Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Ethics of Controversy

Tom Wells on controversy: "It is the unhappy lot of any man who cares a fig for truth to be called on to engage in controversy. He may embrace it as a purse of gold or despise it as a putrefying sore, but he can no more escape it than he can escape the atmosphere or the common cold. In a fallen world, truth and controversy are bedfellows. . . . A man may spend valuable time bemoaning that fact, but what is needed is a way to come to terms with it as a godly man, a way to carry on controversy with a minimum amount of damage to his opponent and to the interested bystander and the maximum amount of good to the cause of God and truth."

Wells's main points are that in controversy, we must do the following:
  • show respect for the persons with whom you differ
  • give your opponent accurate definitions of your key ideas
  • when in doubt, put an orthodox construction on your opponent's words
  • suspect a man's judgment before you suspect his sincerity
  • be ready to believe that the truth is larger than you have understood it to be
It's an excellent article, filled with many good quotes, including this one from J. C. Ryle:
Controversy in religion is a hateful thing.
It is hard enough to fight the devil,
the world, and the flesh,
without private differences in our own camp—
But there is one thing
which is even worse than controversy,
and that is false doctrine tolerated,
allowed, and permitted without
protest or molestation ...
Three things there are which men
never ought to trifle with:
a little poison,
a little false doctrine,
and a little sin
For more on the ethics and necessity of controversy, see the introduction to John Piper's book, Contending for Our All, and Roger Nicole's classic essay, How to Deal with Those Who Differ from Us.