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Biblical Guidelines for Controversies

by on April 04, 2020

Amid everything going on today in our world today, in recent weeks I have heard several controversies among families, friends and other fellow believers. Many of these controversies involve the current coronavirus, the seemingly political conspiracies and the pandemic spirit of fear that has plagued people everywhere. Some of these controversies have threatened friendships, others have divided families and the list goes on.

As I have observed all that has transpired in our world and among those I know, I have been seeking the Lord for wisdom in how we, as New Testament believers are to handle controversies. As believers, who desire to honor of our leaders and respect one others, when do we remain peaceful and when do we speak up? When do avoid we getting involved and when do we make it a priority to reason with others? More importantly, as our Guide what does Word of God say? What would Paul say?

When the Apostle Paul wrote his second letter to Timothy from his 13th time in prison, he realized that Timothy was living in a world that was about to explode in conflict -- a world that was very much like the one we live in today. Paul also realized that Timothy was teaching a church which was threatening to split and divide over arguments and divisions which were separating believers. It is in this letter, that the apostle tells us how to handle both of these problems -- how to live in a world that is raging with conflict, and how to live in a church that is threatened with controversies all around us.

In his instructions, Paul tells us what kind of controversies we should and should not allow, and how Christians should conduct themselves in the midst of them. Paul puts it very plainly:

“But avoid foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they generate strife. And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will.” (2 Tim. 2:22-25)

Now, some have read this passage as though it says: "Never get involved with any kind of controversy. Don't ever take up sides or press any issue to the point that it creates an argument. Stay away from it." But that is not what it says at all. In fact, if you read it that way, it often results in what many churches do today, which is to take issues that need to be debated and sweep them under the rug. Unfortunately, many sincere people, cover these issues up and pretend they do not exist; they try to maintain a facade of outward peace, while division and dissent seethe and ferment underneath until it explodes in the breakup of a congregation.

That is not what the apostle is saying at all. In fact, in other places Paul has said very clearly that there must be controversies in churches.

“For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.” (1 Cor. 11:19)

Paul revealed that there would be divisions in the body but not among Christians. There will always be “tares” sown among the wheat (Mt. 13:24-30), and those who are “tares” (not true believers) will always believe something weird, which is a token that they aren’t true believers.

The Greek word that was translated “heresies” here is “HAIRESIS,” and it means “properly, a choice, i.e. (specially) a party or (abstractly) disunion.” Vine’s Expository Dictionary says the “dominating significance” of this word in the New Testament is “sect” resulting from choice. This word was translated “sect” five times (Acts 5:17; 15:5; 24:5; 26:5; 28:22), “heresy” once (Acts 24:14), and “heresies” three times (1 Cor. 11:19; Gal. 5:20; 2 Pt. 2:1).

Some who hold an extreme view of the sovereignty of God (Rom. 5:3; 8:28) have interpreted this verse in a way that makes God the author of this heresy for the purpose of showing His true followers. However, it is because God upholds man’s freedom of choice (Rom. 11:9) that heresies are unavoidable. The Lord has not ordained that there be heresies in the church as a way of weeding out the false believers. God has given us freedom of choice. He doesn’t control us against our will. Therefore, there will be (“must be”) heresies, and they will always seduce those whose hearts are not right with God.

“Choose you this day whom ye will serve...as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD (Josh. 24:15).

So what does Paul mean when he says: “But avoid foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they generate strife.” (2 Tim. 2:23)

This is basically the same command that Paul had already given Timothy twice in this chapter (2 Tim. 2:14 and 16) and three times in his first letter to him (1 Tim. 1:4, 4:7; 6:4-5). He also told Titus the same thing (Tit. 3:9).

The Greek word that was translated “foolish” here is “MOROS,” and it means “dull, stupid or absurd.” This is the root of word from which we get our English word “moron.” Paul was telling Timothy he didn’t have to answer stupid questions. Paul is talking about moronic controversies, foolish, trivial matters which, even when they are settled after long and loud debate, do nothing for you; they do not advance the Kingdom of God or edify His church. Such trivial matters may be interesting in some limited way, but they should never be allowed to become controversies and have people divide over them.

In the Middle Ages we know that the scholars of the church debated at great length issues like how many angels can stand on the head of a pin. That is a foolish question. But we have our own ridiculous questions today. At the same point in time we can be very grateful indeed for the great controversies the church has experienced in the past which have served to clarify Truth. For instance, Martin Luther raged a major controversy over the doctrine of justification by faith. The church has greatly benefited because of the controversy Martin Luther seethed, making matters clear on what was a very important doctrinal matter.

Another word that is translated here is the word "ignorant or senseless." This word really means unlearned, arising out of ignorance. As such it refers to questions that are basically insoluble; we do not know enough to answer the questions that are being asked.

Therefore, Paul instructs Timothy, that there are certain kinds of controversies he must never get involved in. "Have nothing to do with them." Controversies that are foolish and controversies that are senseless.

Furthermore, it is interesting to note that Vine’s Expository Dictionary says this word MOROS was “a more serious reproach than ‘Raca,’” referring to Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:22. Vine’s goes on to say that Raca “scorns a man’s mind and calls him stupid; MOROS scorns his heart and character; hence the Lord’s more severe condemnation.”

Now please understand, Paul wasn’t calling anyone a fool. He was referring to the questions as being foolish. Intelligent people can ask foolish questions, and foolish people can ask intelligent questions. It’s not wrong to judge a question as foolish. It passes over into judgment when we judge the individual who asks the question.

The word “avoid” here was translated from the Greek word “PARAITEOMAI,” and this word means “to beg off, i.e. deprecate, decline, shun.” We should feel no pressure to answer foolish and unlearned questions. We should simply decline them.

However, Paul was not advising Timothy to avoid all controversy concerning the faith. For it is written in the Scriptures:

“And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures” (Acts 17:2)

“And he reasoned in the synagogue every sabbath, and persuaded the Jews and the Greeks” (Acts 18:4)

It is clear from these and other passages that Paul regularly reasoned, discussed, and had dialogues with others concerning the faith. Therefore, Paul was talking about avoiding foolish debates that do nothing for you and don’t advance the Christian cause in the least way. The “unlearned questions” of this verse could be questions that basically are insoluble or questions from those who have no knowledge of the true facts. These kinds of questions lead only to quarrels and strife.

So then, what about controversies that we should get involved with? What about attacks on vital doctrines or questions on the proper Christian response to the burning social issues of our day? How should we handle such important issues that people feel so strongly about they feel they cannot surrender lest they give up something vital and important? The apostle has some very clear guidelines for us. In other words, Paul gave us some basic guidelines on Christian behavior. This may apply to any Christian, but it especially applies to Christian leaders. Here in 2 Timothy 2, Paul gives us five things:

“And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient.” (2 Tim. 2:24)

1. “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome.”

The servant of the Lord must not be a derogatory or belligerent type of person who is ready to come out with guns blazing. There are many people like that who just shoot from the lip and are always ready for a quarrel. But we are not out to win disputes; our goal is not to squash the opposition or silence opposition by being overbearing, heavy-handed in our approach. But rather, the ministry we are equipped for is to edify the body of Christ (Eph. 4:11-12). As able ministers, our commission is to encourage discussion and examination. The Spirit of the Lord does not put down and belittle our opponents by resorting to name-calling or discourse. The servant of the Lord is not confrontational or contentious.

“But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (James 3:17-18)

Charles Spurgeon spoke about those in his day whom, he said, "...went about with theological revolvers in their ecclesiastical trousers." The Lord's servant does not do that. So then what is the Lord's servant to be?

The Greek word used for “strive” in 2 Timothy 2:23 is “MACHOMAI,” and it means “to fight...of those who engage in a war of words, ‘to quarrel, wrangle, dispute.’” There could be many reasons the Lord’s servant shouldn’t strive and quarrel. Certainly, one of those reasons is:

“For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work.”(James 3:16)

Strife always gives Satan a free hand to do whatever he wants to do. That’s reason enough to avoid getting into strife.

“Only by pride cometh contention: but with the well advised is wisdom.” (Prov. 13:10)

The root of all strife is pride (Acts 20:30; 1 Tim. 3:6). No one who is full of pride will be effective serving the Lord.

 2. He is to “be gentle to everyone."

In context, Paul was contrasting “gentle” with “strive.” A gentle person would be the opposite of a person who causes strife. This means a gentle person is humble. The Amplified Bible adds “mild-tempered” to the translation.

Paul was saying that Christian leaders must be willing to bear up under ill treatment–specifically, suffering wrongfully. People who can’t bear criticism or persecution will never make it in the ministry.

It does not matter if you are debating with a cultist, or someone who is very upset about an issue, somebody with an ax to grind, or some difficult person who is obviously out to cause trouble and create dissension, the Lord's servant is to be gentle and kind to everyone. Gentleness and kindness is the fruit of His Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).

Actually, the phrase “be gentle to everyone” is translated from one single Greek word which appears only once, here in Paul’s letter to Timothy. It is a word which means "gentle." A better English translation, perhaps, would be, approachable. The servant of the Lord is someone who is approachable. James says, “…they are willing to be intreated…”(James 3:17, KJV).

The Greek word “EUPEITHES” here in James that is translated, “easy to be intreated,” means “good for persuasion, i.e. (intransitive) compliant.” The point being made is that those who possess God’s wisdom aren’t stubborn. They can be reasoned with.

3. He is to be "an apt teacher,"

The Lord’s servant is skillful to deal with the facts involved, not with their feelings or fantasies. The servant of the Lord is apt to deal with the facts of Scripture. This is where we must always return. It is so easy for an argument to slide off the facts and onto feelings, experiences, and reactions to things. The Lord's servant must call people back to the Truth.

“In humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth,” (2 Tim. 2:25)

4. He must be "forbearing." (RSV)

The Revised Standard Version uses the word “forbearing.” That is a great word. It means the servant of the Lord must keep his emotions under control, be unruffled and not be so quick to react when people berates him. That is not easy to do. When some is attacked personally in a debate, the common temptation is to attack back. But that is not what a servant of the Lord does. He is to recognize that when he is reviled, if he reviles in return, he has departed from the example of his Lord.

“Who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously;” (1 Pt. 2:23)

Jesus didn’t avenge Himself (Rom. 12:19-21). He trusted God to do that, and He has and will. It is a great testimony to our faith in God when we can hold our tongues and let God defend us.

What Peter saying is you cannot be temperate by merely deciding not to get angry. Temperance is the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). Will power alone will not handle this kind of pressure.

Believe me, I have tried it. I have determined not to get upset in a certain controversy and found that as the pressure mounted, and I was attacked personally I could not keep my promise to myself and I attempted to strike back. No, it is not will power alone. We must depend on God, walk in the Spirit, so we do not fulfill the lust of the flesh (Gal. 5:16). It is an inward reliance on God, a calling on God to help us at the point of contention, to recognize our weakness and rely on Him to be forebearing.

But the NKJV uses the word “humility” whereas the KJV uses the word “meekness.” Christian leaders must use humility even when correcting those who oppose them. This does not mean that there isn’t a time to get tough. Paul did in  Corinthians 5 and so did Jesus in Matthew 23. However, the leaders’ toughness must not be self-serving (2 Tim. 2:24). If they are rough with others, it should never be because they are acting out of hurt emotions.

5. “Correcting his opponents with gentleness.”

This final thing the apostle says sums up in harmony of action all of the above. Here the word gentleness is really the word meek. Meekness in Scripture is selflessness. Meekness is not letting yourself get involved; it is not taking things personally.

The King James Version has a very good translation here. It says, instructing "those who oppose themselves." That shows what error does to us. When we get stubborn, when we are sure we are right, when we insist on our own point of view, and get personal, etc., what we are doing is opposing ourselves. We stand in our own way, we become our own worst enemy, and we create our own problems. That is the revelation of this. Until we change ourselves, we will never solve the controversy. The thing we all know, but so easily forget, is that the only person we can change in a controversy is ourselves. You cannot change other people. You can force their behavior to be different, but you do not change them from inside.

We all know about the little boy whose mother tried to get him to sit down and forced him to do so, but he said, "I may be sitting down on the outside, but I'm still standing up inside." No, you only can change yourself. We do not think we are contributing anything to the problem, but we always are. When an argument exists, and especially when it gets heated, angry, and personal, then we are definitely contributing to it and we are opposing ourselves; we are standing in our own way to the blessing God wants to bring.

If you are dealing with that, it requires what Paul calls “correcting.” This word means "child-training" -- you deal with it like you would a child. That is the word that is employed here: "Instructing those who oppose themselves." Paul is talking about training them and showing them another way to handle the problem.

The New International Version, and other translations, correctly capture the idea of what Paul was saying here by translating this verse as “Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.”

However, in a very real sense, those who come against God’s leaders are truly opposing themselves, just as the King James Version renders it. God set authority in the church, and those who shamelessly violate it are hurting themselves (Heb. 13:17).

That brings us to the last and, in many ways, the most important thing of all. Paul concludes with these words:

“And that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will.” (2 Tim. 2:25-26)

Paul’s mentioning that “God peradventure will give them repentance” stresses the Truth that true repentance has to be a work of God in people’s hearts. People can’t always just repent whenever they want. As Jesus said,

“No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him” (Jn. 6:44). 

People, on their own, might be sorry but would never come to true repentance. Does this mean that God might not extend this repentance to some people? God wants people to repent more than they want to repent. He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezk. 33:11). He wills for all to be saved (2 Pt. 3:9). He knows people’s hearts better than they do. He knows the difference between those who are sorry they were caught or sorry because of the consequences, and those who really want to change. People can be assured that they will seek and find the Lord when they seek for Him with all their hearts (Jer. 29:13).

Those who oppose themselves, who are snared by the devil (2 Tim. 2:26), and taken captive by him at his will are in violation of the Truth. God’s Word is Truth (Jn. 17:17). Jesus is the Truth (Jn, 14:6). Therefore, they are opposing Jesus, God’s Word. This is the reason they need to repent (turn around) and acknowledge the Truth. They were headed in an opposite direction. God’s Word will keep people on track.

Notice that Satan always catches his prey through a “snare.” A snare is a device that uses something desirable to lure the prey into the trap. When trapping animals, the bait is usually food–something that is good and essential for life–but when combined with the trap, it becomes deadly.

Likewise, Satan uses things that God intended for good to trap people. With Adam and Eve, it was a desire to be like God that put them into Satan’s trap (Gen. 3:5). God created sex to be a good thing as long as it is only with one’s own mate, but the devil has perverted sex and snared many people.

One of the lies of the devil that catches many people is “You want to be free, don’t you? Do your own thing! Don’t listen to anyone! Be your own person.” This verse reveals, though, that those who disobey the Truth are Satan’s captives, and he takes them captive whenever he wants. There is no such thing as being totally independent. We are either controlled by God or the devil. We don’t control ourselves. Those of us who think we are controlling our own choices are playing right into the snare of the devil. Serving ourselves is serving the devil’s purpose. We don’t control ourselves, but we do have the freedom of choice as to whom we will serve (Deut. 30:19).


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