How to Deal with Controversy in the Church
It seems to me like the Church in America has been especially riddled with controversy over the last several years. Government policy, race, and mask-wearing feel like ever-present topics of heated conversation—outside and inside the Church.
Controversy isn’t new to Church life though. Consider earlier debates: Can Christians wear wedding rings? What is the real date of Resurrection Day? Should Christians eat meat that’s been sacrificed to idols?
Thankfully, in the Bible, God tells us much about how to deal with controversy in the local church. Let’s consider four commands from 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus that help us deal with controversy in a way that pleases our God.
1. Embrace Your Purpose
First, to please God in how we deal with controversy, we need to embrace our purpose. We don’t just need to know our purpose. We need to love it. If we do, it will change the way we talk with each other—and even feel towards each other.
Our purpose together is to highlight the truth about Christ and his work. We are to make God and his deeds known to the world. We see this in 1 Timothy 3:15. There, God describes the local church as the household of God. . . a pillar and buttress of the truth.
The local church is an eternal family with a purpose—to make the truth known in the world.
Know this: we are not a pillar that exists to highlight all truth. We don’t exist to highlight truth about vaccine efficacy or secular history or tax policy or car repair. God tells us explicitly in the next verse what truth it is that we make known:
He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed in the world, taken up in the glory.
In other words, God the Son entered a sin-ruled world. He suffered the consequences that the world deserved, was raised to life in victory over death as the truly righteous one, and rules creation as the God-man. So, the nature of true worship (i.e. ‘godliness,’ from the previous verse) is found in trusting in him.
In very short form: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Tim 1:15).
Together, as the eternal Church manifested in individual, local churches; exist to make this specific truth known.
As individual church members, we have responsibilities to make sure the whole church stays on track—”having nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths” but instead training ourselves for righteousness (1 Tim. 4:7).
Note the stark contrast. Irreverent, silly myths are essentially extra-Scriptural teachings. We will either pay attention to extra-Scriptural teachings or train ourselves for godliness. The epistles say this in multiple ways: Cleanse yourself from what’s dishonorable so that you’ll be useful (2 Tim. 2:21, 23). Don’t get wrapped up in living as a civilian (2 Tim. 2:4). Live in such a way that “adorns” Christian doctrine (Titus 2:1-10).
If we embrace our purpose, we will only engage in controversy in the Church in love to help others experience and magnify God’s Son. So, let’s embrace our purpose before we enter controversies.
2. Beware the Danger
When we consider how to engage with controversy, we need to be on guard against ideas, activities, and emotions that may distract us from God’s purpose for us.
God warns us that arguments, falsehoods, speculations that aren’t necessarily false, and even purposeless conversations can lead us away from the truth. They can even lead to a shipwreck of our faith (See 1 Tim. 1:3, 1:19, 6:20; 2 Tim. 2:4, 2:15-16; Titus 1:10, 14)!
Lies will distract us from holding on to God’s truth, as will speculating about things we don’t know or engaging in pointless conversation. One danger is that we might go on vacation from the plain truths of Scripture and from our mission. This leads to quarrels. See how often quarreling is named in these epistles (Ex. 1 Tim. 2:8-10, 3:3, 6:3-6; 2 Tim. 2:14; Titus 1:7, 3:9)?
Since we are repeatedly warned to avoid quarrels (2 Tim. 2:15-16), why do they occur in a church? There are at least two reasons. First, the Bible directly and plainly says something, and some people are disobeying it. God’s given us a process for that (Matt. 18), and quarreling isn’t part of it. A second reason is that people have strong opinions about things the Bible doesn’t directly and plainly address.
3 Things That Can Happen
Scripture doesn’t forbid holding strong opinions about things it doesn’t address, but what happens when your love of an opinion is stronger than your love for God’s Word? Three things:
- You show that you supremely love something other than God
- You fail to actually say the things you should say (Col. 3:16; Heb. 10:24-25)
- You quarrel and stir up sin in others (Eph. 4:29)
Brothers and sisters: avoid quarrels. And, for those of us who are confrontation-averse, let me also caution us from committing slander by badmouthing others (e.g. 1 Tim. 3:11). This might not be outright quarreling, but the danger it presents is all the same.
So, when we think about how to deal with controversy in the church, we need to beware of the dangers. There are so many things that can pull us away from what God has called us to. Let’s beware of the dangers of quarrelsomeness and slander and pointless talk that can so easily trap us.
3. Trust God’s Work
Even as we seek to pursue our purpose and look out for danger, controversies may arise. That brings us to our third command to obey in dealing with controversy: trust God’s work.
This means that we need to believe God’s promises that he has already justified every sinner who trusts Jesus and that he is really sanctifying all of us as well.
I say that because, as you’ve read this, you may find yourself admitting that you have a tendency to quarrel, badmouth people, and care more about things the Bible doesn’t say than the things it does say.
That’s good. You should see that. And you should feel bad about it. It both damages people and it blasphemes the God who created us. Such things are evil, and upon such behaviors the wrath of God will come (Eph. 5:6)
Thankfully, Christ came into the world to save sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). Not good people. Not people who say the right thing or feel the right feelings or do the right good deeds. He came to save sinners. Thanks be to God!
How to Behave
In Titus 3, God gives us specific instructions about how to behave. We’re “to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy towards all people” (3:2).
The good news is that God gives us the ability to live out this love. Titus 3:3 starts with the word “for.” That means God is giving us the basis for this command.
Because God saved us apart from any good thing we’ve ever done (v. 5) and made us new creations through his Holy Spirit who is on us (v. 6), we can be gentle with others. Because he has declared our status to be righteous (justified us (v. 7) and made us heirs of the eternal life that Jesus earned by his perfect obedience (v. 7), we can love others.
In other words, as followers of Christ, we are rescued from hell, remade, filled with the Spirit, and judged completely obedient to him based on Jesus’s obedience. He will give us all the rewards that come with all the things he’s done.
So look: we have the power to deal with controversy well. And how is that? Avoid quarreling and gossip. With gentleness and meekness, speak the Bible truth to your eternal family members.
We deal well with church controversy when we trust God’s work.
4. Know Your Role
We need to embrace our purpose, beware the danger, trust God’s work, and finally, know our roles. For most of us, that role is being a faithful church member—not a pastor.
The Role of a Pastor
Here’s the thing: The letters of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus weren’t written to us. They were not written to normal church members, so we can’t apply them directly to ourselves. They were written to men who were appointed directly by the Apostle Paul as his representatives. So, as we read these books, we need to know how they might apply to us—because they weren’t written directly to us.
In these passages, pastors are to command people who are teaching different doctrines to stop (1 Tim. 1:3). Pastors are to command the whole church not to quarrel (2 Tim. 2:14) and to sharply rebuke those who are teaching extra-Scriptural things (Titus 1:13). They are to oversee church discipline for divisive people (Titus 3:10-11).
So, if you’re a pastor, that’s for you. That’s part of your job description.
The Role of a Church Member
But what’s this mean for the rest of us? At least two things.
First, it means that we are to submit to our pastors. They are charged with giving us the commands of God from holy Scripture. Yes, they can err, but we have the responsibility to respect and obey them (Heb. 13:7, 17). The greater responsibility is theirs, not ours. So, when they charge us to not quarrel, to hold fast the truth, and even when they rebuke us—we are to heed them.
Second, we must only elect and confirm men to the pastorate who can teach sound doctrine and who have enough discernment to rebuke things that are being taught as doctrine that are not in the Bible (Titus 1:9). We must not confirm men to the pastorate who just suit whatever we happen to like (2 Tim. 4:3). We are to elect men who are actually able to guard us in the truth God has revealed in his Word.
So, to deal well with controversy in the church, we need to be humble and know our role.
But remember, we don’t just have a role as a church member to submit to our elders. We also embrace our purpose. We are to beware the danger and trust God’s work in keeping us for heaven.
Brothers and sisters, let us hold fast to, and hold out, the message of Christ’s cross. Let us be leery of things—or at least relatively disinterested in things—which the Bible doesn’t directly teach. Let us trust the God who regenerates, justifies, and ultimately saves us from hell. And let us treat God’s officers biblically.
If we do these things, we will engage, or not engage, in controversy for the glory of God.
The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you. (2 Tim. 4:22).