Previous article in this series: July 2012, p. 413.
Now, the more difficult, but just-as-necessary call to engage in polemics properly. As necessary as it is to call the church to do polemics, it is as imperative to remind ourselves to do it in a godly manner. For some, in fact, whose nature and nurture may predispose them to fight, the warning to fight properly is urgent. There is a right way and a wrong way to use fighting words. Showing this will take care and wisdom.
The previous two editorials explained that polemics is necessary. Until Christ returns, the church is the church militant. She heeds the explicit command and plain example of Scripture to fight for truth. She wants to defend the name, the precious name, of God. God’s name is revealed in His being and works, and when His being and works are maligned, the church rises to His name’s defense. In the second editorial, I showed that an officebearer in a Reformed church that still holds to the Formula of Subscription has no choice. By taking his office he vows to defend the truth and oppose error. Members of Reformed churches expect this of their elders and pastors, in fact demand it of them. In a church world where fighting words are rare and where being always and only nice is the fashion, our churches must be warring churches. Not to fight is fatal. The devil loves ecclesiastical pacifists.
But to fight properly is necessary because the devil also loves what we might call belligerent ecclesiastical “hawks.” Warmongers, argumentative Christians, and confrontational church members do the devil’s work.
Reformed folk appeal to Calvin. But we must remember that the same Calvin who set the bar for polemics by Reformed Christians as high as he did, also warned about fighting inappropriately, in a way unbecoming soldiers of Christ. The Calvin who said, “It is . . . not enough to teach faithfully what God commands, except we also contend . . . . We have a contest with the devil, with the world, and with all the wicked,”¹ also said, “Often the immoderate heat of the pastors . . . does no less hurt than their sluggishness,” and “We may learn to moderate our desire, even in the best causes, lest it pass measure and be too fervent,”² and even cautioned that “We are much more courageous and ready for fighting than for bearing the cross,”³ a caution this writer always needs to hear. And the same Christ who called His enemies “vipers,” and whose servants called some “dogs,” also said “The servant of the Lord must not strive, but be gentle unto all . . . ,” and “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.” Of course, circumstances matter. Audiences matter. And motives matter. But this is exactly why wisdom and prayerful discretion are required for Christ’s soldiers. “Onward,” yes, but properly.
When? Why? How? All important questions that will guide Christ’s warriors in the important battle for God’s name.
When I speak of a proper and improper manner, the controlling word is “spiritually.” And by “spiritual” I mean not only “not by physical means,” as though the great danger for us is that we try to battle error with the sword or the fist; although that is a danger. But not even Luther, gritty warrior that he was, made that mistake, and the story of his throwing an ink well at the devil is likely just that, a nice story. Luther fought the devil with ink, indeed, but the ink that flowed out of his pen. Though Luther may have been influenced by some medieval superstitions, he fought against evil spiritually. By “spiritually” I mean “according to the word of God,” which Word is the outstanding work of Christ’s Spirit.
Here is a list and explanation of what I judge to be several unspiritual ways to do battle against error. These improper ways of fighting have plenty of overlap, and any number of them are likely found in every battle that displeases God. The list is also not intended to be exhaustive, but illustrates the kinds of evils we must caution ourselves against.
1. The contentious spirit
Some men always are itching for a fight. These are quarrelsome spirits in the church. Like the schoolyard bully, they are not happy unless they are fighting. The Dutch have a proverb that translates something like this: “The one who wants to hit a dog can easily find a stick.” Some church members always seem to be eager to whack a dog.
That kind of man leaves the impression that he knows nothing of the life of peace within the walls of the city, and would be happy if the entire life of the church were lived on the bulwarks. If you tell him this, he probably would complain loudly. But his life evidences otherwise. He appears to know nothing of sweet fellowship among the people of God. Reflecting with humility on the peace that passes all understanding does not seem to be in his range of experience.
Scripture calls him to “seek peace and pursue it,” to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”
His response, of course, will be that the caution not to be quarrelsome misses the point, and may even incline the weaker saints to lay down their arms, probably allow some Trojan Horse of error to enter the church, or expose the Bride of Christ to other suitors. To which the wise pastor will say, patiently, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven . . . . There is a time of war and a time of peace.” Blessed are the times, few though they may be, when we may quote Solomon: “the Lord my God hath given me rest on every side, so that there is neither adversary nor evil occurrent [occurrence].”
2. Fighting against without fighting for . . .
Closely related to the previous is the error of forgetting that we battle against the lie in order to preserve truth. Jude calls the church to “contend for the faith.” This does require doing violence against all other “violence that exalts itself against God” (see Lord’s Day 48). But every violent act against the enemies of God must be coupled with reminders: we have a precious truth we are defending, a truth that sets us free, without which truth we would perish everlastingly, the precious truth of the covenant love of my Father for me—undeserving sinner—by the cross of Christ alone through faith alone by grace alone. And, correspondingly, we are defending a God-honoring life of gratitude we must offer to Him.
This is a good reminder to all pastors in their pulpit polemics and to all writers who wield a pen or keyboard. Let us all commit to making plain which particular, vital truth is being denied by the error we are assaulting. How is God dishonored by this error? What comfort is lost by that one? What way of holiness is being threatened? Whether that’s the ancient error of Arianism, the Reformation heresy of semi-Pelagianism, the more recent lie of Pentecostalism, or the current evil of the Federal Vision, the people of God must know what aspect of the Christian faith and life is going to fall by the error.
Calvin offered this reminder when he said, “We must . . . see to it that the pulling down of error is followed by the building up of faith.”4 Perhaps better to my point: The pulling down of error is for the protection of the faith.
3. Contending with errors that do not threaten
This may be a convenient way to ignore other dangers that a man does not want to confront. It may be evidence that a man is ignorant of the most important issues that threaten his church or denomination. It may reveal a tendency to “play to the choir” because the choir will praise him. There may be other reasons. But when we do polemics, we must see what danger most threatens at the time. We will not contend with one error while a dozen others are more serious or more urgent threats.
C.S. Lewis put it well when he suggested one way by which devils ruin Christians: “The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers when there is a flood . . . .” Israel did not amass their soldiers on their southern border when Syria threatened from the north, or in their northern regions when Egypt came to fight. Certainly, the people of God must beware of all threats that can harm the church. But, again, wisdom is required to know where to exert one’s energies.
When serious lack of wisdom is manifested, it may be time to hear: “He that passeth by, and meddleth with strife belonging not to him, is like one that taketh a dog by the ears.”
4. Failure to distinguish
Space runs short, so I list but do not explain, some of these mistakes: of failing to differentiate between incorrigible enemies and erring friends; between those who may be called “vipers,” and others who “oppose,” with whom we work patiently and in meekness, “if peradventure God will grant repentance unto the acknowledgment of the truth,” so that they may be freed from the devil’s snare (). We must not fail to distinguish between fatal errors and lesser errors, between essentials and non-essentials, between confessional matters and differences of interpretation, between matters that must be contended hotly and others best left for friendly discussion.
As to different kinds of issues, in Calvin’s day the church at Geneva used common bread for the Lord’s Supper, which in Calvin’s judgment was proper. When Calvin was absent for a time, the churches in Lausanne and Berne convinced Geneva to use unleavened bread. When Calvin returned he did not dispute the matter because he considered it a non-essential.
As to different kinds of people, Luther advised: “. . . you may be harsh in dealing with the liars, the hardened tyrants, and be bold to do things contrary to their teachings and their works . . . . But the simple people, whom they have bound with the ropes of their teachings and whose lives they have endangered, you must treat altogether differently . . . . You see, you must treat dogs and swine differently from the way you treat men, and wolves and lions differently from the way you treat the weak sheep.”5
A faithful polemicist in the church will know his opponent, will understand fully the error he is assaulting, will love the truth he is protecting, because he has truly experienced the friendship of the God whose cause he represents. We will pray for wisdom and a right heart to contend—neither shrinking from battle nor lacking in wisdom.
There is more to say, about the reasons we may err in polemics, about the results of improper fighting, and about how to respond to such. That, God willing, next time—September 1.
1 Commentary on the Minor Prophets, III: 334, 335.
2 Commentary upon . . . Acts, II: 85, 89.
3 Commentary on the Gospels, III: 243
4 Commentary on the books to the Thessalonians: 339.
5 What Luther Says: 1056