By Russell Moore, The Gospel Coalition USA.
In Walter Percey’s novel The Moviegoer, the protagonist Binx Bolling reflects:
Whenever I feel bad, I go to the library and read controversial periodicals. Though I do not know whether I am a liberal or a conservative, I am nevertheless enlivened by the hatred which one bears for the other. In fact, this hatred strikes me as one of the few signs of life remaining in the world. This is another thing about the world which is upside-down: all the friendly and likable people seem dead to me; only the haters seem alive.
In this one paragraph, Percy may or may not have summed up his own age, but he has certainly summed up ours.
To be sure, controversies happen in every era since people will have differing views on important issues, and sometimes even disagreements about how important those issues are. But Scripture speaks repeatedly about those who have what the apostle Paul calls “an unhealthy craving for controversy” (1 Tim. 6:4). Of course, Paul was more than willing to speak into controversies himself — from opposing Peter to his face for refusing to eat with Gentiles to some of those fiery letters to the Corinthians.
But this was as different from craving controversy for the sake of controversy as conjugal love is from an orgy. In fact, the quarrelsomeness Paul warns against comes from the exact same place as the orgies — from “the works of the flesh” (Gal. 5:17–21). And apart from repentance, quarrelsomeness and sexual immorality end up in the same place: condemnation and death (Gal. 5:21). Those who constantly stir up “foolish controversies” are to be corrected and, if unresponsive, are to be seen as “warped” and “self-condemned” (Titus 3:9–11).
The Lord’s servant, meanwhile, is to “flee youthful passions” and to have “nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies,” since “you know they breed quarrels” (2 Tim. 2:22–23). Again we see sexual immorality tied to the pugilistic urge to argue.
Why is this the case?
Zealous for Gossip Entertainment
Over the years I’ve seen Christians who have engaged in controversy when needed, and I’ve observed the way that the Christlike among them so often do it — with a sense of love for the good, and for the well-being of those they believe in error, not a love for the fighting itself. And I have seen those I thought were “zealous for the truth” who, in time, proved to just be zealous for the feeling of zeal. These were the ones who fought about almost everything. As the years have gone by, I have seen many such people come to light as those who were hiding deep wounds and often scandalous sin. An older pastor told me, “Nothing makes people angrier at others than shame in themselves.” That has proven true countless times.
But the life of Percy’s moviegoer is just as instructive. Without the Spirit to give life, one will often seek the feeling of life in sensation. This is the kind of life that one unbelieving novelist compared to the shock of electricity making a dead frog’s leg jump. Often, quarrelsomeness is just that — a desperate attempt to find a purpose or to find a place to feel important or to answer a gnawing boredom with the everydayness of life.
Another older pastor — now with the Lord — told me years ago about how frustrating it was for people to come up to him and say, “It’s so terrible what so-and-so is saying about you…” or “About your sermon last week…” or what have you. He told me:
It’s not that I care about that. It’s that I care too much about it, and I’m trying not to. It’s irrelevant in the scheme of life, but it tempts me toward finding my value in other people’s approval rather than in obedience to Christ, and it distracts me from loving those people saying those things the way I want to love them. I could love them a lot easier if I didn’t know what they were saying.
I asked him why the people kept telling him what others were saying. “Well, some of them just think I’d want to know, to know they are with me and praying for me,” he said. “And a lot of time it’s just, well, human nature. Gossip is fun — and gossip about gossip is even more fun because it can let you gossip while pretending not to.”
He paused for a minute and said, “But mostly, it’s entertainment. To a lot of folks, these dramas—whether in their workplace or in their neighborhood or in their church — it’s just kind of a soap opera to them.” And then he shrugged and smiled, and went right back to what he was doing — headed to the hospital to visit the sick.
I think of him often, and wonder what he would make of social media.
Again, quarrels sometimes come, and sometimes those controversies are what it takes to be faithful to the Spirit. But just as one engaged in sexual immorality can always convince himself that this is a special case of “love,” “soulmates,” or “destiny,” the one with an unhealthy craving for controversy can always convince himself that he’s a warrior for Christ — instead of a captive to his passions.
Compassion for Those Ensnared in Sin
Knowing this requires compassion for those given to perpetual quarreling. It’s not coming from a place of strength, but just the opposite. Such compassion does not mean putting people into places of leadership or allowing them to dictate the course of a conversation — that would be as unloving and self-defeating as putting an alcoholic in charge of the evangelistic tract-distribution at the neighborhood nightclub. But the compassion should prompt us to love and pray for them even as we refuse to indulge their unhealthy craving for controversy-for-the-sake-of-controversy.
One can see the end result of this sort of life in the bitter, angry person who, like a Civil War re-enactor attempting to keep alive some memory of the past, seeks to re-create the heresy hunts where he once felt alive and valued. All the while he’s convincing himself and trying to convince others that he’s “standing for truth,” when he’s just standing for himself. He tried to control others by intimidation and fear, but those no longer work — and what he was never able to give or to receive was love.
The Spirit, after all, conforms us to Christ, uniting us to Him and shaping us into His life. Jesus was controversial, to be sure, but His controversies erupted not because of His tribalism, but because of His refusal to yield to tribalism (Matt. 21:45–22:22; Luke 4:26–28; 19:7). Moreover, when you look at the controversies Jesus sparked, it’s odd how few of them were about weighing into what those around Him were already arguing about — and there was plenty of arguing taking place.
The Zealots were against the Herodians, the Sadducees against the Pharisees, and on and on. Jesus sometimes answered their controversial questions, and sometimes He didn’t, knowing they just wanted to quarrel rather than actually engage the truth. He did provoke controversies, though, over questions not being raised at the time — whether the temple was, in fact, a house of prayer for all peoples; whether the purposes of God extended to the Gentiles; whether the Son of Man would be crucified.
In the rare moments we see anger from Jesus, it is never about protecting His own sense of worth, never about performative outrage in order to be accepted by a tribe, and certainly never about gaining power. His anger was never quarrelsome, never animalistic, never from the works of the flesh. It’s the Devil who “rages all the more because he knows his time is short” (Rev. 12:12). The Devil is a trapped animal, not a shepherd nor a lamb.
The kind of boredom and lifelessness that leads to quarreling for quarreling’s sake can mean that, finally, you find only controversy interesting — even if where you end up “on the issues” is correct. That leads to nowhere good, only to the sort of posture from which you anxiously await opportunities to trap your “opponents” in their words. Jesus endured such a mentality directed against Him (Matt. 22:15), but He never modeled it Himself.
In times like this, the pull is to let the wounded souls who are always looking to quarrel set the agenda, to which you must then respond. There will always be people saying to leaders, “Someone is saying this; you must respond.” This is to say the answer to every fire is gasoline. And yet in Scripture, Jesus is so often walking away from both the adulation of the crowds (John 15) and the quarreling agendas set by others (Matt. 26:51–56).
Removing Yourself from Foolish Controversy
The apostle Paul called for a kind of controversy to deal with those stirring up “foolish” controversies: “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him” (Titus 3:10). This is a very different kind of controversy — it starts with gentleness and reasonableness, and ends in removing oneself rather than engaging in the quarrelsomeness from the other side.
In one sense, this is a disadvantage for those seeking to be Christlike, but it’s the same sort of “disadvantage” people at a Thanksgiving table have who don’t brandish firearms and turn over the furniture to win an argument. Yes, the ones shooting through the sheetrock and screaming profanities will probably “get the last word,” but do you want to trade places with them? No. Would your conclusion be, “Next year, we are really going to need more cocaine and weaponry of our own, if we’re going to be heard”? No. You would say, “This is dysfunctional. We will be elsewhere at Thanksgiving next year and, as a matter of fact, we’re leaving now.”
Years ago Mark Noll wrote of the “scandal of the evangelical mind,” the scandal being that there wasn’t much of a mind. Perhaps now the scandal is that of the evangelical limbic system, the scandal being that the limbic system is all that’s left.
Sometimes we must be ready to “speak a word” into a controversy, but often what’s called for is for someone to model the different way of valuing his soul over having something to say. When it comes to those for whom quarreling is life, the way to win is not to win at their game, but to play a different game altogether.
Russell Moore (MDiv, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary; PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and a Council member of The Gospel Coalition. He has authored many books, including Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel (2015), The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home (2018), and Courage to Stand: Facing Your Fear Without Losing Your Soul (2020). He and his wife, Maria, are the parents of five sons.
[Photo by Headway