How to handle controversy in the church

I love learning. Lately though, it’s been muddied by doubt in the books I pick up, the teachings I hear and the blogs I read. This is a controversial time in our church history. I’m sure it always is to some extent, but I’m feeling it more now than at least I ever had before.

I can read back-to-back posts from one Christian saying “There is no way a real Christian voted for Hillary” followed by someone else who says “There is no way a real Christian voted for Trump”.

Don’t worry. This isn’t getting political.

My point is, where things have felt very black and white in the past, where knowledge felt very easy to grasp, it now feels more confusing. How can both Christians be right with such inflammatory statements?

A few weeks ago I stayed up till MIDNIGHT (um y’all, this is 3 hours past my bedtime) following a rabbit trail of posts on why certain well-known Christian authors were heretics.

It immediately made the ground I stand on feel shaky. Even though these authors were not my actual foundation (God and His Word are), it still caused so much unsettledness in my soul.

If you are feeling that angst right now or anticipating it, I wanted to share some tips on how to handle this confusing climate. And not just how we respond to controversy but how we avoid being at the center of it too.

Fun fact: I had this post all written out and happened to read 2 Timothy 2 in my quiet time and it is OVERFLOWING with truth on this very topic so I added several points. I have broken down some of the Scripture in the points below, but I highly recommend reading the whole chapter and several translations on your own! 

1. KNOW WHAT YOU WILL DIE FOR

Kind of jumping right in, aren’t we? My pastor, Dennis Malcolm, says that there are things we will talk about and debate, things we will fight for and things we will die for. We must know the difference. Not every believer will believe 100% the same things. That’s because we are human and can interpret the Bible differently. How many times are the big disagreements or blog posts shouting “heretic” over things that are not essential to the Gospel? Choose to step back from these things that have no bearing on eternity.

2. DO NOT NITPICK WORD CHOICES OR TONES

I’m pretty sure this would eliminate 80% of the arguments. When we look to be offended or when we look for someone to be wrong, we will probably find something in word choices or tone. As a writer, speaking terrifies me because I know I’m not eloquent and I will say something that doesn’t come across perfectly. Writing it out helps me plan it out better, but even still, I can be unclear, wish I had worded something differently and have something I said be taken the wrong way. This one goes in line with #1 in that we don’t need to make the small things controversial. 2 Timothy 2:14 (ESV) says “do not quarrel about words”. The Message translation warns against “pious nitpicking” saying “it just wears everyone out”. How true is this! 

3. DO NOT MAKE AN IDOL OF ANY INFLUENCER

I’ll admit it. I used to do this. I’d fan girl hard and eat up everything someone said. Then, I peaked behind the curtain and lose all faith in someone. Honestly, not because of anything they did, but because my expectation of them was so much higher than it should have been. Use caution when listening to anyone. Back to 2 Timothy 2, Paul names Hymenaeus and Philetus as leading believers astray when they swerved from the truth. I can’t help but think that the ones swayed were too impressionable and not seeking the Lord’s ultimate truth, but instead relied too heavily on Hymenaeus and Philetus for wisdom. And when they were wrong, their foundation wasn’t strong enough to even think to question it. 

4. DON’T THROW THE BABY OUT WITH THE BATH WATER

Just because someone you respect got something truly and actually wrong, doesn’t mean they don’t believe in God. This may certainly be the case (we will get there) but we don’t need to jump here first. I’ve already said it, we are all human. We will make mistakes. It also doesn’t mean there isn’t any value in something you learned from them in the past. I just have to remember that I make honest mistakes too.

5. KNOW THE WORD AND SEEK THE LORD FOR WISDOM

As I already mentioned, this is our foundation. When we are filling our mind with the truth of the Bible consistently, we can feel confident to hold other’s teachings up again what we know the Word says. Proverbs 2:3-5 says “For if you cry for discernment, Lift your voice for understanding; If you seek her as silver, And search for her as for hidden treasures; Then you will discern the fear of the LORD And discover the knowledge of God. For the LORD gives wisdom; From His mouth come knowledge and understanding.” If we are getting more teaching from other people than the word, we will be more likely to feel the confusion. Keep going back to the Word.

6. PRAY FOR WISDOM

And really, we can read the Bible and still misinterpret things so we have to make sure we are asking the Holy Spirit to reveal what God wants us to understand when we read the Bible. Pray for an unrest if there is anything you are listening to that isn’t from God. Pray for clarity and unity among believers on the big issues. 2 Timothy 2:7 says “Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this.” A few years ago, someone called me out for listening to a certain pastor. I told her that from my limited listening, what he said was biblical but I did tell her I’d pray that the Lord would reveal to me if I shouldn’t be listening to him. And shocker, He did!! Through my own research and a conversation with a trusted friend. Both left me uneasy in a way that I knew the Lord was telling me I didn’t need to listen to this pastor.

7. LIVE IT OUT

Paul says “Study and do your best to present yourself to God approved, a workman [tested by trial] who has no reason to be ashamed, accurately handling and skillfully teaching the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15 AMP) He wants us to experience the confidence in knowing that what we believe is the truth, because we’ve studied it as #4 talks about and have even seen it tested in our own life. This is powerful, because I think with that confidence can also come a humility that we knew it was a process for us to learn it, so we respect that it will be a process for others.

8. DO NOT ENGAGE IN FOOLISH CONTROVERSIES

This one is hard for me. I like justice. I don’t want someone walking around thinking they are right when they are not. This is my flesh talking. But if it’s a “foolish controversy” as Paul talks about in 2 Timothy 2:23, it is pointless. He also says it will only breed quarrels. I am literally amazed at how Paul has addressed controversies so long ago because I feel it speaks right into the time we are living in now. I engaged on Facebook not too long ago and I’d love to tell you there was a “come to Jesus moment” at the end, but it was absolutely FRUITLESS. I wasted a day of mental energy and probably an hour of actual time and we both remained firm on our points. I’m embarrassed that I even engaged. One question I’m thinking about now is “What outcome am I expecting?” When I thought about who I was debating with, I knew it would not be a simple “Oh I get what you are saying Val.” I knew it. So why did I dive into it? If we all stepped back from our screens and the comments section, I think we’d all be better off. And just to clarify, Paul is specifically talking about what he calls “ignorant speculations”, “stupid controversies” that “only start fights”.

9. CHOOSE NOT TO LISTEN

If there are teachers that you legitimately don’t agree with, don’t read their books or subscribe to their podcasts. You have every right. Not everyone is going to agree with (insert most favorite current author). And if asked you’re opinion, feel free to gently share why you don’t agree. I think this is fine and may be really helpful to someone if they are asking for your opinion. In fact, Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:21 “If anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use.” I think this requires ALOT of humility, but can we separate ourselves from what isn’t right and let God use us to share what is right? I see this quality in my sister. She longs to be a truth teller and makes herself a vessel for the Lord to use. Paul also says in verse 24-25 that we must be gentle in teaching and patient and tolerant when we are wronged. Again, we aren’t expected to totally keep our mouth shut when we disagree but to do so respectfully and only when the topic really matters.

10. BUT DON’T CHOOSE TO BAD MOUTH

We cannot share what is right if we are putting down everyone else in the process. Paul says to “flee youthful desires and pursue righteousness”. I’m taking some creative license here, but I can’t help but think one youthful desire is name-calling and bullying. This cannot be a part of our argument for why we are right and someone else is wrong. People will hear what we are saying and wonder if we are right. And they will look at our actions. Why? Because it’s our fruit. That might seem unfair but if we say we love God, but our fruit is hate and pride, we are adding to the confusion. 2 Timothy 2:14 (AMP) actually says that petty controversy “upsets and undermines and ruins the faith of those who listen.” Every onlooker to your conversation will be affected so choose words wisely. If God speaks to you and you share your opinion, if it’s not done with love, it discounts everything. To be honest, this one has caused a lot of heartache for me. I see people who I respect getting so ugly to try and prove their point. It has created such confusion in my heart and made me question what I normally would believe but struggle to understand when it’s said so hatefully. 

Every since I read this passage in 2 Timothy, I feel my feet more firmly planted on God’s truth for how to approach controversy in the church. Is there one part of the passage or point that sticks out most to you?

feature image from jacqueline mikuta via camille styles

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