Collyer on Controversy
It seems clear that man is by nature a fighting animal. Wars
recur between nations as soon as the people have recovered sufficient strength,
and have had time partly to forget the horrors of the last struggle. The men who
succeed in business are the men who love the fight of it. Politicians turn their
disagreements into fights with as much unfairness and injustice as in actual
warfare. Even games are all struggles, and most men cannot understand the pure
pleasures of artistic achievement without any contest as to who wins.
This being the natural tendency of the flesh it is not
surprising that the same fighting spirit is found in connection with religion.
It need occasion no surprise if men who do not fight either with guns or fists,
and who take no part in the struggles of politicians, are apt to be especially
violent. It is certainly true that religious disputes have often resulted in a
bitterness and uncharitableness more sinful than the errors which caused the
strife to begin.
It is important therefore for us to remember the principles
laid down in scripture for our guidance in these matters. If brethren could
saturate their minds with the perfectly clear principles stated and reiterated
in the Word, it might put an end to nearly all the destructive disputing, merely
by the removal of all unnecessary provocation.
The first point to emphasize is the fact that strife and
debate are treated as essentially evil things. Thus in writing to the
Corinthians the apostle took the fact that there was envying, strife and
division in the Church, as clear evidence that the members were still carnal
minded: "For ye are yet carnal; for whereas there is among you envying and
strife and division are ye not carnal and walk as men?" (1Co 3:3).
In writing to the Galatians the same apostle includes strife
in a list of evil things summarising the works of the flesh: "Now the works of
the flesh are manifest, which are adultery, fornication, uncleanness,
lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath,
strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and
such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past,
that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God" (Gal
TruIy the word strife appears here in a terrible list of evils
with a terrible penalty threatened. We do well to make a very critical
examination of our own conduct to make sure that any variance, wrath and strife
existing in the ecclesias now, shall not be aggravated by any wrong action or
wrong words of ours.
In writing to Timothy the apostle Paul again denounces strife.
He refers to the evils which come from strife of words and perverse disputings
(1Ti 6:3-5). Then in the second letter he gives this positive instruction: "But
foolish and unlearned questions avoid, knowing that they do gender strifes; and
the servant of the Lord must not strive, but be gentle unto all men, apt to
teach, patient, in meekness instructing those who oppose themselves" (2Ti
If anyone should raise the question how we can avoid strife in
view of the wrong attitude taken by others, we surely have the answer in this
positive instruction. If we are convinced that those who oppose us are doing
wrong and that in faithfulness to the Truth we must contend with them, we have
ready to hand a splendid test of our discipleship. We have an opportunity to be
gentle, patient and meek in instructing those who oppose themselves. If these
qualities could be cultivated all round it might soon be found that there was no
need for any further argument. Wrongdoing would accept the necessary reproof and
wrong thinking would be corrected. The apostolic method would remove all the
fuel that feeds the destructive fire. The railing, striving and impatient
disputing, the personal hits and retorts of the carnal mind, continuously add
fuel to the fires of wrath until even some who try to obey the teaching of the
Word may perish in the flames.
The apostle Paul gave us example as well as precept. After the
position of the Gentiles had been determined there was still much prejudice
among the Jews, causing difficulty for disciples who feared the criticism of
men. The apostle Peter was at fault in withdrawing himself from some of the
Gentile believers apparently as a concession to the prejudices of certain Jews
who had recently come to him. The apostle Paul "withstood him to the face."
Fortunately we are told what he said: "If thou being a Jew, livest after the
manner of Gentiles, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the
Here was the essence of the argument forcibly but gently
expressed. It truly showed an aptitude for teaching and meekly instructing, and
it had the right effect.
It would have been possible to have brought a formidable
indictment against the apostle Peter if one had cared to use carnal methods. He
might have been reminded that he at one time had spoken against the idea of
Christ dying at all, and had called forth a rebuke from the Master. At a later
period he used the sword and had to be reproved again. Later still he forsook
the Lord and denied him even with an oath. If in addition to the undoubted facts
of Peter's weakness all derogatory reports regarding him and his associations
had been collected, it might have seemed to the fleshly mind a crushing blow to
the influence of Peter and all his connections.
We simply cannot imagine the apostle Paul using such methods.
He was ever ready to remember his own dark past but not that of others. When it
was necessary to reprove the brethren he did so with gentleness and patience.
Though he had authority such as none of us possess, he "besought them by the
mercies of God" (Rom 12:1). He "besought them" to follow him (1Co 4:16). He
besought them by the meekness and gentleness of Christ (2Co 10:1). He said: "I
will very gladly spend and be spent for you, though the more abundantly I love
you the less I be loved" (2Co 12:15).
This was in writing to an ecclesia which was very faulty, and
against which a very formidable accusation might have been made.
The whole tenor of the apostle's teaching is as outlined in
the fifth and sixth chapters of the letter to the Galatians. We must overcome
the flesh and all its works; we must bring forth the fruit of the spirit; but we
must at the same time remember that we are all sinners who can only be saved
through grace. Those who are spiritually minded must thus be ready to restore
offenders in the spirit of meekness; considering themselves lest they also be
tempted; bearing one another's burdens, and so fulfilling the law of Christ (Gal
There is further instruction regarding necessary controversy
in the writing of the apostle Peter: "Finally, be ye all of one mind, having
compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous: not
rendering evil for evil or railing for railing: but contrariwise, blessing" (1Pe
3:8,9). "Be ready to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the
hope that is in you with meekness and fear" (1Pe 3:15).
"All of you be subject one to another and be clothed with
humility" (1Pe 5:5).
Such instructions require emphasis in time of controversy, for
then it is that we are in the greatest danger of forgetting them. We may be
stung by an unfair criticism and we think of a crushing reply. The flesh would
call it a righteous reproof, but Scripture calls it rendering railing for
We are perhaps in a position to quote from a past utterance of
an opponent, a cutting criticism of one of his present supporters. The quotation
would not help or guide anyone a fraction of a degree in the right direction;
but it might tend to cause division among those who do not agree with us. The
flesh would call such a quotation skilful tactics; Scripture calls it sowing
discord among brethren.
It is easy for men to deceive themselves into thinking that
unrighteous and unjust extremes are simply the evidence of their zeal for truth.
Even a readiness to listen to the accused is regarded as weakness. Such
extremists cry shame on the very effort to be fair, and in their determination
to have no compromise with error they sometimes exaggerate faults, and so
grossly misrepresent the objects of their attack that they become guilty of
offences worse than all the error against which they are trying to
We must not fall into the mistake of taking an extreme view
even of the extremist. God has been merciful to such men in the past, and we
must be merciful now even in our thoughts. We may state most emphatically,
however, that it is wrong to exaggerate the faults of anyone or to find ugly and
misleading names with which to label those who do not quite see eye to eye with
us. It is quite possible to be valiant for the Truth and zealous for the Lord
without being unfair even to those who are mistaken, and it is always wrong to
be unfair. In faithfulness we must point out the danger that in great zeal for
the jots and tittles of the law men may lose sight of the foundation principles.
All their faith and works may become valueless through lack of
The need for a clear perception of the scriptural principles
governing controversy is shown by the tendency toward unrighteous exaggeration
even on the part of those from whom better things would be expected. A few days
ago we read some words written by a critic who has usually shown a sense of
responsibility in the use of words. Yet there are exaggerations which tend to
foster strife without the slightest suggestion as to the restitution of the
offenders. It declares that the belittling of the commandments among us had
become an open sin.
This is a very definite and severe judgment, which presumably
includes the present writer in its sweeping condemnation. What does it mean? Is
there any effort or desire to restore us "in the spirit of meekness", or are we
too evil for that? If we "belittle the commandments of Christ" to the point of
"open sin", what hope can we have of forgiveness unless we can be restored? I
have just recently been through the four Gospel records in an attempt to
classify all the commandments of the Lord Jesus and apply them to present
experience. It is easy to find commands which are very imperfectly observed. The
repeated command to love one another even as he has loved us (Joh 13:34) has
been repeatedly broken. The commands not to lay up treasure on earth and not to
seek the riches of the Gentiles are so foreign to the spirit of our age that we
only grasp them with great difficulty, and so far no one has been found to rend
the ecclesias on this issue. It is quite certain that our critic does not mean
these matters. He probably refers to the vexed question of a decision as to
where to draw the line between reproving, rebuking or withdrawing from an
offender. Is there anything in the commands of Christ to suggest that one who
takes too lenient a view of his brother's offences is to be condemned and
repudiated? I know of no such command. There are plenty of warnings that those
who take too severe a view of a brother's offences will themselves be dealt with
severely. There are warnings against judging and against the natural tendency to
see the defects in the eye of a brother while remaining unconscious of greater
defects in ourselves. If some among us err in their unwillingness to take the
most severe of all measures against offenders, if they carry too far the
commands to be patient and to restore offenders in the spirit of meekness, it
cannot in fairness be described as "belittling the commandments of
The use of this expression is to be explained in the same way
as the many far worse attempts at argument which we sometimes hear. It is a
natural emanation from strife and debate.
It is not fair, it is not true; but it has the doubtful merit
of being severe, and therefore it is made to serve. It is so easy to be led into
the use of such expressions, and we must not make any man an offender for a
word, but we do well to sound a warning. Be pitiful, be courteous, be gentle, be
meek, be honest. Cultivate charity and love, and remember that for every idle
word that you speak you shall give account in the day of judgment.