The Evangelist & Controversy

The Evangelist and Controversy

Harry Pickup, Jr.


Each Christian is called to “controversy,” being commanded both to “put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph. 6:11) and to “contend earnestly for the faith” (Jude 3). Evangelists are given particular responsibility to “war the good warfare” (1 Tim. 1:18; 6:12) and behave as “good soldier(s) of Jesus Christ” (2 Tim. 2:3).

The adjective “good” is sometimes translated as “honest” (Lk. 8:15) and “honorable” (Tit. 3:8, 14). It may sound strange to describe “war” and “soldiers” as “honorable,” but such is the nature of the controversy authorized by our “Captain,” Jesus Christ.

I do not claim to be a paragon of this instruction. My purpose is to set forth what the Scriptures teach on this subject so that we may all remember, ponder and improve our work.

Controversy is indigenous to the faith of Jesus Christ, and the faithful cannot avoid it. To attempt to avoid it is an act of disloyalty to our Creator and Savior and the neglect of one’s voluntary duty as a Christian. This proposition is true because of the nature of the faith of Jesus Christ. His faith is based upon truth – the reality of what is; therefore, it is absolute and immutable. Consequently, truth is always in controversy with diversity. No charge is more serious than, “maintain the faith.”

Controversy is justified for the following reasons: First, Jesus Himself was an absolutist –  “I do nothing of myself, but as the Father taught me I speak these things” (Jn. 8:28), and absolutism invites controversy. He taught in absolute propositions: “no one cometh unto the Father but by Me” and “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (Jn. 14:6). And “if ye abide in My word, then … ye shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn. 8:32). He taught “either/or” choices: “God or mammon,” narrow or broad way,” “true or false prophet.” His teaching was the foundation for the safe and secure life (Mat. 7:24-27). Any other teaching leads to disaster.

From one point of view, Jesus is the “Prince of peace,” (Isa. 9:6-7), peace being the object of His rule and His life being the model of His title. From another point of view, and from His own testimony, “I came not to send peace, but a sword … to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother” (Mat. 10:34-39).

Second, Jesus’ gospel is unique – one of a kind. It is to be “contended” for in its unchangeable state (Jude 3). Any variation from the “sound words” and “doctrine of our Lord Jesus Christ,” is unsound, erroneous, being productive of schismatic controversy (1 Tim. 6:3-5). If either angels or men brought “another gospel” they were to be treated as “accursed” (Gal. 1:3f). To “preach, receive or accept a different gospel, Jesus or spirit,” was evidence of Satan’s crafty corruption (2 Cor. 11:3f).

Third, those who originally revealed and preached Jesus’ saving gospel often found themselves in controversy because they “declared” the truth. They “reasoned” (debated) in synagogues and public forums (Acts 16-19) on behalf of the unchangeable reality. For example, Paul “fought the good fight” (2 Tim. 4:7) “casting down imaginations and every high thing exalted against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 10:3f), yet he did not “war according to the flesh.” In three epistles to younger evangelists, Paul reminded them of their accepted duty to controvert error and wickedness.

Paul’s preaching was not “yea and nay, but in Him is the yea” (2 Cor. 1:9); that is, his proclamation was not one thing and another. The “Son of God, Jesus Christ” and His “promises” were preached so that you are able to say the “Amen” (2 Cor. 1:20). By this the Corinthians acknowledged the immutability of what “we preached and you believed.”

The facts and the truth of the gospel are not what they are because of circumstances. They are not susceptible to compromise and synthesis. Neither time, culture, nor circumstances are permitted to change the salvific message. Any attempt to vary the teaching is to be resisted – “guard that which is committed unto thee … oppositions of knowledge which is falsely so called … some have erred, concerning the faith ” (1 Tim. 6:20-21). The changeless faith is the means to trust.

Features of the “Good Warfare” 

            First, this war is tri-dimensional. One, it is fought “within” the soldier himself – between his two “minds, flesh and spirit” (Gal. 5:16-6:1). Two, the war is with those who are “without” –  between the soldiers of Christ and “the spiritual hosts of wickedness and darkness in heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12), including men who are under the control of wicked spiritual personalities (2 Tim. 2:26). Three, it is fought “among” Christians – between some whose minds are willing to be constrained by Jesus’ revealed faith (1 Tim. 6:3f) and those who would broaden the boundaries of “faith which comes by hearing the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:16). The latter soldiers cause division and build “parties” among brethren (2 Pet. 2:1-2).

These controversies are between opposing mind-sets. Between those minds who “hear us” – Christ’s chosen and inspired witnesses (1 Jn. 4:6) and those minds “taken captive” by the “snare of the devil” (2 Tim. 2:26). The “good soldiers” in these controversies fight with the honor which is characteristic of Him in whose spiritual image they have been made; they are “ new m[e]n” ( Eph. 4:20-24). The victor of the conflict “within” determines the honor with which one “controverts” in the other two dimensions.

The “good soldier” is both “in the spirit” and “the spirit of God” is “in him” (Rom. 8:9). And, “if any man hath not the spirit of Christ he is none of His.” The spirit of Christ in him is the “new man” – “renewed in the spirit of your mind.” It is not the personality of deity which dwells in him, but the”new man” whom God has “created in holiness and righteousness of truth” (Eph. 4:20-24). He is consequently a new creature (creation) in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:17). He is not merely improved; he is “new.” Thus he “fights the good war” as a “good soldier” of Christ.

The war “without” is not against “flesh and blood” but against evil spirits who live without bodies dwelling in heavenly places, whose commander is the “god of the world” (2 Cor. 4:4), who use human “captives,” “snared by the his (i.e., the devil’s) will” (2 Tim. 2:26), to oppose and harass God’s people. This was is fought against fleshly minds exalted against the knowledge of God and bunkered in strongholds of human reasoning. Peter hints of this in his epistles; John graphically describes it in his Revelation.

The war “among” is fought against those who both “pervert the gospel” and turn His grace into lasciviousness (Jude 4). They appear as “ministers of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11:13) but are actually “false apostles” – deceitful workers, who fashion themselves as apostles of Christ. This should be no surprise since their leader, Satan, “fashion(s) himself into an angel of light.” Others create divisions (Tit. 3:10) and draw “away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:30).

Controversies “within” and “without” are natural ones given the nature of the personalities, while the war “among” is contrived and unnecessary. There is no justifiable reason why brethren have to be in controversy with each other.

Not all disagreements “among” brethren are equal to war. Scripture teaches that toward some “who are in doubt” (“while they dispute with you,” margin) “have mercy” (Jude 22). Those who are in danger of “fire,” we are told to “save, snatching them out of the fire”; toward those who wear a “garment spotted by the flesh,” we are warned to have mercy with fear” (Jude 23).

Secondly, the “good warfare” is a spiritual controversy; it is not a “flesh and blood” conflict. It is between God and the “god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4). It pits divine revelation against human “reasoning.” “High things” which exalt themselves against the “knowledge of God” versus all thoughts being in “captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5-7). It is a battle for the minds of men. The battle is joined between God’s expressed will and human wisdom.

Thirdly, the weapons in the “good warfare” are spiritual rather than carnal (2 Cor. 10:3-4). Only spiritual weapons can accomplish spiritual ends. They are “mighty to the casting down of strongholds.” Victory in this controversy does not depend upon human stratagem nor mental acumen.

Not all carnal weapons are material in nature, such as bullets and bombs. Some carnal weapons are psychological in nature, such as slander and invective. Certain brethren used the carnal weapon of slander against Paul. They misinterpreted his statement, “but where sin abounded, grace did abound more exceedingly” (Rom. 5:20), to mean, “let us do evil, that good may come” (Rom. 3:8). Then, they “reported that Paul “affirmed” their interpretation. Paul called this “slander.” Attempting to uphold truth with slander is both sinful and counter productive to the purpose of truth. 

Fourthly, the object of the “good warfare” is always salvific, rescuing those in sin. While God has already “judged” the leaders of the war “without,” His mercy endures toward sinful men: “not withstanding that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).

God has removed the unrepentant and grossly immoral person from His fellowship and has commanded the brethren to act likewise (cf. 1 Cor. 5:2-6). While delivering such a one unto Satan for “the destruction of the flesh,” Paul’s ultimate object was that “ the spirit may be saved.” Timothy’s duty in Ephesus was to rescue those “out of the snare of the devil,” who “[had] been taken captive by him unto his will” (2 Tim. 2:26). Again, when the Thessalonians were commanded, “withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly” (2 Thes. 3:6), the action was in hopes of their restoration (2 Thes. 3:15).

Paul, the “Good Soldier”

 No soldier of Jesus Christ was more of a “good soldier” than Paul. It was always his “aim (goal, ambition, point of honor) to be well pleasing unto Him” (2 Cor. 5:9) who had “enrolled him” as a soldier.

When fighting his war “within,” he went to great lengths to keep his body (“flesh”) in subjection (1 Cor. 9:27). When in a controversy “among” brethren, he honorably resisted Cephas to the face “before them all” (Gal. 2:1-14). Because Cephas “walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel,” dissimulation occurred in an apostle, a trusted brother, and a close companion. Interestingly, this incident is recorded in a book which contains some of Paul’s most loving concerns for unity among brethren: do not “bite and devour one another” and “love thy neighbor as thyself” (Gal. 5:14-15).

Even when engaged in the war “without,” opposing both Satan and his messengers who “fashioned themselves as ministers of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11:13-15), Paul controverted honorably.

During his controversy with the Corinthian brethren, some of whom, he “had begotten in the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:14-15), Paul’s tactics were somewhat different than when he opposed “Alexander the coppersmith” (2 Tim. 4:14). To the Corinthians he emphasized his continuing love: “Our mouth is open to you,” toward you “our heart is enlarged,” “we took advantage of no man,”  “for I have said before, that you are in our hearts to die together and live together.” Whether friendly or unfriendly foe, this good soldier’s object was always to save the errorist by any honorable means. Regarding Alexander, Paul dismissed him to the Lord’s judgment because he “greatly withstood our words” (2 Tim. 4:14).

Paul taught Timothy, whom he had left in Ephesus, “to war the good warfare” (1 Tim. 1:18). He was to charge “certain brethren” to cease teaching a “different doctrine” and “giving head to fables and endless genealogies” (1 Tim. 1:3-4). Apparently, the warfare was not going as well as it should have. Consequently, Timothy was charged to “stir up his gift,” being reminded that God had not given him a “spirit of fearfulness” but a spirit of “power and love and discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7).

The ground Timothy was to hold was “the pattern of sound words which thou hast heard from me” (2 Tim. 1:13). Chapter two delineates several characteristics of the “good soldier.” He is to be courageous with courage supplied by God. His commitment includes passing on the same message to others which he had received. He is to concentrate on his own duty, avoiding entangling and distractive affairs which could lead to less than complete loyalty.

“Good soldiers,” as well as athletes, are successful only as they “contend” lawfully, to which they have agreed prior to their enrollment. To understand their duty, they need to ponder their instructions. “Hardship” is a known and anticipated part of their service.

From 2 Corinthians we can learn much about behaving as a “good soldier,” a righteous controversialist, as we read Paul’s defense of the unholy controversy brethren raised against him. They falsely questioned his apostleship accusing him of “fickleness,” being undependable and cowardly, among other things (2 Cor. 1:17-19; 12:11-13).

One, the “good soldier” does not “make merchandise of the word of God” (2:17, margin), selling it to the highest bidder. Being “of God,” he speaks “sincerely” “in Christ,” realizing that his entire life is open before “the sight of God.” Money is not the only price one may receive for making merchandise of the gospel. One may be paid with acclaim from a party, be supported by popularity from people, or be profited in being politically correct.

Two, the “good soldier” does not use subterfuge, putting his brother in the worst possible light. He does not employ “craftiness” in controversy, such as guilt by association. He does not “handle the word of God deceitfully” twisting its meaning to make a point (4:1-2). The power of the gospel is in the message, not in the artful design of the one presenting it.

Three, in controversy Paul’s primary object were the weak, deceived and unsuspecting ones. His means was the “manifestation of the truth” which he aimed at their consciences (4:1-2). Even toward deceivers he did not “ in craftiness” attribute conclusions to them which they denied taking. He controverted what was admitted by them. His honor would permit nothing less.

“Fit for the Master’s Use”

It is impossible, due to the reasonable limits of this study, to discuss comprehensively the particular characteristics needed by the controversialist in waging honorable warfare. Let it be noted that all of the qualities are needed in all three wars.

The key to honorable controversy is for the soldier to win the war “within.” Unless he “walks by the spirit,” he will have little success in the wars “ without” and “among.” I want to emphasize the controversy I have designated as “among.” The case of Timothy in Ephesus seems to me to fit that situation better than others. Therefore, I will now concentrate on 2 Timothy in which epistle Paul endeavors to equip Timothy “fit for the master’s use” (2 Tim. 2:21).

This point should not be incorrectly interpreted to mean that one should not teach against error wherever it may exist or as one has opportunity to forewarn brethren against it. It simply recognizes that churches are autonomous and fellowship is local. While truth, by its nature, is universal, fellowship, by its nature, is local.

Timothy faced two types of controversy: first, unprofitable words which subverted faith (belief of truth and trust in the Savior) and second, “foolish and ignorant questionings” which “gendered strife.” The first of these controversies were created by “profane babblings”and “ungodliness,” in this instance, affirming as fact what was a lie –  “the resurrection is passed.” This error was destructive to faith. This teaching was to be stopped (cf. Tit. 1:11).

Such errors characteristically deny facts and propositions. They rely for “proof” upon sources other than God’s inspired witnesses. See Romans 16:17-18, 2 Peter 2:1, 1 John 2:18f, 4:1-6, Jude 4 and Revelation 2:2.

It is a mistake, in my judgement, to decide about “false teaching” on the basis of its “importance.” This basis is entirely too subjective. The basis should be, is the teaching destructive to faith.

The second error Timothy faced was particularly harmful to unity, harmony, and peace among brethren. It “gendered strife.” Such errorists had been “taken captive” by the snares of the devil. They were to be “corrected” and “recovered” (“return to soberness,” margin) by “apt teaching,” the teacher being both “gentle and meek.” No doubt these brethren were under the influence of the first group. “Striving” with them would have been harmful. Little has been accomplished if the false teaching has been answered but the students of it have been lost.

In controversy “the workman of God” is to be balanced –  “handling aright the word of truth” (“holding a straight course,” margin). He is not an extremist, neither teaching less than what truth authorizes, nor teaching more than what truth permits. The scriptural controversialist understands that truth is the guide line and standard, not some one’s interpretation and application of it. His loyalty is to God and His truth. The final judgment regarding error and sin rests with God: “the Lord knoweth them that are His” (2 Tim. 2:19; cf. 1 Cor. 4:1-5). Immediate judgments of fellowship belong to “fellows” (see 1 Cor. 5; 2 Thes. 3:6-14). This duty is inescapable.

The controversialist is to keep himself free from the deciding influences of either brethren of superior value (“vessels of gold and silver”), or those of lesser value (“vessels of wood and earth”), as well as those from rank “of honor” or “dishonor.” He avoids the evils of the flesh and cultivates the highest qualities of his God-given holy spirit.

The “good soldier” holds “faith (integrity) and a good conscience” (1 Tim. 1:18-19). He can be relied upon to do his duty because he is governed by a conscience which has been educated by the word of God and honed through use.

Circumcision, A Case in Point

The controversy concerning circumcision is a clear example of “good soldiers” fighting the “among” “good warfare” (see particularly Acts 15). First, note that there was a true and salvific issue. The apostles, elders, with the whole “church” in Jerusalem identified it as “subverting your souls” (v. 24). The teaching was, except ye (Gentiles) be circumcised after the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” The teachers who came down from Judea to Antioch apparently attempted to justify their teaching as being what the Jerusalem brethren taught. The Jerusalem brethren denied that, saying succinctly, “to whom we gave no commandment” (authorization). This faith was without foundation. Again, it is demonstrated that “faith comes by hearing the word of Christ,” not by silence.

Second, observe that order was attained and maintained: “the multitude kept silence” and “held their peace,” so that the inspired teaching could be heard and considered.

Third, the issue was resolved on the basis of truth earlier made known.

Fourth, the apostles and elders did not meet to decide the truth about circumcision. That had been declared on Pentecost and acted upon in the conversion of Cornelius. The apostles and elders simply reminded all of the previously revealed will of God by appealing to prophetic testimony and apostolic precedents – the same sources for resolving all continuing controversy “among” brethren.

Fifth, this discussion had the following salubrious effects: One, the brethren came to agreement on the issue: “it seemed good unto us, having come to one accord.” Two, the brethren in Antioch, where the trouble had first surfaced, “rejoiced for the consolation.” Three, warfare ceased and unity prevailed. Compromise was unnecessary for consensus.

Personal Reflections

My life has spanned three general doctrinal controversies: premillennialism, institutionalism, and what may be called, the fellowship-diversity issue. In my judgment, I have observed three tactical mistakes common to all three controversies. If they had been avoided, possibly the results would have been different. I recognize that “these mistakes” are discerned subjectively and do not carry equal weight with the errors established directly from Scripture.

I am limiting these mistakes to doctrinal controversies. However, the same points could be made regarding moral controversies with equal justification. These mistakes, I think, were made by those who I believe held the high ground of sound teaching. They were tactical in nature rather than strategic.

One, often error was not sharply contrasted with the whole gospel. That is, the error was not clearly shown to be subversive to the “faith of Jesus.” Sometimes the controversy dealt with matters on the periphery. Many times the “audience” failed to see the point.

In Scripture, false teaching was shown to be subversive to saving faith. The face to face criticism Paul made of Peter, Barnabas, and “the rest of the Jews” consisted of their “not walking uprightly according to the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:11f). The error was not mere rudeness to Gentiles over a common meal. It contradicted “justification through faith in Jesus Christ.”

Furthermore, in the controversy about circumcision the issue was not over the act itself but what the opponents made the act to stand for – salvation. This case also undermined “justification by faith in Christ.”

Not all errors subvert the “faith of Jesus Christ.” Things identified as gospel but which lack sanction from Christ subvert his faith. Teachings which ignore the testimonies of Christ’s witnesses – “hearing us” (1 Jn. 4:6) – are matters for necessary controversy.

Two, a frequent mistake was to argue against the form of error rather than its substance. Substance has to do with concept; form has to do with appearance. All three of the before mentioned errors originated from misconceptions of kingdom, church, and fellowship, not from a mistaken interpretation of a passage.

Of course concepts must be controverted in the forms which they take. To illustrate: according to Galatians, “party-ism” is sinful. Wether it be the circumcision party, the Baptist party, the Roman Catholic party, or the conservative church of Christ party. One could oppose all of these by name, including their various doctrines and practices and still not expose the erroneous concepts that created them. The “Church of Christ” is not the right and best religious party. Conceptually, the church is obedient believers in God’s eternal purpose through Christ; it is composed of all those to whom Jesus Christ is the head of all things (Eph. 1:22-23).

Again, consider for example, the sin of lasciviousness in reference to immodest attire. The standard for determining this sin will never be the clothing of any generation of Christians, regardless of how carefully some make the argument. The substantial issue is this – does the attire pander to the lust of the flesh. The issue is – does the appearance contribute to the”lust of the flesh.”

Three, a common mistake was the subordinating of honor to victory;  win by any means. In controversy, the “good soldier” first seeks the salvation, the restoration, of the errorist and those under his influence. This story was commonly told in my youth. An outstanding debater was told that he misused a passage in meeting an error. He replied, “Did it answer the argument?” The good soldier never uses such tactics.

To use slander in defending the truth is uncharacteristic of a “good soldier.” It was used against the beloved brother Paul, and he not only condemned it but he never stooped so low himself. Even Michael the archangel did not make a “railing judgment” against the devil in his dispute with him (Jude 9). Neither did angels, “though greater in might and power,” “bring a railing judgment against them (Jude 10) before the Lord” (2 Pet. 2:11).

To assign a meaning to a brother’s position and then present it as what he said and meant is slander. It may “defeat” the brother momentarily, but it is dishonorable controversy. And those who permit such to be done without objection are participants in the sin.

Honor is a factor in holiness. The “good soldier” is set apart and consecrated unto the Lord for “warring.” In all his living he is to “show forth the excellencies” of his Creator, Ruler, and Redeemer – Jehovah the Father, Jehovah the Son, and Jehovah the Holy Spirit.

Controversy is indigenous to being a Christian. It remains a duty for us all. War against Satan and those under his control must be waged even when some soldiers behave less than honorably. Let us together ask God to help us “fight the good warfare” as “good soldiers” of God and do so with all our might.



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