In case you’ve been living under a rock, people argue a lot. Our changing culture has pitted conservatives against liberals, Republicans against Democrats, originalists against revisionists, secularists against the religious, traditional against contemporary, and of course Starbucks against Dunkin Donuts.
Most Christians have first-hand knowledge of the potential for these debates to polarize and shatter unity. In 2 Timothy 2:23, Paul cautions Timothy to “reject foolish and ignorant disputes” because of the quarrels they breed. Some Christians use this verse as a subjective “can’t we all just get along” principle, intended to shut down any discussion that they feel is unimportant, or even personally uninteresting. Yet, we all should understand that there are some hills worth defending even at the cost of excluding those who choose the wrong side. The question is, how do we know when an argument or debate is worth having, and when we ought to simply agree to disagree?
Scripture doesn’t list each specific instance where presenting an argument to counter a false idea is worth the cost in peace and unity. However, we have several clear passages that identify for us what a good and bad disagreement looks like. Four passages that I would like to highlight are: 2 Timothy 2:14-26, Titus 3:1-11, 1 Timothy 6:3-5, 20-21, and the always relevant James 1:19-20. From these (and many others), we can develop a litmus test for deciding if we are disagreeing the right way and for the right reasons.
Truth is the measure, not your feelings. This should go without saying, and yet it’s a necessary reminder for us all. If you are arguing a position for which you have no supporting objective (i.e., not your own opinion) principles, your argument is quite literally pointless. It’s like debating which smells better, the color green or the color purple. Truth is the guiding principle of the believer, and it must be the measure of all. If that is not the case – or if you don’t have enough knowledge of the subject at hand to make that determination, you have no business pressing an issue that risks causing dissention among believers.
We never tolerate gross immorality or theological heresy within the body of believers. Paul commands the Corinthians to “Purge the evil person from among you!” (1 Cor. 5:13) The church cannot allow gross immorality to persist, nor can it tolerate ideologies that seek to reinterpret or amend the fundamental moral standards that this passage (and many others) clearly defines. Similarly, Christians hold certain essential (i.e., they define us) truth claims that cannot be compromised. These include (but aren’t limited to) the characteristics of God and Christ, and the way of Salvation. Such principles aren’t up for debate or revision within the church. We must rigorously defend them, and exclude those who spread counterfeits.
Destructive disputes (and disputers) often look a certain way. Destructive disputes often make a big deal over minor issues, Titus 3:9 speaks of debates over genealogies and the OT (presumably) law, and 2 Timothy 2:14 condemns arguing over words (semantics). Verse 16 condemns “irreverent babble.” 2 Timothy 2:22 decries “foolish” (silly, childish, without serious merit, not worthy of consideration), and “ignorant” (based upon lack of knowledge and understanding) controversies. We can also know destructive disputes because of what they produce. Not godliness, or benefit for Believers, but: envy – I want what you have enough to sin to get it; dissention – I don’t want resolution, I want to be disagreeable; slander – I’m going to paint you in the worst possible light; evil suspicion – I’m always going to assume the worst about your motives; constant friction – I’m always peeved about something someone said or did. The people causing this dissention are not merely confused about what to believe, they are full of pride and self-serving ambitions, desiring not the good of fellow-believers but some sort of personal gain, be it power, prestige, or even monetary benefits. (I Tim. 6:3-5) Scripture makes it clear that the source of their error is an unrepentant heart, not simply ignorance. (2 Tim. 2:25-26)
On debatable issues, we must consider the cost vs. the benefit. What we believe determines how we act, but that doesn’t mean that every small issue of belief and practice is worthy of a full-on crusade. Scripture often appeals to the standard of what is beneficial to the body of Christ. (Titus 3:9) We should ask the question, “What is at stake if the Church fails on this issue? Is it eternal? Will it have a measurable impact in our readiness to fulfill the Great Commission?” Or, if I’m being honest, is it of little consequence? Situation and context are an important part of this consideration. For example, debating predestination and free will might be appropriate and even beneficial for a couple of mature Christian friends meeting for coffee, but that discussion could be a source of needless dissention and distraction in a Bible study full of new believers.
Unwarranted dogmatism wastes time and resources on silliness that could have been ignored. If the issues that Paul discusses were mere foolishness, why does he bother addressing them at all? I’m guessing that it’s because some contentious person forced him to. There are so many great examples of this in our culture, whether it be the KJV-Only controversy, or those that are convinced that Christ is coming back on September 23rd. By themselves, these might be mostly harmless matters of personal preference, except that many who teach them imply that they are a measure of a Christian’s spiritual health (or by implication, Salvation.) When that happens, leaders who wouldn’t have normally given the controversy serious thought must step in and refute the silly claims to keep weaker Christians from being sucked in. It’s important to understand that it’s not just what you believe, but also how you present those beliefs that might make them destructive to the church.
There is so much more to be said on this topic, but I will finish with the simple observation that the difference between a good discussion and a quarrel is often the role of emotions. For whatever reason, we tend to be over-taken by emotions (the “fight or flight” rush of adrenaline) when someone challenges our deeply held beliefs. When that happens, it’s time to stop, reign in our emotions and take stock. If a discussion is worth having, then we should keep James 1:19 in mind, seeking to understand before we try to be understood. 2 Timothy 2:22-25 gives a beautiful description of what it means to argue in a Christlike way: not quarrelsome, kind, careful teacher, patient endurance of personal insults, with gentle correction of those who are in the wrong.
We must not shy away from speaking the truth, even when it’s hard to hear, and even when it’s unpopular. There are principles worth vigorously defending, especially when the church is plagued with a never-ending stream of wolves spreading false doctrine. However, as mature, and thoughtful Christ-followers, we must choose these battles carefully, with love for others, and the best interests of the church in mind.