Saturday, November 8, 2008


I've been thinking about the fine line between two ideas that are related but come from different ends of the same spectrum. The first is contentiousness, a quarrelsome nature -- essentially a negative and wearisome stance. The second is contending, a protecting nature -- essentially a positive and often bold stance. Christian people are commanded to avoid the former and to engage in the latter. Jude, for example, wanted to write an encouraging letter but had to change the nature of his correspondence to contend for the faith.

It was said of the English Puritan minister Jeremiah Burroughs that his heart was broken by breaches with the Church of England and that he was of a conciliatory nature. He held that minor differences that caused rigid divisions were a reflection of a wrong spirit and wrong motives. He was also exiled to Holland as a result of taking an uncompromising and principled stand in a dispute with his bishop. (Jeremiah Burroughs's "The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment" is a real treat, and filled with treasures.)

Therein, it seems to me, is the honest difference between the contentious and the contender - what is a principled stance and what is a wrong spirited quarrel? The otherwise unknown German Reformation divine Meldinius published a pamphlet that stated "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity." That extremely helpful formulation still begs the question-- what is essential (necessariis in the Latin)? Meldinius' pamphlet states: Necessary dogmas are, (1) articles of faith necessary to salvation; (2) articles derived from clear testimonies of the Bible; (3) articles decided by the whole church in a synod or symbol; (4) articles held by all orthodox divines as necessary. Not necessary, are dogmas (1) not contained in the Bible; (2) not belonging to the common inheritance of faith; (3) not unanimously taught by theologians; (4) left doubtful by grave divines; (5) not tending to piety, charity, and edification.

That's the measure -- and yet on the ground, in Manhattan today, it actually is quite hard to do what I want to do, "win the lost, bind up the brokenhearted, build up the faithful to maturity in Christ" without seeming contentious. The very presence of the congregation I serve within blocks of other churches that are finding it hard these days comes across to some as a standing rebuke to some. And so there is contending merely by existing. And a tactic in these confused days is to plead for gracious conversation all the while going ahead with the contentious actions. So the minister who is to warn people from becoming like frogs coming to a slow boil might need to shout out once in awhile.

The bold proclamation of the Gospel really must set out what is not true, as well as what is true. The negatives throw light on the positive. But this blogger finds his heart always wrestling with the question of whether to "go to the mat" on a particular issue, to disengage from a conversation that seems filled with bile, and so on. It is really a heart issue, with a prayer that I would meet my duty to stand firm for the truth, but do so with a winsome charity so that, indeed, it is possible to win some!

Your thoughts -- is your denomination in crisis? How have you found your leaders responding -- with equanimity, faithfulness, rancor?

(The link is to a video -- is the customer contentious, or contending for what is obviously right?)