Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
November 29, 1951
NUMBER 30, PAGE 2-5b

Christian Brotherhood And Controversy

Burris Butler

Christian brotherhood and controversy are not necessarily incompatible. There is a commendable forthrightness in standing for: the truth as one sees it, and in refusing to compromise the truth, no matter what the consequences may be. And, by the same token, it is as commendable for one to change his convictions when the truth demands it. Stubbornness in defending the truth is good. Stubbornness for its own sake is something less than a Christian virtue.

There is a philosophy current in some circles to the effect that controversy per se is a destroyer of fellowship and brotherhood. One must never disturb the tranquility in Zion by raising questions of doctrine, or of policy and procedure. One must attain his desired ends by indirection, subterfuge, political action, even though this may suffer just a little in the process. In such circles to disagree is to be disagreeable, unless a silent but tacit agreement is reached in advance as to how far such disagreement may go for the benefit of the watching purse-holding public.

Whatever such a philosophy may be (we think it is but another reflection of the moral desuetude of our times), it is not New Testament Christianity. Forthrightness and humility are admirably blended in the ideal character held forth in the New Testament. They are not only seen in the character and person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, but also in the apostles as they are directly guided by the Holy Spirit.

There are three planes on which controversies may occur within the church of our Lord. First are those inevitable clashes that arise between personalities. These are personal in their inception; they must be settled directly between the persons involved, and if they are not so settled, they constitute the greatest single danger to the peace and fellowship of any Christian group. Second are those controversies that arise as the result of honest differences of opinion regarding methods and procedures. Third are differences in which principles are involved. Definite teaching is to be found in the New Testament in regard to all three kinds of controversy.

Differences Over Personalities

Jesus had much to say regarding conflicts between persons. That He was interested in something bigger than any two persons win might happen to become involved is indicated in His command to "tell it to the church." When such personal controversy has reached a certain stage it is no longer a private affair, but comes within the jurisdiction of the assembly of God's people, and is to be settled before it becomes a matter of public scandal.

The basic rule in the case of misunderstanding between disciples of Christ is, "If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him." (Luke 17:3). The first part of this command requires courage, and the second part, humility—two qualities of character that are not often enough in evidence. How much easier it is to nurse a grudge, or to tell a third party, when we suffer a real or imaginary wrong! "Rebuke him." Faced with this necessity, we may decide that we do not have a very strong case, after all. Or, once we have faced our estranged brother, we may find that the slight was only imaginary, or unintended, and the matter is cleared up by a simple explanation. Or, if the fault is real and serious, the opportunity is afforded to settle it and clear the air.

But what of the offender? He, too, is to be active in seeking forgiveness. "Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift." (Matt. 5:23, 24). It should be noted briefly that reconciliation precedes worship, that the offender must actively seek forgiveness, and that brotherhood is directly involved. The ideal, then, as portrayed by these two bits of teaching of the Master, is that two brethren, having a personal difference, should meet halfway on the road between their homes, as they seek to be reconciled to each other!

Disagreement Over Methods And Procedures

What of those differences that arise within the church as the result of honest disagreement over methods and procedures? At least two classic examples are presented in the Book of Acts. The first is found in Acts 6:1-6. In the Jerusalem church a daily distribution was made to the poor widows of the congregation. Within the church were two groups with different language and background, just the kind of situation that could develop into factionalism and a "church split." While all the believers at that time were Jews, some of them were native Jerusalemites, speaking the ancient Hebrew language, and were known as Hebrews. The other group were those who spoke the Greek language and reflected the Grecian culture about them. They were the Hellenists. These Hellenists registered a complaint that the widows of their group were being neglected in the "daily ministration."

The apostles order a church election: "Wherefore, brethren look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business." (Acts 6:3) The congregation chose these men and they were set apart with the solemn ceremony of the "laying on of hands." And, remarkable as it may seem, every man named had a Greek name! No church can split when incipient factionalism is handled like that!

The other case is that of Paul and Barnabas contending as to whether John Mark was to accompany them on the second missionary journey. (Acts 15:3641). This controversy was settled by their going separate ways, Barnabas taking Mark with him, and Paul selecting a new partner, Silas, to accompany him. Sometimes it may be necessary for individuals to go separate ways, but this should not be done in anger, nor to the detriment of the Cause of Christ.

Doctrinal Matters

In another controversy (recorded in Acts 15:1-85) a matter of doctrine was involved. Judaizers came to Antioch and insisted that Gentiles should become Jews by circumcision before they could become Christians. Paul had been preaching that Jews and Gentiles stood on the same level before God and that both are accepted upon their obedience to the gospel. The Judaizers claimed to have the authority of the apostles at Jerusalem back of them. The church at Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to see the apostles there regarding the matter. The letter that was written to the Gentile Christians as authoritative teaching on this issue stated, "it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us."

The final court of appeal in any matter involving Christian doctrine is the word of the Holy Spirit given through the apostles. No longer is it possible or necessary to go to Jerusalem for a personal conference. The plain teaching on any essential Christian doctrine is given in the New Testament scriptures.

And, however plain the scriptures may be, defections sometimes come, and when they do, there is only one place for a Christian to stand. Paul says of Peter, when he erred, "I withstood him to the face." Controversy, in the proper spirit, and from the right motives, promotes brotherhood; it does not harm it.