Some of its greatest books are logically developed arguments, written in refutation of first century error; most of its greatest characters, including the Son of God, are presented as men of controversy, if not by nature, then of necessity. Christians are under obligation to "contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered unto the saints." (Jude 3) The word for contend is a strong military term, used only here in the New Testament, but used in historical writings to describe military campaigns, as against the famous general Hannibal. "The faith" means the one faith (Eph. 4:5), the gospel. To contend for the gospel successfully a Christian must possess two qualities: first, a knowledge adequate to the occasion, and second, a moral courage founded upon the assurance that his convictions are true and capable of being defended.

It seems impossible that men of courage and conviction can or should avoid controversy. It was not possible in the first century nor is it today. Christ and his apostles are portrayed as men conscious of their mission and willing to pursue it regardless of the circumstances or opposition. As a lad of twelve, our Lord was found in the temple hearing teachers of the law and asking them questions. After the beginning of his ministry he was continually engaged in discussion by the lawyers and scribes; and always he emerged triumphant. Was our Lord wasting time in these discussions? Was Stephen pursuing a course without purpose when he disputed with the Jews? (Acts 6:9) Should Paul and Barnabas have retreated when their teachings were contradicted by the Jews of Antioch? (Acts 13:45) Such illustrations are ample to indicate that first century Christianity flourished amid controversy, and there is nothing to indicate that it should be otherwise today. When contemporary religious leaders who occupy prominent positions and command powerful followings refuse to stand in defense of their convictions but rather hide behind some false concept of tolerance or good will, it is an indication that something fundamental is lacking. Such men are either so conscious of the weaknesses of, their doctrines that they are unwilling to risk them in public discussion, too mercenary to jeopardize their prominence and power, or so grossly ignorant of the Bible that they regard Christ and Paul as heroes without the backbone of a jellyfish.

Prior to 1820 Alexander Campbell, whose name is associated with some of the greatest debates in the history of the restoration movement, doubted the advisability of participating in public debates, or at least was reluctant to enter such discussions out of deference to his Father, Thomas Campbell's convictions. In 1820, however, Campbell was influenced by friends to debate a Presbyterian minister, John Walker, and thereafter he wrote extensively of the good which such exchanges of ideas might accomplish. Some of these statements are still worthy of consideration, especially in view of the current hostility toward debates within some congregations as well as among most sectarians. In the preface to the Campbell Maccalla Debate, Campbell asserted that controversy was inevitable; the only problem was how it should be conducted to attain the greatest possible good. His solution embodies the ideal in Christian discussion:

To the controversies recorded in the New Testament we must appeal, as furnishing an answer to this question. They were in general public, open, plain, and sometimes sharp and severe. But the disputants who embrace the truth in those controversies never lost the spirit of truth in the heat of conflict; but with all calmness, moderation, firmness, and benevolence, they wielded the sword of the spirit; and their controversies when recorded by impartial hands, breathe a heavenly sweetness, that he often forgets the controversy, in admiration of the majesty of truth, the benevolence and purity of their hearts.

(Campbell-Maccalla Debate, iv)

When Campbell began publication of The Millennial Harbinger, he included an essay in the first volume, arguing that controversy is the basis of improvement.

"Improvement requires and presupposes change; change is innovation, and innovation always has elicited opposition, and that is what constitutes the essentials of controversy." In reminding his readers of the inconsistency of opposition to religious controversy, Campbell wrote:

Many good men whose whole lives have been one continued struggle with themselves, one continued warfare against error and iniquity, have reprobated religious controversy as a great and manifold evil to the combatants and to society. Although engaged in a real controversy, they know it not; but suppose that they only were controversialists who were in debates and discussions often. Had they reflected but a moment, they would have discovered 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.

(Millennial Harbinger, 1830, 40)

Were religious controversy wrong as many contended, this fact "would unchristianize every distinguished Patriarch, Jew, and Christian enrolled in the sacred annals of the world. For who of the Bible's great and good men were not engaged in religious controversy!"

It would seem that at present there are greater benefits to be attained through religious controversy than ever before. First, debates demonstrate clearly that fundamental differences do exist between various religious bodies. Much of the contemporary apathy toward controversy stems from the idea that one religious group is just as good as any other and that there are no basic differences among them. A public airing of differences should at least convince the average listener that such differences do exist and that they involve such transcendent questions as man's eternal destiny.

Second, since truth has nothing to fear from error, public discussions should be a powerful means of planting God's eternal truth in human hearts. Conversely, error has everything to lose when bared before a thinking public; and religious teachers without sincere and honest convictions as to the truth of their position are not apt to risk a public examination of their particular dogmas.

Third, public discussions are especially powerful instruments of truth in influencing the honest inquirer, who is sincerely searching for the way of salvation. It is sometimes suggested that gospel preachers should not engage in public debates, since most denominational preachers willing to debate would not be open to conviction. Though such were true of most sectarian preachers, this fact would not legislate against debating since many debates attract hundreds of listeners who are not committed to either party, but who are willing to evaluate the arguments presented without strong bias. Only eternity can show the good thus accomplished.

Fourth, public debates should strengthen many of our weak, complacent and indifferent churches. In an age when many church members would prefer to see a friend lost eternally rather than risk offending him through an effort to teach him the truth, the church sorely needs such strengthening. As the church is being sucked once more toward the whirlpool of apostasy and threatens to become hardly more than another modernistic denomination, its only salvation lies in Christians' contending earnestly for their faith.