Disputes are not preferable.
Be that as it may, the prophets were involved in disputes. Jesus and His apostles were involved in disputes. And the church has been embroiled in dispute ever since. The early church fathers were involved in dispute. The medieval theologians were involved in dispute. The Reformers were involved in dispute. The post-Reformed were involved in dispute. Our forerunners, the particular Baptists, were involved in dispute. While not preferable, and while unfortunate, dispute is nevertheless biblical, and it is a perspicuous article found in play throughout church history. Like self-defense and giving to the poor, dispute is something the church must engage as a result of the fallen nature of man.
From this, however, we need to distinguish between holy dispute, or dispute for a noble cause performed in a noble manner, and unholy dispute, or dispute for an ignoble (not noble or honorable) cause. There is a biblical kind of dispute, a dispute which Jesus Himself and His apostles engaged in. This is incontrovertible (Matt 12:34; Lk. 13:32; Jn. 2:15; Acts 17). Yet, there is a wicked kind of dispute, characterized by Scripture as quarrelsomeness or controversy for the sake of controversy (1 Tim. 3:3; Prov. 20:1).
Because there is a holy kind of dispute, this being beyond controversy, we need now concern ourselves with the nature of it. We will begin negatively.
What Holy Disputation Is Not
In 1 Timothy 6:3-5, Paul writes:
If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw yourself.
When Martin Luther penned the Ninety Five Theses, he was engaging in a methodology referred to in the Latin as disputatio or, in English, disputation. Unfortunately, men who now claim to follow in the Protestant tradition have almost entirely done away with the practice or art of disputation. Failing to recognize the distinction between holy and unholy disputation, many men, many pastors, have come to think of all disputation as wicked—and the church is worse for it.
We need to be careful, however, lest we ruin ourselves upon the jagged rock of what holy disputation is not. In 1 Timothy 6:3-5, Paul begins with the character of a person who “does not consent to wholesome words.” Here, we find that Paul is talking about those who do not submit to, nor do they embrace the gospel—the epitome of wholesome words. He goes on to add, “even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness…” Paul is not talking about a person who is a professing believer, much less a person who’s life is marked by gospel obedience.
He goes on to remark on this person’s pride. This person is puffed up and conceited. They know nothing. They are obsessed with dispute. In other words, they live for the argument. A more wooden reading might say, “[he] is sick with disputes…” He vomits up disagreement. That’s all he can do. This person is a contrarian. More interestingly is the kind of disputation Paul identifies in v. 4. Paul is not outlawing all disputation. But he does indicate a repudiation of diputes about words, signified by the word arguments (λογομαχία). These are useless, semantic disputes. In this passage, Paul by no means makes all disputes unlawful.
Therefore, holy dispute cannot be characterized by dispute for dispute’s sake. Holy dispute is not engaged by unholy people. Moreover, holy dispute cannot be about trivial things, like semantics, word battles, competition of sheer rhetoric, etc. Those are all insufficient explanations for disputation.
What Holy Disputation Is
Paul expressly helps us with a definition when he writes:
For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, and being ready to punish all disobedience when your obedience is fulfilled. ~ 2 Corinthians 10:4-6
And also an example of disputation among believers, “Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed (Gal. 2:11).”
There are about three characteristics of dispute gleaned from these two passages. First, holy disputation casts down unholy arguments raised against God. Second, holy disputes are useful for bringing minds into compliance to Christ. Third, holy disputation can, and often does, take place among brethren. Therefore, I offer a concise and positive definition of holy dispute as follows:
Holy dispute is that Christian practice of bringing thoughts into captivity to Christ through honest disagreement and argumentation conducive to resolving such disagreement.
Holy disputation, on the Christian’s part, can be either intermural or intramural. Intermural dispute would entail a Christian disputing with a non-Christian interlocutor. Intramural dispute would be when two or more Christians dispute with one another over doctrine and/or practice.
When to Dispute & When Not to Dispute
Now that we’ve at least started a discussion concerning the nature of disputation, it would now be prudent to identify some criteria which might help us decide when and when not to dispute.
There are three questions we all must ask prior to entering into dispute:
1) Is the dispute concerning what is true? The goal of all holy disputation must be an arrival at the truth. Any other intention or purpose of dispute is insufficient and self-refuting. For disputation presupposes the categories of truth and falsehood, and disagreements arise precisely because one party believes the truth is being misrepresented by the other, and visa versa.
2) Is the dispute about God’s revealed doctrine? This could be doctrine revealed through nature or doctrine revealed through Scripture. Either way, God’s teaching is always worth discussion, and when a correct understanding thereof is at stake, it is always worth disputation. This is the very reason Paul confronted Peter to his face, in public I might add.
3) Is your intention to love your neighbor through dispute? If you are not disputing in an effort to love your neighbor to the glory of God, you might as well call it quits. Our intention, as Christians, must be in the right place prior to entering into disputation. Therefore, if your intention is any place other than obeying the second greatest commandment (Matt. 22:39), you ought to reassess yourself and, perhaps, change course.
These criteria are not exhaustive, but they might be helpful in deciding when to enter into dispute, whether that be dispute over social media or in-person. Disputes can be powerful things. They can rip apart churches, but they can also mature and secure churches, strengthening them for future challenges. Disputation, even holy disputation, ought to be the last resort. But if a disagreement arises, it is holy dispute alone that will serve as the acceptable means of conflict resolution.
There’s a difference between pastoral theology and public theology. Recent demands, however, would lead one to think otherwise.
The recent phenomenon of the “address public content privately” principle has become the go-to response to criticisms of American evangelicalism and its leaders. Power players such as the SBC and TGC are perhaps the greatest apologists for this principle. It affords them the opportunity to minimize the attention drawn to possible errors, and carves out room for the victimhood of professors and other leaders and makes provision for academic negligence. This amounts to an effort to keep the discussion underground. It amounts to a nil rate of productivity, the suppression of truth, and the willful malnourishment of fellow Christians who might benefit from said discussion.
Before I jump into relevant texts, I want to unequivocally state that academics in a teaching position do not have the luxury of public theological error without consequence—a kind of public theology with no strings attached. What I mean by this is that a teacher who teaches something publicly ought to be more than willing to own their public error publicly. This is basic academic decorum, a minimum requirement for all who accept the sacred opportunity to teach theology. Personally, if I publish error, I expect to be corrected publicly. If I’m being honest, the prospect of public invalidation keeps me on my toes. At the very least, if there are those who disagree with me, I most certainly expect public responses and, hopefully, fruitful public dialogue.
The Example of Apollos
Apollos is introduced to us in Acts 18:24 as a man who was mighty in the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, was fervent in spirit, and he taught accurately the things of the Lord (v. 25). Thanks to God’s grace through Aquila and Priscilla, he understood the way of God “more accurately (v. 26).” In v. 27, when Apollos arrived in Achaia, he “greatly helped those who believed through grace.” How did he help his fellow believers? He “vigorously refuted the Jews publicly, showing from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ (v. 28).”
There are three observations we need to make here.
First, godly refutation is a great help to God’s people. Those who downplay the need to refute bad ideas do not understand this biblical principle which evidences itself all over the pages of Scripture (Prov. 17:10; 19:25; Is. 1:17; Tit. 2:15).
Second, this refutation was a great help precisely because it was public! God’s people benefitted from Apollos’ exchange with the Jews because it was a public exchange with men who were no doubt also teaching publicly (as the Jewish rabbi were prone to do). Imagine if another Christian wrote to Apollos, questioning, “Did you first speak to those Jews privately? Huh? Huh?!” Such a thing would be inconceivable to the rhetorically trained first century mind.
Third, Apollos’ refutation was derived straight from the Word of God. It didn’t consist of man-made doctrine, sayings, or preferences. His responses weren’t couched primarily within the faculty of emotion, but came to him as he put his regenerate reason to work for the glory of God. He wasn’t holding age, experience, or intellect over his interlocutors as an authority (as some have done recently). Rather, he was reasoning from the Scriptures, publicly, for the benefit of God’s people. Apollos was a noble man, a man’s man, who operated according to the Scriptures, that is, with integrity and transparency.
The Example of Paul
In case the objection comes, “But Apollos was interacting with unbelievers!” I want to be clear that public responses to public content or error is the biblical norm, whether that be among believers or unbelievers. The exception to the rule is the inner operations of the local church, especially when in comes to church discipline (Matt. 18). I’m not talking about the intramural business of any given local church. I’m talking about public theology. The disciplinary procedure of Matthew 18 cannot apply to extramural discussion because Matthew 18:17 necessarily places the procedure within the context of the local church.
Moreover, Paul sets a precedent for addressing erring believers in public. Galatians 2:11-14a says:
Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all…
Peter, the apostle, was in error. How did Paul address Peter’s error? He opposed Peter. Not only did Paul address Peter in person, an ideal form of communication, but he opposed him before an audience! Now, the reason Paul opposed Peter in front of everyone is not expressly stated, but I believe Paul’s desire was to correct Peter for the edification of those over whom Peter had the most influence.
In fact, Paul does explicitly disclose his purpose behind public interaction when he writes to Timothy, “Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear (1 Tim. 5:20).” Again, correction ought to be done in public for the benefit of all. To drive that interaction underground is selfish, cowardly, and rips away any possible way other Christians might benefit from the discussion. To drive public issues under ground is to play a card Roman Catholicism has been playing for hundreds of years: The more ignorant the public, the less power they have.
Some have attempted to use 1 Timothy 5:1 as a tool to silence those who address public issues publicly, especially when it comes to younger men attempting to refute the ideas of older men (cf. 1 Tim. 4:12). Whilst I fully affirm that our rebukes ought to be seasoned with the spice of humility, the salt of truth ought to be tasted throughout. In 1 Timothy 5:1, Paul isn’t telling Timothy to never rebuke an older man. If that’s what he was saying, he’d be contradicting what he writes later on in v. 20. Moreover, the terms used are different.
In v. 20, a different Greek term is used for rebuke (ἐπιπλήσσω) than that which is used in v. 1 (ἐλέγχω). There’s a right way to rebuke (v. 20), and a wrong way to rebuke (v. 1). Using different terminology is Paul’s way of making a distinction. Interestingly, the context of right rebuke seems to be public.
Apollos, a man who was mighty in the Scriptures, publicly refuted the Jews. Paul publicly rebuked his friend, brother, and fellow apostle in front of impressionable onlookers. Moreover, Paul encourages young Timothy to publicly rebuke those who are in sin.
In the current dialogue climate, many are either ignorant or have outrightly rejected the biblical principle of public theology in public. The exhortation from prominent evangelical leadership for critics of their public content to go underground by writing letters and making phone calls (both of which have already been attempted by many) is simply not a biblical approach to public discussion. Rather, the biblical principle seems to suggest that public examples and public content, whether written or spoken, are subject to the public criticisms of fellow believers so long as those fellow believers have a mind to edify the body of Christ rather than simply tear down a personality or argue for argument’s sake.
Therefore, I conclude that the principle of “address public content privately” is a false if not morally atrocious principle designed by men (not God) to silence opposition and provide an excuse for willful academic disingenuity or irresponsibility.