Controversies are embedded in our nature. The minute God created Eve to be with Adam, the potential for disagreements was born, and with it, the fixing of blame. This can be seen in Adam’s accusatory words at God when God confronted him about eating the forbidden fruit, “The woman YOU gave me (Gen. 3:12)” (italics mine).
While some controversies need to happen, others should be avoided. This is one of the reasons why Paul admonished Titus in his letter. Titus had been grappling with Christians immersed in useless controversies.
Titus 3:9 (NRSV)
But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.
Different Types of Controversies (Titus 3:8)
Six types of controversies can be taken from Paul’s admonition to Titus. These “usual suspects” can also be used as a plumb line of whether a controversy is worth the fight.
The first kind of controversy was dubbed by Paul, “stupid controversies.” The people Titus was leading were embroiled in controversies about their “roots,” whether someone’s lineage was great. They also debated on the finer points of the Torah (law). The point is that these controversies were separating them from each other and from Christ.
Some controversies were so petty that historians look back at them with morbid fascination. Hundreds of years ago, a doctrinal controversy emerged as the church was discovering how they should view God the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. This controversy involved two Greek words, “homoiousios and homoousios” (substance and essence). The controversy was so intense that historian Edward Gibbon said, “Never had there been so much energy spent on a single vowel.”[i]
There are also controversies that obsess over the origin of things. In the case of Paul’s dialogue with Titus, it was mania over Jewish genealogies.[ii] Some Jewish Christians obsessed over what famous Old Testament lineage they might descend from to the point of eclipsing their heritage in Christ. Some wondered, “Did I descend from the line of Moses or David?” We too can obsess over the origin of something, history, the birth of our country, or whether the Illuminati were really a thing. We can fixate to the point of distraction and fruitlessness.
I know a man years ago who spent eight hours a day studying controversies and conspiracy theories. To hear him speak for five minutes made you think the world is going to end tomorrow and we had all better invest in bomb shelters and nonperishable supplies.
Paul also mentions controversies that cause nothing but dissensions (Titus 3:9). These are questions that cause rifts along suspicious lines instead of questions that unify, enlighten and build. I recently spoke to a colleague who told me that a fight almost broke out at a BIBLE STUDY between two Christians who fell on the opposite sides of an issue. This is the very definition of “divisive.”
In addition to Paul’s other warnings is his charge to avoid controversies that deal with arguments about the law (politics). Jews often argued about the finer points of the law. “Who is my neighbor?” “How many times should I forgive?” “Should we honor Caesar?” Unfortunately, some Christians lose Christ in their politics; they seem to stop being Christian when issues of politics come up. Their political views can in some cases eclipse their Christian witness. Nowhere in the New Testament do you ever see the Apostles, the Disciples or any follower of Christ obsessed with what was happening in Rome’s politics. This is not to say that Christians didn’t care about what happened on the streets, in the headlines or in the economy. Their focus was on the Author and Finisher of their faith and how they might impact the world for the new and emerging kingdom. Consequently, the average follower of Christ during Paul’s time was too busy being persecuted and martyred to focus on lesser things.
Paul mentioned to his protégé Titus controversies that substitute for producing fruit. In Paul’s own words, “For they are unprofitable and worthless” (Titus 3:9). The Internet is filled with websites and YouTube channels where people squander much of their time engaging in distracting and non-productive things. You can easily get sucked into it. There is an allure and fascination to some of the discussions, but in the end, they don’t really produce any fruit in the life of the believer. They are spectacles that replace the weightier priorities of a life less lived. In the Scriptures, God never calls Christians to become embroiled in arguments; He calls them to destroy arguments (2 Cor. 10:5).
Lastly in Paul’s letter to Titus are controversies that only fuel rumors and speculation.[iii] These are “click-bait” controversies that only lure us into more and more conjecture. Does the controversy I engage in serve only to multiply rumors and speculation? Paul urged some church members to not “occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than the divine training that is known by faith. . . Some people have deviated from these and turned to meaningless talk” (1 Timothy 1: 5, 7 NRSV).
So how do we remain steady in an age of rage? In the next article, we will ask four pointed questions that help locate where we are and where we need to be when it comes to controversies.
[i] Alister E. McGrath, Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought, Second edition (Malden Mass: Blackwell Publishing, 2013), 46.
[ii]. I. Howard Marshall and Philip H. Towner, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, International Critical Commentary (London; New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), 335–336.
[iii]. I. Howard Marshall and Philip H. Towner, 336–337.