Part of the pernicious underbelly of the internet is that many allow themselves to be drawn into controversies about which they have no need to involve themselves. For many years, I too wanted juicy details about whatever controversy was swirling around in evangelical and Reformed circles. To my shame, I have either initiated or been on the receiving end of innumerable conversations that began with the statement, “Did you hear what just happened to so and so. . .?” So much of this belong to the realm of gossip rather than to the sphere of sanctified concern or justified probing. As Jerry Bridges has rightly noted, “Behind all of our gossip, slander, critical speech, insults, and sarcasm is our sinful heart. The tongue is only the instrument that reveals what’s in our hearts.” So what are we to do if we are to live informed lives without allowing ourselves to be drawn into foolish controversies in which we have no responsibility from God to involve ourselves? Here are a few helps:
1. Remember the sphere of your calling from God. When the Lord drew me to himself in saving grace, He implanted in me a burning desire to preach the gospel. I believe that my conversion and my call to ministry occurred simultaneously. That being said, I was not called to pastor the universe. I was called by God to pastor specific local churches as specific times in my ministry. This means that my priority must be for the care of the needs of the people whom God has entrusted to me in the local church I serve. Just as Augustine referred to spheres of moral proximity, when answering the questions about caring for the welfare of those in need, so there is a moral proximity for pastors and people to care first and foremost for the spiritual needs of the people in the same body.
Of course, this does not mean that the sphere of responsibility stops at the local church. I happen to be a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America. This means that it is my responsibility to concern myself with the spiritual condition of the churches in our denomination. However, within the PCA, we have regional Presbyteries that take precedent to the national court. If I neglect my responsibility to serve on committees and to care to the best of my ability for the spiritual health and wellbeing of the churches and ministers in our Presbytery because I want to give the better part of my time and energy to denominational controversies, then I am failing to fulfill the role to which God has called me. After giving ourselves to the care of the local church, we are to give ourselves first and foremost to the wider regional expression of our denominational affiliations.
This is not to say that ministers are not called to care for the wider church. It is right and good for ministers in the PCA to serve on denominational committees and agencies. It is important for pastors to labor for the peace and purity of the denomination at large. However, even within this sphere, great caution is needed. Many thrive on controversy. They make it an all-consuming goal to speak to every issue, to critique every aberration, and to fight incessantly. Though it is impossible to judge motives, one must give serious consideration to what is fueling such involvement. It is far too easy to involve yourself in denominational controversies out of a quest for influence, power, or fear rather than out of a desire to see the triune God glorified, Christ exalted, and His people edified. This is true for those on the left as well as for those on the right end of the denominational spectrum.
Finally, there is a sense in which it is right and good for ministers of the gospel to know and care about the happenings in our fraternal denominations. As a minister of the PCA, I should care about the health and wellbeing of the ARP and the OPC. It is not wrong to stay afloat on issues affecting the SBC. However, none of these should take front seat in my engagement in such a way that I am neglecting, first, the local church I pastors, second, the churches of our Presbytery, and third, the denomination as a whole. Far too many pastors appear to allow themselves to be consumed with controversies in every denomination or ecclesiastical fellowship–regardless of whether or not they have a moral proximity to those churches or ministers.
2. Remember your need for the wisdom of God. It’s hard to imagine what the church and gospel ministries would look like if every one heeded the wisdom of God in the Proverbs. In Proverbs 26:17, we read, “Whoever meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears.” So often our involvement in disputes and controversies not our own is like grabbing a dog by the ears. Again, this is not to say that we are not to contend earnestly for the faith. Neither is it to say that we are never called to involve ourselves in theological and moral controversies. What it is to say is that far too often believers in general and ministers in specific meddle in quarrels not their own. As much as one may convince himself or herself that their faithful repudiation of error on social media is the most God-honoring thing they could contribute in life, it would do everyone good to remember what James tells us, “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere, And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:17–18).
3. Remember your own sinfulness before God. I fear that often those who are most vocal about error in others are (perhaps inadvertently) giving themselves cover so as not to focus on their own sinfulness and their need to be mortifying sin in their own lives. J. Gresham Machen–one of the champions of theological orthodoxy in the twentieth century–once noted,
“Consideration of the sins of other people is the deadliest of moral anodynes; it relieves the pain of conscience but it also destroys moral life. Many persons gloat over denunciations of that to which they are not tempted; or they even gloat over denunciations, in the case of other people, of sins which are also really theirs.”
Machen understood the deceitfulness of the human heart and the subtle machinations that flow from it. We can easily become outraged over the sins of others–as David did when Nathan the prophet told him the story of the poor man’s stolen ewe lamb–while harboring sin that is every bit as egregious as that which we denounce. This is the very reason why our Lord used the figure of the speck and the log (Matt. 7:3-5). It’s quite difficult to want to involve ourselves in every controversy or to seek to correct every error when we remember the indwelling sin with which we are personally engaged in warfare every single day or our lives until Christ comes again.
While much more can and should be said about this subject, it should suffice for us to consider these things in such a way as to take an inventory check of where our priorities lie with regard to engagement in controversies. If we would remember the sphere of our callings from God, our need to mine out of Scripture the wisdom of God, and our need to remember our sinfulness before God, we will be much more reticent to insert ourselves into controversies about which we do not need to involve ourselves. As we keep these three guiding principles before us, we will be more equipped to determine what controversies we should take up and those from which we should keep ourselves. May God give us grace to examine ourselves and wisdom to guide us in whatever controversies may arise.