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Fight Valiantly! Godly Engagement

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Posted by Lee Gatiss, 17 Apr 2019

The Bible says we must engage in the good fight of faith with godliness and humility. Watch the video podcast of today's post on our YouTube channel.

We need to remember to contend by spiritually applying the gospel and drawing the necessary lines, in a way that pleases God. There is a danger that if we don’t stand firm and oppose heresy we end up sliding into compromise and heresy ourselves, since we are always inclined to corruption no matter how pure our church may be on paper. But it is equally dangerous to fight in a way that loses sight of our Lord Jesus. If we are servants of the Lord and not just of some ecclesiastical faction, we will not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach (2 Timothy 2:24). Our relationships to our human opponents must always be sufficiently respectful and dignified that we are able to speak in a way that they can hear and learn and, by God’s grace, possibly repent.

I pray for and preach all this to myself, and I know I don’t always get it right. But let us be in no doubt: James 3-4 is correct, about the kind of meekness we need in today’s church, and it is not the “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” approach of contentious quarrelling. Many of us doubt the effectiveness of humility. James says that pure, impartial, and sincere wisdom leads to a harvest of righteousness rather than rivalry and discord (James 3:17-18). It puts friendship with God first, and tries to contend for him only in ways pleasing to him. Only this way of going about things will lead to the results that God himself longs to see.

There is a whole sermon given over to contention and brawling in the Anglican Homilies, one of our foundational formularies. It says that “among all kinds of contention, none is more hurtful than is contention in matters of religion… This contention and strife was in Saint Paul’s time among the Corinthians and is at this time among us Englishmen.” What does this contention look like? “For too many there be which upon the ale benches or other places [Twitter? Facebook groups?] delight to set forth certain questions, not so much pertaining to edification as to vainglory and showing forth of their cunning, and so unsoberly to reason and dispute, that when neither party will give place to other, they fall to chiding and contention, and sometime from hot words to further inconvenience.”

The Homily contains excellent advice for those engaged in contending today, adding: “Let us so read Scripture that by reading thereof we may be made the better livers, rather than the more contentious disputers. If anything is necessary to be taught, reasoned or disputed, let us do it with all meekness, softness and lenity.”

Yet the Homily is not advocating unchallenged tolerance of all kinds of heresies and sins. It is not ignorant of the need to draw lines, and even quotes from 1 Corinthians 5, for example. Though when it applies that passage, it does not neglect to mention that “brawlers” and “pickers of quarrels” are among those numbered with the sexually immoral and idolatrous, as those who will not inherit the kingdom of God. This should be a grave warning to us all. If we think our enemies are not worthy of a gentle reply because of their malice, we are reminded here that the less someone is worthy, the more we are commanded by God to render good for evil.

Yet there are always people who scoff at the idea of courtesy and kindness in the midst of our disagreements. What is needed, they believe, is something more robust and strong. As Calvin put it, “they who are carried away to evil speaking by the lust of slandering, have always this excuse, ‘What! can we then remove evil by our courteousness?’” And, of course, they are right that winsome, amiable engagement alone is not in and of itself sufficient. Yet the bad breath of bolshiness is so unattractive and off-putting, as the expression of our inward angsts and un-submissive hearts, that it can only please the devil who seeks to divide us.

I don’t think it’s just evangelicals who sometimes slip into and justify this approach. But surely we should want to lead the way in repenting of it? It is incumbent on all of us to walk worthy of the gospel, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:1-2). If we prayerfully work on this, especially patience, it may also save us from hasty, immoderate action which we may later regret.

This is not “going soft on sin”, or simply a matter of having a particular temperament; it is a divine command for how we are meant to behave in the midst of controversy in the church. Jesus said we should be more worried about falling away from him than being put out of a religious body which does not know him (John 16:1-4), but he didn’t tell us to behave so badly that we deliberately annoy everyone. Just as we must draw lines, so we must do so in a godly way. There is no exemption from contending, and no get out clause which enables us to contend without godliness.

Questions for Reflection

1. Why is it so easy to forget godliness when we are engaging with heretical opponents?
2. Why is patience such an important virtue when considering our involvement in church politics?
3. How can you guard yourself against becoming “a brawler or a picker of quarrels” and avoid ending up as a “contentious disputer”?

Links to all the 2019 Lent blogposts and videos are here.

Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society and the editor of Gospel Flourishing in a Time of Confusion, the latest book from Church Society.

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