Controversial Issues: A Guide for Christian Writers
One of my Facebook friends recently posted a meme that said, “The church cannot be the salt of the earth if we keep sugar-coating the Gospel.”
I sometimes have a satirical bent, so my reply (with a smiley face) was, “Yeah, we gotta be meaner about repentance and redemption. Maybe it would help if we start slugging people to get their attention.”
Yes, I understood my friend’s intent in posting the meme. It is a common sentiment among some segments of Christianity. But it implies that we need to be harsher with people, and we should question that.
Controversy is everywhere these days. It has always existed, of course, but has become more pervasive with the rise of Social Media. People are writing in isolation, so they feel free to engage in mean-spirited free-for-alls about controversial topics.
Righteousness in Christ is a settled matter. People who need to always be right are confused about their faith. They forget the battle is already won (1 John 4:4) and there is no reason for a fleshly vindictive triumph in skirmishes with others.
Sadly, many Christians engage in this kind of behavior because they have a self-righteous attitude and they want to demolish those who disagree with them. A first principle for writing about controversial issues, or responding to them, could be that righteousness in Christ (Romans 5:1 ) is the opposite of self-righteousness (Luke 18:9-14).
Why are Christians so quick to be so harsh when it comes to writing about controversial topics?
Controversy in Christian History
We see plenty of controversy in the New Testament. Jesus stood against the Romans and the Pharisees. Paul was hounded by the Diana worshipers in Ephesus. He had theological disagreements with other Christians like Apollos and John Mark.
Such disagreements, and antagonisms, only increased over time as various bishops contended for preeminence as the Roman Catholic Church rose to prominence, then split into two parts in the Great Schism of AD 1053.
Perhaps the rise of Calvinism in 16th-century Europe is the root of the way we handle controversy in modern times. Martin Luther was a kind reformer of the Catholic Church, but John Calvin was mean. He spoke of the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church, but he repeated them. For example, he was duplicitous in the death (1553) of Michael Servetus with whom he disagreed on theological matters.
Based on Calvin’s interpretation of the Bible, his followers were always happy to burn witches and condemn others as “heretics” simply because they disagreed with Calvin’s teachings. Calvin used logical fallacies (like the “straw man” fallacy) to engender hatred against those who disagreed with him, and a Dutch theologian named Jacobus Arminius is a case in point.
Today, combative Calvinists still call those who disagree with Calvin on some points “Arminians,” and by so doing seek to demonize them. This is another logical fallacy (ad hominem attack) designed to add heat rather than light to discussions. John Calvin added a theological overlay to the Bible, much like Mormon Joseph Smith did later in US history.
Today, Calvin’s followers of his brand of “Reformed Theology” must resort to support from various Councils, Creeds, and Catechisms since the Bible does not clearly support many of their positions. In fact, the great problem with Calvinism is that it mixes Bible truth with theological error.
So, today, if you want an endless argument, engage with a Calvinist. Apparently, 2 Timothy 2:23-24 either does not appear in their Bibles or John Calvin assigned it a different meaning to it, as he did on many topics, to accommodate his own theological bias.
Controversy Plain and Fancy
There are two common ways we see Christians argue today.
The plain way is to make an assertion about a point of view that is not supported by the Bible. For example, I once met a group of Christians who said drinking alcohol is always wrong for Christians. They had their mind made up based on their own tradition, and they bent the Bible to support their opinion. They had no consistent method of interpreting the Bible (no hermeneutic), but isolated individual texts, out of context, which they said supported their view (proof-texts).
They did not care that it is easy to trace their Christian views of prohibition to the late 1800s in the UK and USA. Wine and beer have been accepted by all Christians since the earliest Bible record, and they did not become a social problem until after 1550 when Franciscus Sylvius “invented” gin. Yes, drunkenness by individuals in certain situations was criticized (Leviticus 10:9; Ephesians 5:18 as examples), but Jesus accepted low-octane alcohol as part of life and never spoke against it. In fact, Jesus created wine from water at the Cana wedding (John 2:1-12).
We know for sure it was alcoholic (grapes naturally ferment between 12-16% alcohol) because of the context. The Greek NT word used is oinos which is the consistent name of the alcoholic beverage throughout the NT. It was never used to describe non-alcoholic grape juice. Alcohol was offered to guests at weddings then as it is commonly now. There is the experiential testimony of the Master of the Feast that the wine contained alcohol. He said everyone knew that you gave the best wine to guests first, and after they had a buzz, they willingly drank the low-quality wine. The wine Jesus’ made was the good stuff.
The group of teetotalers I met said, “We would never believe Jesus Christ would drink alcohol.” They didn’t care what the Bible says. However, not only did Jesus make wine, he drank it daily as the people of his time did. We know for sure he drank it at the Last Supper because that is what Jews traditionally drank at their Passover Seder meal, and he received sour wine from the soldiers to numb his pain moments before he died on the cross (John 19:30).
Are these statements made to be either for or against drinking alcohol? No. It is simply one example of why Christians must engage their God-given brains before they get involved in arguments.
Are these statements made to be either for or against drinking alcohol? No. It is simply one example of why Christians must engage their God-given brains before they get involved in arguments. Have a consistent Bible hermeneutic, and jettison your personal bias. Don’t use the Bible to debate unbelievers—they have little or no comprehension of what you’re talking about according to 1 Corinthians 2:14. Meet people at the point of their need when you talk about spiritual things.
Jesus provides the antidote to arguments and it applies equally to our contacts with Christian brothers and sisters and non-Christians. Jesus said if people will not hear what we teach, we should reject pointless debates, shake the dust from our feet, and move on (Matthew 10:14). When we have the truth, there is nothing controversial to debate.
Today we have some high-minded Christians who love to argue, and they call themselves, “Apologists.” The term has a biblical basis, but modern Apologetics is frequently misused. To the average person, an “apology” means saying you’re sorry. Non-believers assume apologists are sorry for being Christians.
Those who liked being called Apologists are always quick to say, “No, an Apologist is someone who defends the faith.” But the damage is already done, isn’t it?
Today, many so-called Apologists are combative. There is a difference between an Apologist and a Polemicist, but the line seems to have become blurred in contemporary times, and we can probably charge John Calvin with that. A Polemicist is one who defends their own position, even though their position may not be rooted in the teachings of Christ.
The big question is whether we need an Apologist or a Polemicist. Jesus was always on the offensive (Matthew 28:19-20), and only his followers, who seemed to enjoy a fight, became defensive. Jesus spoke the truth in love, and as noted, told his followers to move on without debate if people did not choose that Way of Faith.
And Christianity is based on faith, not endless debates about creation and evolution, if Jesus was a historical person, is the Bible a reliable guide to faith, or the other topics that seem to attract Apologists like a moth to a flame.
When you have the truth, you don’t need to squander it in debates. In addition, people are not asking the questions anymore that seem to excite only Apologists, except when they want to bait Christians. I am a mature, well-trained Christian who has done outreach around the world, and I have never had anyone say, “If you just prove there was a global flood, I’ll put my faith in Christ.”
Most Apologists or Polemicists wrongly think that if they can win arguments they will convert a person intellectually, and their work is done. However, conversion is a spiritual and emotional transaction, not primarily an intellectual one. Once a person is transformed by the Holy Spirit, the intellect follows.
Today, after all these years, I remain a Christian because of my faith in Jesus Christ. Of course, I have lingering intellectual doubts (all thoughtful Christians have them). But I’m with the Apostle Paul who said, “I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that he is able to guard what has been entrusted to me until that day” (2 Timothy 1:12). Intellectualism has nothing to do with it. I surrendered that too when I decided to follow Jesus. Yes, I still have an intellect and try to use it (like all Christians should do), but desire to subordinate it to the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:15-16).
Apologetics and Polemics are the apparatus of those who demand vindictive triumphs over unbelievers, or those believers they view as heretics. We do not need such people if we follow Jesus’ pattern for dealing with controversial issues.
A Better Way of Dealing with Controversy
How can we better deal with controversy as Christian writers and in our daily lives? Here are some suggestions.
Know what is at stake
Non-believers are evaluating your behavior, not your words. If they see you behave in a Godly way (attitudes and actions), then they will stop and think about their own lives. Direct self-righteous challenges only alienate people. Remember that Christians are engaged in a spiritual battle (Ephesians 6:12), not an intellectual battle, including debates about politics.
Even the Pharisees acknowledged Jesus stood his ground when they said, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances” (Mathew 22:15-21). Then, they tried to get into a political argument about taxes. Notice that Jesus did not fall for it. He rejected their premise and moved intentionally to spiritual matters. He did not debate. He instructed. That is what we must do as Christians and as Christian writers.
Think of your keyboard as your tongue
As a Christian writer, your keyboard is your tongue. The Bible teaches us a great deal about how we should manage our tongues. Nowhere does it say “use words to put dumb people in their place.” Instead, it says things like:
- “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Proverbs 12:18).
- “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).
- “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person” (Matthew 15:11).
- [Remind believers]… “to speak evil of no one, avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:2).
Act, Don’t React
Your purpose as a Christian and as a Christian writer is never to win an argument. That goes for those who are speaking or writing for unbelievers or unbelievers. Be like Jesus and act, never react.
Our current pagan culture requires “trigger warnings” for almost everything. Christians should be more emotionally and spiritually stable and avoid being triggered by anything. If something outrages you, simply find a constructive way to right the wrong. Be like Jesus and thoughtfully turn the discussion to the spiritual condition of the person you are engaging. Like Jesus, we do that with kindness and humility.
If something outrages you, simply find a constructive way to right the wrong. Don’t pull out your Bible and start firing away like a pseudo-spiritual gunslinger.
You are not going to persuade anyone to follow Christ by your clever arguments; you are far more likely to convince them that Jesus is Lord by your genuinely Christlike manner of life.
Yes, of course, there are times when we must speak up. We cannot avoid conflict in this world. The point is how we handle it. Do our attitudes, speech, and actions emulate Christ? Argumentative people like to point to the example of Christa cleansing the Temple (Matthew 21:12-17) as justification for their behavior. But that was an exception to Jesus’ normal way of engaging with people. Remember too, that he so aroused Jewish authorities that he was hanging on the cross less than a week after that incident.
A Path Forward
Don’t be quarrelsome either in your speech or in your writing. Ask the Lord to remove the cancer of constant debate from your mind. Even when conflict arises, you can be the one with a peaceable spirit. Disarm others with your kindness.
Giving an answer to a person (Colossians 4:6) is about offering instruction, not arguing or selling. Paul said, “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14:19). That is the best guidance possible when it comes to dealing with controversial issues.