Good Monday. It’s a big week for us on the podcast, with two hot topics on the table. I’ll put them back to back because they’re related to one another. Both are very relevant for this season in church life, where social media plays a large role in our culture — or at least seems like it plays a large role in our culture.
On Thursday we will look at how to best speak of cultural sins, or how to not speak of cultural sins. Paul tells us some things are so wicked they are too “shameful even to speak of” (Ephesians 5:12). So what cultural sins should we not even talk about? What does Paul mean here, and why does it matter for us today? That’s next time, on Thursday.
But today we look at the sick love of controversy — or the “unhealthy craving for controversy,” as Paul calls it in 1 Timothy 6:4. The question is from a podcast listener named Brett. “Pastor John, hello! We live in an age of controversy. And that controversy-loving spirit has come into the church. The Apostle Paul clearly warns us against people in the church who have a ‘diseased’ (nosōn) or ‘unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.’ That’s 1 Timothy 6:4–5. I’m wondering if you can lay out principles for what this ‘diseased craving for controversy’ looks like in the church today.”
I’ll try to do that in just a moment — namely, lay out some principles to try to avoid what Paul’s denouncing in these verses. But first let me say a word about what Brett calls our “age of controversy.”
He’s right, of course, but we probably shouldn’t forget that even in our own country, the bygone centuries have been just as, if not more, given to vitriolic language and controversy. And the reason I say that is just because it’s on my front burner, because I’m reading biographies. In the last, say, six months, I’ve read biographies of John Marshall (the first Supreme Court justice), Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams. And what you can’t help but notice in these really detailed, excellent scholarly biographies is how outrageous the defamation of character was in the political writings of that time. I mean, the language is every bit as vitriolic and lewd as the language we might be appalled at today.
So, that’s the first thing to say. The age of controversy is not new.
Age of Unreality
What gives this age, our present age, a new flavor is, first, how ubiquitous social media is, so that we have immediate access to as much vitriol as we would like.
And second, the excesses of sexual sin in our day are, in American history, unprecedented and outrageous, like so-called “gay marriage” and so-called “transgenderism” and so-called “health care” as we cut our babies in pieces. And the reason I put the term so-called in front of those phrases is because they don’t really exist and we should not even dignify them, as Christians, with language that gives the impression they do exist. I get really worked up about this. Some of my good friends have caved on the language issue.
There’s no such thing as a marriage between two men or two women; it does not exist. There’s no such thing as a man becoming a woman or a woman becoming a man; it does not happen. There’s no such thing as health care that consists in killing unborn children. Those are simply not realities. Naming them “marriage,” “transgender,” “health care” does not make them what they aren’t. And these are just some of the kinds of sins that are rampant in our day — not to mention the love of money, which has probably sent more people to hell than all the sexual sins combined, and racial sins, and nationalistic and ethnocentric sins, and epidemics of the misuse of drugs, and on and on and on for our age.
So, every local church — I am getting to the issue of controversy in the church — needs to affirm its biblical stance over against these sins. For example, at our church, Bethlehem Baptist Church, the elders labored long and hard in recent years over two extended statements regarding race and regarding sexuality. And in my judgment, they produced two very helpful documents that our church and our school, Bethlehem College & Seminary, happily embraced as where we stand. In other words, the leadership of the church shouldn’t leave their people wondering, “Where does the church stand in regard to these controversial things in our day?”
Six Traits of Controversy Lovers
But now comes the rub that Brett is talking about. Within our churches — even the clearest and the most forthright churches that have driven a stake in the ground — people have different dispositions and different instincts and different personalities that incline them in different directions concerning how frequently and how fervently and how forcefully and how harshly and how crudely cultural issues should be talked about, should be foregrounded inside and outside the church.
“There is a love of controversy that needs to be rebuked and, if necessary, removed.”
Some of these differences are quite manageable, and we just need to have forbearance and patience and forgiveness in order to get along with each other in love. But Paul, in these verses, in 1 Timothy 6, says there’s a limit. There’s a limit to how you talk about these things. There is a love of controversy that needs to be rebuked and, if necessary, removed. Here’s what he says. This is 1 Timothy 6:4–5. The person he’s concerned about is
puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy [literally sick] craving for controversy and for quarrels about words [or word fights], which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions [or conjectures about other people], and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.
Now, what I think will be useful as a diagnostic tool — first for ourselves, lest we fall into this, and a diagnostic tool for others — is to take these traits that he just described of this controversy-loving person and state the positive alternatives. And in that way, we can have something to pray toward as well as something to run away from, and we may be able to see the problems of others and ourselves more clearly. So, let me do that just briefly.
It seems to me that there are six traits of this lover of controversy that we can name and strive to avoid.
He’s “puffed up with conceit,” Paul says. The positive alternative, of course, is humility — or more specifically, a readiness to confess our limitations of knowledge and our willingness to go on learning. If a person comes off as cocky and acting like he has infallibility (as if he never makes any mistakes), you know you’re going to have a problem.
“There are people who have a morbid need to fight in order to feel significant, to feel justified, to feel safe.”
We need to cultivate in the church the profound belief that a person can be rock solid, unwavering on matters of clear biblical truth and justice and purity, while maintaining a humble demeanor. There are people, a lot of people it seems today, who don’t believe that. They think the only way to be a person of backbone is to be brash. I don’t think that’s true.
The second trait of this lover of controversy is ignorance. Paul says he doesn’t understand anything. Now, I take that to mean that when our heart is infected with this sickness of the love of controversy and with pride, even the facts that we get right will be skewed in a damaging direction, so that it can be said we really don’t understand anything. We don’t get anything right. We turn everything in a harmful direction.
Third, Paul says this person has a kind of sickness. The ESV translates it as an “unhealthy craving for controversy” and word fights. There are people who have a morbid need to fight in order to feel significant, to feel justified, to feel safe. We need discernment to recognize this kind of person. One way is to test whether there is as much praising and thanking and rejoicing as there is criticizing and complaining. Does the person love to see the beauties of God and Christ and salvation and heaven and speak of them with joy and marveling? Or does his need for a fight hinder all of that? If so, he’s not well; he’s just not spiritually well. He needs help.
Fourth, this person stirs up envy. This can happen in different ways, but one way is that lovers of controversy like to show off their verbal prowess — clever put-downs, shrewd analyses of other persons’ stupidity, ready wit, and a nimble use of culturally hip allusions. All of this is with a view to showing off that tends to make other immature people wish they could do that. That’s called envy.
Fifth, this controversy-loving person is careless with the truth. Paul says he uses “slander, evil suspicions” (or conjectures). This usually means he’s ready to believe evil of others with very little evidence. His anger at a viewpoint, which may be totally justified, causes a bias that is so strong it ceases to need truth, but only needs to show the insanity of the viewpoint. In the process, holding one right position can easily be used to justify saying other things that are not true. We need to love the truth through and through, with great earnestness.
And then finally, sixth, Paul says that this lover of controversy “imagines that godliness is a means of gain.” In other words, deep down he loves money, which Paul says later is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10) — which I take to mean that the heart that values this world, what money can buy, over Christ is the kind of heart from which all evils come. It is. Money is just the lever that such a heart pulls in order to get what it really wants, which is not supremely Christ.
I think if we mainly seek to be the opposite of this lover of controversy in these six ways, we will probably be in a good position both to recognize the error when we see it and to avoid it ourselves.