Do You Love Controversy or People?

Jim Hamilton, Professor of Biblical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Do You Love Controversy or People?

There is no conflict between loving truth and loving people. You really can love people as you obey Titus 1:9, which says an elder should “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict.” You can even love people as you follow Jude’s appeal that you “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).

A few years ago I would have been suspicious of anyone who mentioned the need to engage in theological controversy in a loving way. I would have done one of those mental clucks of the tongue and inched the person toward the “needs-to-firm-up-conviction” column.

As time has passed, though, I’ve participated in a few controversies (many connected to the sovereignty of God in salvation or the roles of men and women) and I’ve watched some controversialists take issue with views that I hold. Obviously I haven’t been in all these battles, only a skirmish or two, and sometimes I found myself wondering if those involved loved God, people, and truth, or just loved controversy.

I don’t muse on that possibility because of a softening of my own convictions, nor because I don’t like to mix it up, because I’m tired of the fight, or because I think my views worsted. The question arises because some of the caricatures have seemed so obvious I wondered whether they were intentional. The controversialists surely should have known they were fighting misrepresentations, and I am certain that they would not want their views treated the way they treat those they attack.

I found myself thinking things like this: You’re using the name of the view I hold, but you’re not describing anything like my understanding of it. Only an idiot or a monster would hold it the way you describe it. You know you’re attacking a straw man, right?

This line of though led me to wonder whether the controversialists were concerned for me as a brother in Christ. I began to ask whether they loved me, because if they really loved me, they would want to help me see the benightedness of a position they thought was so awful, they would want to liberate me from the bondage of bad ideas, and their desire to help me in these ways would surely cause them to use a different tone of voice and a better method of argumentation.

Such thoughts led to suspicions about such controversialists. I began to wonder whether they were really interested in the truth, or whether they were just rabble-rousers scoring rhetorical points without regard for the Bible, theology, logic, and sound doctrine. I began to question whether they were driven by a need to advance their political position in the theological discussion, and whether they cared about the spiritual state of their hearers. They didn’t seem to care about the spiritual well-being of the people whose views they savaged.

I don’t claim that all my views are infallible (if I knew which ones were wrong I would change my mind!), and please don’t think I speak as one who thinks he has always fulfilled the love command. But in spite of my own failures to live up to the ideal, I can affirm that the desire to engage in controversy should flow from love for God and neighbor. Love for God results in a desire to uphold his truth. Love for neighbor results in a desire for people to enjoy the goodness of God’s truth.

Is it love for God and neighbor that gets you into controversy, or is it a proud desire to strut your opinions, flaunt your learning, and see your enemy discomfited?

Or, are you just a knucklehead who likes to contradict what others say?


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