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The Ethics of Controversy – What TO Do5 min read

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Resurgence is quickly becoming one of my favorite blogs, due to the depth of thought and the spirit of the site.  And this week, they published On The Ethics of Controversy (PDF), a really nice examination of why, regrettably, controversy is necessary when you are handling truth, but that acrimony is NOT necessary.  I have summarized his article below, but left out his many good examples, so it is really very much worth a full read.

INTRO:  Controversy, or debate and discussion, are the MEANS to unity and truth

We are unlikely to make progress without controversy….We do not simply hope for the day in which all will be absolutely in one accord. No, we seek by means to bring “every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5)….

What is needed is … a way
to carry on controversy with a minimum amount of damage to his opponent
and to the interested bystander and the maximum amount of good to the
cause of God and truth.


1. Show Respect for the Persons with Whom You Differ

[Christians of differing theological bents] should treat each other more like brothers in Christ and less like adversaries or even heretics.

Of course, such respect should also be extended to non-Christians with whom we are arguing.  But be sure to see the balance in “What NOT to do” in Part II of this essay.

2. Give Your Opponent Accurate Definitions of Your Key Ideas

It may be laid down as a rule, with tolerable confidence, that the
absence of accurate definitions is the very life of religious
controversy. If men would only define with precision the theological
terms which they use, many disputes would die. (Bishop J.C. Ryle)

The author astutely notes that in communication, we are also hindered by two other human factors – our finitude (we have limits on our ability to understand and empathize), and our sinfulness (which clouds our judgment and motives).

3. When in Doubt, Put an Orthodox Construction on Your Opponent’s Words

If you think about what another has said, you may often realize that it
is not objectionable after all. To put it another way, our first
impressions of others’ language, like our first impression of others’
persons, is often inaccurate.

4. Never Attribute to Your Opponent More Than He Asserts

We think we see where his statement is bound to take him, to decide
that he has already come to these apparently logical conclusions. You
know the kind of thing we say: “If he believes “A,” then he must
believe “B” and “C” also.” But we must sternly discipline ourselves to
avoid drawing conclusions about what our opponent must believe. This
point has been put forcefully by Andrew Fuller, the nineteenth-century
Baptist theologian:

[P]rinciples and their consequences are so suddenly
associated in the mind, that when we hear a person avow the former, we
can scarcely forbear immediately attributing to him the latter. If a
principle be proposed to us for acceptance, it is right to
weigh the consequences; but when forming our judgment of the person who
holds it, we should attach nothing to him but what he perceives and

5. Suspect a Man’s Judgment Before You Suspect His Sincerity

To have unclear judgment is an intellectual problem to which no
guilt necessarily attaches (though it may). But to distrust someone’s
sincerity is to strike at the heart of his moral character. Yet nothing
is more common in controversy than for opponents to disparage each
other’s integrity. This is a sin against charity at the very least,
unless the grounds upon which it is done are beyond question.

It is no small thing, of course, to throw doubt on a man’s ability
to reason�it should never be done lightly. But that is often what
honest controversy is about. Our errors of logic are frequent and “very
pernicious,” to borrow Jonathan Edwards’s phrase in the quotation
above. We do one another a loving service when we are able to point out
such fallacies.

This reminds me of one of my favorite aphorisms:

Never attribute to malice what can be accounted for by ignorance.

I think that Jesus showed this type of kindness in the extreme, when on the cross He said, “Forgive them father, for they know not what they do.”  Amazing.

6. Be Ready to Believe That the Truth Is Larger Than You Have Understood It to Be

Somewhere years ago I ran across the following statement: “You are
more likely to be right in what you assert than in what you deny.”
Statistically I don’t know whether the author of that statement was
right or wrong, but eventually it opened up a new world to my pinched
powers of reason. It brought me to the conviction that heads this
section. The truth on any subject is likely to be larger than I had
imagined it could be.

The determination not to learn from others often accompanies the certainty that we are right.

In Part II, I will review the author’s conclusions about the limits of the principles above, and what NOT to conclude or think these things mean.