Christians are, in many respects, both-and people. We live much of life in this age in a God-designed tension. We must learn how to both encourage one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11) and rebuke one another (Titus 1:13). We must both rejoice and weep with one another — sometimes within minutes (Romans 12:15). We must live simultaneously as both sorrowful and rejoicing (2 Corinthians 6:10). We must live contentedly in both abundance and need (Philippians 4:12).
And we must learn how to be both peaceable (Romans 12:18) and contentious (Jude 3).
Whoa, contentious? Isn’t that bad? Well, at certain times and in certain ways, yes, contentiousness is very bad. But at certain times and in certain ways, it is very good. It depends on what kind of contentiousness we’re talking about. And the Bible speaks to the good and the bad.
Paul addresses one kind of contentiousness when he says, “If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God” (1 Corinthians 11:16). The Greek word he uses here is philoneikos, and it means what most of us associate with a contentious person: a carnal disposition to be quarrelsome or argumentative.
An Old Testament example of a similar kind is seen here: “It is better to live in a corner of the roof than in a house shared with a contentious woman” (Proverbs 25:24, NASB). The Hebrew word is mādônîm, and it means quarrelsome, nagging, or dissentious. It can even have violent connotations, which is why the King James translators called her a “brawling woman.”
These are bad ways to be contentious. They are not to characterize a Christian, because “the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome (machesthai, another Greek word in this vein) but kind to everyone” (2 Timothy 2:24).
So, what is kind and commendable Christian contention? We find it in Jude’s epistle:
Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. (Jude 3)
The Greek word Jude uses here is a version of epagōnizomai. And all the most credible English translations choose the word contend, because there isn’t really a better English word. It means a kind of striving in debate in order to persuade and protect, or a kind of fighting for the sake of someone else’s benefit.
If you look, you can spot in epagōnizomai the same root that produced our English word agony. This is not an argumentative, sarcastic, pugilistic, social-media smackdown kind of contending. This contending has elements of agony, distress, and anguish — things we can experience when we are engaged in a struggle that is motivated by a deep love and true kindness. And we all know that true, humble, loving kindness is not always “nice” because sometimes kindness means speaking a hard truth people don’t want to accept, or boldly refuting a false teaching that threatens to destroy others’ faith.
This is Christian contention.
When Christians Must Contend
It is true that we Christians must fight hard for peace, “striv[ing] for peace with everyone” (Hebrews 12:14). But it is also true that there are times we must contend for truth, for the love of God and vulnerable souls. And those moments of contention almost always look like we are disturbing the peace, not making it.
When are such times? In the next verse, Jude gives an example from the churches he was writing to:
For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jude 4)
There are a lot of things we are called to bear with (Romans 12:14; 1 Corinthians 13:7). But we are not called to bear with those who pervert the gospel and distort the biblical revelation of the person of Jesus Christ. Such things will bring souls to damnable ruin. We must do everything we can to live at peace with all (Romans 12:18), but we cannot live at peace with those among us who “depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1).
And such people are frequently, and in lesser and greater degrees, among us. Which means as much as we strive for peace with everyone, there will nearly always be something calling us to “contend for the faith” (Jude 3). Which also means the right kind of contentious Christians are a great mercy to the church of God.
Thank God for Contentiousness
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: . . . a time for war, and a time for peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 8). God “has made everything beautiful in its time” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). And when Christians are contentious at the right times in the right ways, it is a beautiful thing. J. Gresham Machen writes, “Every true revival is born in controversy, and leads to more controversy. That has been true ever since our Lord said that he came not to bring peace upon the earth but a sword” (Contending for Our All, 30).
Yes, this has been true. All the clarity we have on who Jesus is, what the gospel is, what the church is, and what it means to live the Christian life we owe to our courageous forebears in the faith who contended against those who were perverting the grace of God and denying the biblically revealed Jesus Christ.
Not only that, but we have the New Testament itself because of such courageous saints. As John Piper says, “If you remove the documents from the New Testament that were not addressing controversy you will, at most, have a tiny handful from the twenty-seven books” (Contending for Our All, 33).
If you had been on the ground, in the middle of such historic contending, you would have seen messy moments. The Christian contending would not have been perfect. You probably would have witnessed philoneikos and perhaps even mādônîm moments mixed in with the epagōnizomai moments. But thank God for the imperfect saints who have loved God and the church enough to be Christianly contentious when necessary.
We Christians must be both peaceable and contentious. God has made everything beautiful in its time. But before we contend, let us examine the occasion to make sure contention is called for, and examine our contentiousness to make sure it is of the godly, loving kind.