Like all married couples, my wife and I occasionally express our disagreements with a certain unhelpful zeal… In other words, we fight. However important the issue might seem at the time, we have come to realize that our disputes are often over stupid or trivial things:
Was there an episode of the Ewoks cartoon with Storm Troopers? (Yes.)
In answer to the question, “What time is it?” is there a meaningful difference between “A little after three” and “3:07”? (Not really.)
If I go into another room to get something for my wife, is this actually helpful to her if she didn’t ask for my help? (Jury’s still out on this one.)
These are the kinds of deep, confounding issues that can arise in a marriage, right? No, these are the kinds of ultimately insignificant questions that we find ourselves squabbling over mainly so we can claim the title of Rightest Person in the Room.
For some, the idea of contending for the faith feels a little like this. Indeed, if the concerns voiced by some evangelicals—particularly those who label themselves “progressive”—were any indication, it seems as though we’re spending most of our time fighting over fairly insignificant issues while overlooking more important ones. And even when the debates are centered on important matters—such as abortion or the biblical view of marriage—some are so exhausted they’ve thrown up their hands and cried, “Can’t we all just get along?”
I understand this concern. There are many times I’ve felt like this, too, particularly as I look at how we conduct ourselves online. But you know what keeps me from giving up the fight? The Bible won’t let me. And just as the Bible won’t let me give up the fight, it’s changed how I fight.
Jude: the letter that changed everything
In its opening verses, Jude’s epistle delivers an urgent appeal: all Christians are to defend the faith vigorously against those who would distort and pervert the truth of the gospel (Jude 3-4). We are all called to contend for the faith. But our contending should not be characterized by fiery polemics, even toward our fiercest opponents. Instead our contending should be characterized consistently by one thing: mercy. “Have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh,” Jude wrote (Jude 22-23).
Easier said than done, of course. Just like when my wife and I disagree over who’s the rightest person in the room, we’re going to struggle with what’s worth fighting for and what’s not. Sometimes we’re going to get it wrong. Sometimes we’re going to hurt someone else in the process. But if our contending is to be characterized by mercy, we can’t ignore our duty. We have to navigate the tension, as difficult as that may be. Here are two things to remember as we contend:
Demonstrate humility: Christians can and must contend without being contentious. Just like Jude’s audience, we have been called by, purchased by, and kept for Jesus Christ. Whatever insights we may have into Scripture are not due to our superior intellectual or moral attainments—they are gifts from God meant to bring him glory and honor (cf. 2 Peter 1:3–8). This is why, in all our contending, we must reject “an unhealthy craving for controversy” (“1 Timothy 6:4), and instead “be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:1–2).
The contentious person is simply looking for a fight. He “stirs up division … is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3:10–11). When Paul says in those same verses that we should have nothing to do with such a person, it follows that we must not be like him. Instead, we must count others as better and more important than ourselves (Philippians 2:3–4). While this is clearly a struggle for many Christians, to contend biblically is nevertheless to illuminate where unbiblical perspectives fall short without condemning, demonizing, or pretending to be superior to those who hold such views.
Love others: Contending is not about making doctrine more important than people. Jesus’ message to the church at Ephesus is instructive for us on this point. In Revelation 2, we read:
I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. (Revelation 2:2-3)
Let’s trace the history here. The Ephesians had been warned by Paul in Acts 20:29 that fierce wolves would arise from among their own number. This is exactly what Jude warned against: anti-Christian influences infiltrating the church membership. Thus forewarned, the Ephesians had tested their teachers and, by contending for the faith, had succeeded in resisting the lure of false teaching, keeping their doctrine pure. Praise God for this! Oh, that we would have more numbered among us who show that kind of care toward the teaching we allow into our midst.
But Jesus’ message to the Ephesians doesn’t stop with that encouragement. He follows it with a rebuke:
But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. (Revelation 2:4-5)
The Ephesians deeply loved the truth of the gospel, and that love overflowed toward “all the saints,” giving the apostle Paul cause to rejoice (Ephesians 1:15). Yet, it seems that despite their rock-solid doctrine and their wealth of love for one another, their hearts had become cold to the truths that had once burned so warm within them. Sam Storms, in his excellent devotional To the One Who Conquers, writes:
What we see in the church at Ephesus, therefore, was how their desire for orthodoxy and the exclusion of error had created a climate of suspicion and mistrust in which brotherly love could no longer flourish. Their eager pursuit of truth had to some degree soured their affections one for another. It’s one thing not to “bear with those who are evil” (Revelation 2:2), but it’s another thing altogether when that intolerance carries over to your relationship with other Christ-loving Christians! (p. 50)
The Ephesians were contending, yes, but without grace and love—and to Christ, that very imbalance represented a serious violation of what it means to be his followers. This should serve as a strong warning for us as we consider how we approach contending for the faith. We must not forget that there are people involved in every debate, both “those who are evil” and those who are “Christ-loving Christians.”
We often see those with whom we disagree as something close to demons, when it’s much more likely that they have been duped. To miss this is to cause two great harms:
We disserve those who need a Savior.
We dishonor and misrepresent the Savior who has positioned and prepared us to serve.
There is a tension in contending that requires us to uphold both people and doctrine. We cannot contend without love for people any more than we can contend without a love for truth. As Storms says, “Doctrinal precision is absolutely necessary. But it isn’t enough. May God grant us grace to love others with no less fervor than we love the truth.”