Voices from the Past
The Christian and Controversy

Clinton Hamilton
Truth Magazine, October 1956
(Volume 1, Number 1)

There is an attitude in the hearts of some Christians that regards debating as beneath the dignity of the followers of Christ and as detrimental to the spread of the Kingdom. The world regards debating with suspicion. This almost universal disapproval of religious debating outside the church has had its effect on the members of the church. For this reason it is good to examine the Scriptures to learn the true attitude one should have toward such matters.

Truth is in constant conflict with error. In view of this situation, what should be our disposition and action amid such a conflict?

A Clarification

Some of those who find debating obnoxious remonstrate with us when we try to reason with them by saying that "debating" is condemned in the Bible. They then quote Romans 1:29 and 2 Corinthians 12:20 from the King James Version: "Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness, full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers...," "For I fear, lest, when I come, I shall not find you such as I would, and that I shall be found unto such as ye would not: lest there be debates, envyings, wraths, strifes, backbitings, whisperings, swellings, tumults." The words debate and debates in these passages are pounced on to condemn religious discussion.

These words are translated strife in the American Standard Version. They are derived from a term which means a disposition to be quarrelsome and contentious and is an outgrowth of enmity (W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Vol. 4, p. 82). This is strife for its own sake and not discussion to learn the truth. Strife causes division. In fact, those engaged in it are divided and such conduct is inimical to real Christianity. But the idea of bringing truth and error into conflict is not in the word debate in the above passages. To condemn debating on the basis of these passages is to pervert the Scriptures.

Contend for the Faith

Jude's exhortation to contend for the faith once for all delivered is most familiar to Christians. Yet, some brethren have not felt the impact of this passage for they have a distaste for debates. The word contend is compounded from two words. One means about or upon; the other means a contest. One engages in a contest as a combatant. Thus it follows that a Christian must intensely (indicated by earnestly in Jude 3) contest that opposed to the faith or the gospel. Obedience to this commandment makes it impossible for one to be a non-controversialist. [emphasis added, sfd]. Since error and truth are constantly in conflict, it follows that the Christian is and must be in constant conflict with all those who espouse the cause of error. This conflict of necessity involves controversy.

An Apology

The word defense occurs in a number of passages and means a verbal answer made in favor of one or his belief. An examination of some passages in which the word occurs will aid us in arriving at its meaning.

"Some indeed preach Christ even of envy and strife; and some also of good will: the one do it of love, knowing that I am set for the defense of the gospel; but the other proclaim Christ of faction, not sincerely, thinking to raise up affliction for me in my bonds" (Phil. 1:15-17). Paul was set for the defense of the gospel. Whether against Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in intellectual Athens, or in a Jewish Synagogue, or before a heathen king, Paul made answer showing why the gospel should be accepted and the other systems rejected. When they remonstrated with him, he disputed with them. These disputes are studied elsewhere in this article.

On numerous occasions Paul had charges leveled against him. To these he made an answer or a defense. Festus laid the case of Paul before King Agrippa stating that Roman law provided for the accused to face his accusers and to make a defense, an answer (Acts 25:16). Paul made answer to the false teachers who tried to undermine his influence with the Corinthians but he called this answer his defense (1 Cor. 9:3). When attacked by a Jewish mob, Paul stood and made a defense (Acts 22:1). Finally, Paul stood alone in making his defense or answer in Rome (2 Tim. 4:16). These four incidents from the life of Paul should clearly indicate the essential meaning of defense. There is in the term the idea of putting two things side by side in order to determine which is right.

The truth is that no Christian can be loyal to the cause he espoused and fail to defend his position. "But sanctify in your hearts Christ as Lord: being ready always to give answer to every man that asketh you a reason concerning the hope that is in you, yet with meekness and fear" (1 Pet. 3:15). The word answer in this passage is the same word defense in the passages immediately above and could be translated apology.

The Good Fight

The word fight in 1 Timothy 6:12 and 2 Timothy comes from a word that originally meant to lead, then to an assembly and finally a conflict or a contest. (Vine, Ibid, Vol. 2, pg. 94) Timothy, "fight the good fight of the faith." Here then is a conflict or a contest involving the faith. He was to lead in this conflict in favor of the truth. Christianity is aggressive. The gospel is God's might or ability to save the soul (Rom. 1:16). It expunges error from the heart and life and instills the wisdom of God. This is a mighty conflict! No true disciple can avoid the fight [emphasis added, sfd]. The life of a Christian is a fight of the faith [emphasis in original].

When ready to lay his armor aside, Paul said tersely, "I have fought the good fight." We shall have denied the Lord if we cannot so comment when we are about to depart. Yes, the Christian's life is a militant battle with the forces of error whether in the form of false religions, perverted gospels, infidelity or immorality.

Dispute or Reason

"For three Sabbath days" Paul reasoned from the Scriptures with the Thessalonian Jews (Acts 17:2). Likewise at Corinth he reasoned in the synagogue seeking to persuade both Jews and Greeks (Acts 18:4). Whether in the synagogue with Jews and religious persons, or in the marketplace with any who would talk, Paul reasoned seeking to win people to Christ through his argumentation (Acts 17:17; 19:8, 9; 18:19). Before a ruler of this world he reasoned about righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come (Acts 24:25).

The word reason or dispute used in these above passages originally meant to think differently about a thing with one's self; therefore, the idea of arguing or disputing with others was an easy tradition in meaning. What Paul did when he reasoned was to argue or dispute with others. There is the interplay of truth and error with the idea being to cause truth to stand out in contrast. Truth is made to shine brightly when set beside error. Error appears in darkness when set against the real light of truth. May no Christian shrink back from this worthy effort of arguing for the truth!

Proving the Point

Confounding the Jews at Damascus, Paul proved that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 9:22). A joining or compacting together is the idea of the word prove in the statement before us. The word knit in Ephesians 4:16 and Colossians 2:19 is from the same word. Thus Paul stirred up the Jews by knitting or compacting Scripture together to demonstrate to their minds that Jesus was the promised Messiah or Christ. Frequently, some one says that he does not like all this "skipping" from passage to passage. The idea in the passage before us is that Paul took various passages and knit them together and that which he compacted proved his point! The conclusion from such a joining together denies every false conclusion. It is therefore impossible to prove one point without arguing against the false notions on the same point. One cannot help being a controversialist [emphasis added, sfd].


It was amid "much conflict" that the Thessalonians first heard Paul preach the gospel (1 Thess. 2:2). From the shameful treatment at Philippi, Paul entered Thessalonica to be opposed by the jealous Jews, by vile fellows of the rabble and by an unruly mob who set the city in an uproar against the apostle (Acts 17:1-9). He was in continual conflict with the enemies of the gospel. But, today, in many quarters this kind of conflict would be vulgar and beneath the dignity of the gospel and the "respectability" we have gained of late. May God help us to the end that such warriors as Paul may always be with us and not ashamed to meet error head on.


"And when he was minded to pass over into Achaia, the brethren encouraged him, and wrote to the disciples to receive him: and when he had come, he helped them much that had believed through grace; for he powerfully confuted the Jews, and that publicly, showing by the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ" (Acts 18:27, 28). This word confute in the original is formed by a combination of three words: through, down, and to convict. Hence Paul met their opposing arguments in turn, brought them down to the ground and consequently brought their blame to them. He convicted them by this process of reasoning. He convicted by taking the arguments in turn and showing their falsity. This is a truly classic example of truth routing error and its exponent. Who said debating is sinful?

A Summary

Contend, answer or apology, fight, reason or dispute, prove, conflict and confute are expressions used that demonstrate that debating is not foolish and wrong. A Christian is forced, if faithful to his duty, to debate the exponents of errors, to throw down his arguments that truth might stand in the eyes of men.

Feature Editor's Comments


The above article was printed in the first issue of the first volume of Truth Magazine in 1956, thirteen years before this writer was born. Even so, the truth never changes! "'All flesh is as grass, And all the glory of man as the flower of the grass. The grass withers, And its flower falls away, But the word of the LORD endures forever.' Now this is the word which by the gospel was preached to you" (1 Pet. 1:24-25).

This article points out two diverse attitudes that have been present among the Lord's people throughout the ages. One attitude is right, the other wrong. The right attitude is to promote and defend the truth and expose and annihilate error (cf. Phil. 1:12, 17). The wrong attitude is be quiet or do not upset others by plainly exposing their error. The former attitude was found in John, Stephen, and the Lord, all who paid for it with their lives (Mk. 6:14-29; Acts 7:1-60; Matt. 27:11-50). The latter attitude was expressed by the disciples of the Lord after He rebuked the Pharisees for their vain worship (Matt. 15:7-9). They said, "Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying" (Matt. 15:12). Note the Lord's response, it was not a "sorry, I was too hard." "But He answered and said, 'Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch'" (Matt. 15:13-14).

As evidenced from the article, these two attitudes existed in the 1950's. Then the battle of truth and error was mainly waged over institutional liberalism. Men promoted a perverted gospel, saying that the church could build and support human institutions and pool their resources together in a "sponsoring church arrangement." The faithful did not shy away from the fight, but met the error head-on. When this occurred, there were "weak-kneed" brethren who perhaps wanted truth, but were afraid of conflict and offending others.

Sadly, the wrong attitude of "no-debate" or controversy, still exists among brethren. Some churches, elders, preachers, and brethren in general have the policy of "no-controversy." They will not allow a "controversial" issue to be discussed in their assemblies. They steer away from the touchy subject of divorce and remarriage (Matt. 19:9). They suppress the truth of fellowship (2 Jn. 9-11). They quail concerning modesty (1 Tim. 2:9-10). These men are cowards and will lose their souls in hell (Rev. 21:8).

Thankfully, there are those who are not afraid of controversy. Some brethren today are willing to enter the fray and fend off the attacks of Satan and his children (cf. Jn. 8:44). They do not "enjoy" being in the trenches, but that is where the real battle is waged. They do not "enjoy" the filth of the fight, but understand there is no escaping getting dirty.

We wonder, if those who believe and promote a "no-controversy" "no-debate" philosophy were around in the first century, would they have advocated silence on the subject of the Christ? The Jews were highly offended when men preached that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 4:1-4, 17-21). Our "soft" brethren might have said to Peter and John, "When you are around the Jews, preach on Jehovah. This will win them over to you and then you can 'slip up' on them with Jesus later."

Further, we wonder if those who hold the wrong attitude about conflict, think that Paul was a "non-controversialist." The book of Acts records that he caused a great commotion wherever he went. In Damascus the "Jews plotted to kill him" (Acts 9:23). In Antioch the Jews were stirred to "envy; and contradicting and blaspheming" by Paul (Acts 13:45). Later, these same Jews chased Paul to Lystra and "persuaded the multitudes, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city" (Acts 14:19). In Philippi Paul was thrown in jail after being beaten with many stripes (Acts 16:23-24). The accounts of such things could go on. Do you suppose Paul was the focus of an assassination, the recipient of stoning, or thrown in prison because he avoided controversial subjects? Did he face such things because he refused to debate and contend with error? It is foolish to think so.

Are you a "non-controversialist" or are you a faithful brother or sister who earnestly contends for the faith (Jude 3)? What about the preacher and elders where you worship? Do they "by sound doctrine...convict those who contradict" (Titus 1:9)? Do they stop the mouths of those who "subvert" the truth (Titus 1:11)? If not, why not? If not, they are failing in their duties and need to repent (Acts 20:28-32; 2 Tim. 4:2-5). If they refuse to repent, then one of two things should be done: (1) either the elders need to be removed from office and/or the preacher fired; (2) or you should find a group of faithful Christians with which to work and worship.

"Fight the good fight of faith!"

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