Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. (2 Timothy 2:23-25)
I remember a classmate from junior high with a tendency to bloviate about issues and situations. (Of course, I didn’t use the word bloviate back then so this is obviously a reflection, not a journalistic retelling.) He was quoting his father who supposedly said to him, “Boy, don’t you be starting no fights. But if you get in one, you better finish it.” I always felt safe in assuming that to his father “finishing the fight” meant boxing the other guy’s ears.
Well, this philosophy operates on a strategy of meeting force with even more force. And this strategy that we are tempted to use today in less physical but equally heated situations. I’m talking about controversies and conflicts within the church.
Some people love nothing more than a good argument. Paul wasn’t afraid of controversy or confronting issues that needed to be addressed–read Acts 15 to see his willingness to contend for the sake of the gospel–but he knew that most arguments were foolish and ignorant. Writing as a senior ecclesiastical statesman, the apostle seemed unimpressed by much of the theological and philosophical wrangling of his day (2 Tim. 2:14,16).
Some of the disputes in which people engage are just unwise because they deal with tertiary and unimportant issues. Those disputes turn into divisions. People will then fight a battle to win a victory that isn’t worth the price. They will alienate spiritual brothers and sisters, derail the church from its mission, and damage God’s reputation simply because they have to have be RIGHT.
But some of the controversies are ignorant in the sense that they lack knowledge, knowledge of a better way to proceed. I’ve known leaders who figuratively burned their church to the ground over an issue in which they were but then had little left to show for it. Many times we want to do the right thing but we go about it in the wrong way.
The problem with some of these disputes according to Paul, is that they breed. We know what breeding is. It is to reproduce offspring. And many controversies reproduce negatives effects lasting for many generations. Anger and hate reciprocate and leave a trail of collateral damage. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t start the fight. By finishing it, you spawn destruction that will probably outlive you.
Paul outlines a better way. He enjoins Timothy to employ kindness and gentleness instead of a harsh insistence of compliance. Instead of launching a decisive nuclear strike on an opponent, the Lord’s servant is called to persist, to demonstrate a willingness to endure a stalemate rather than going for the kill shot, and to patiently let God work in a situation by changing hearts and subduing wills. And a shepherd, Paul reminded, must teach. He must instruct through the Word, letting the truth from its pages win the argument. Let God’s Word have the last word, rather than you.
Of course, God’s shepherd doesn’t start fights. Except in rare occasions where the truth is at stake, he usually doesn’t have to end them either. He teaches the truth, serves God’s people, and acts with gentleness and kindness.