Controversy is normal and inevitable in politics, even amongst and between Christians. Politics is more often about means than ends. Politicians usually agree about the sort of society they want their nation to be but disagree about the means and policies for realising this. Political controversy is often about conflicts of interest because our interests are not identical. Politics is ultimately about the exercise of power and political parties compete electorally for power to achieve their visions for society. Lobbyists compete to influence those in office to achieve their visions. However, we live in a fallen world in which human sin sometimes corrupts how we conduct our campaigns and handle controversies with those who oppose us.
Controversy is not inherently wrong. Matthew 15:1-20 demonstrates that Jesus engaged in controversy with the Pharisees whom he accused of hypocrisy. The Council of Jerusalem was called to resolve a controversy about how far Gentile converts should obey Jewish law and traditions (Acts 21). Galatians 2:11-21 records a related controversy between the Apostles Peter and Paul. Today, it would be a sin for Christians to remain silent when we see evil being done, regardless of any controversy this causes. If politics is about choosing the values on the basis of which we are to be governed we should expect it to involve controversy. Campaigns we launch, such as a campaign to abolish or limit the scope for abortion, must expect an opposing campaign to protect a woman’s freedom to choose to abort. Moreover, Christian involvement in politics will itself be controversial for secularists who think religion is a private matter that has no place in the public square.
Notwithstanding the inevitability of controversy, it does have its dangers. Some enjoy controversy for its own sake, without regard for the consequences. In Galatians 5 the Apostle Paul describes discord, selfish ambition, dissensions and factions as acts of the sinful nature and commends kindness, gentleness and self-control as fruit of the Spirit. Believers are the body of Christ, “so that there should be no division in the body” (1 Corinthians 12:25). Those who are temperamentally confrontational need to remember this when they engage in political or any other type of controversy. There is also the temptation to ‘baptise’ personal prejudices with a dogmatic absolutism. Controversy can hurt those who are ‘thin-skinned’. It is when controversy undermines Christian unity, distorts perceptions of the faith and damages Christian mission in the wider society that it becomes a serious problem. So, whilst it is right to campaign vigorously for causes rooted in our biblical worldview and conscience, it is essential that we conduct our campaigns and handle our differences in a distinctively Christ-like manner.
Sadly, there are a few Christian organisations that are as vituperative as the tabloid press, and they ramp up in extremist language the nature of a problem and of the case they are handling. Of course they are putting their side of the case, but the media then feeds off their campaigns, and they present a damagingly negative view of Christians and the Christian faith. MPs also say that some of the rudest letters they have received have come from Christian members of the public. It seems that people with strong convictions sometimes lack civility. This is foolish because it does not help them influence politicians who do not share their convictions. To influence someone we have first to win his or her respect. Rudeness is not the way to do that. Nor is quoting a verse of the Bible to anyone who does not share our high view of Scripture. We have to persuade them in non-religious language they will understand that what we are advocating makes sense. The Bible teaches that we humans are all made in the image of God and we need to remember this when engaging in controversy with those who hold a different view to our own. As Hebrews 12:14 puts it, “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no-one will see the Lord”. That does not mean making a weak case but it does mean acting with the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
When we enter a political controversy, perhaps we should first ask what our motives for doing so are. Is our purpose to serve Christ, pursue personal ambition or win an argument at any cost? Are we acting on a God-given conviction or a personal prejudice? Do our arguments and methods reflect the values of the Kingdom of God or those of the world? Is controversy sufficiently justified to risk causing division between Christians? Could our disagreements be discussed in private, face-to-face meetings rather than public controversy? Before charging into a controversy perhaps we should ponder Oliver Cromwell’s question to his opponents, ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken.’ To think like this is to act with the biblical virtue of humility.
St Paul’s letter to Titus commends this attitude, asking Titus to remind Christians “to slander no-one, to be peaceful and considerate, and to show true humility towards all men”. (Titus 3:2) The Apostle urges us to “avoid foolish controversies” (3:9). His primary concern was with doctrinal and theological controversies that threatened Christian unity but we should be equally concerned about any controversy that divides Christians and brings the Christian faith into disrepute. The causes on which we campaign, investing our time, resources, spiritual and emotional commitment, will matter a lot to us but nothing is as important for Christian discipleship than our relationships – with God and with our fellow human beings.
Every book of the Bible teaches the importance of relationships. The Old Testament focuses on God’s choice of a people with whom he would have a particular relationship. The covenant is a relational concept. Jesus incarnation was in order to reconcile sinners to God and renew and restore his relationship with his human creatures. Christ’s summary of the Law, to love God and our neighbours, and his command to his disciples to love one another is clearly relational. Descriptions of the early Church in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37 demonstrate the practical application of this priority on relationships. The epistles also teach the centrality of relationships in Christian discipleship, especially 1Corinthians 8 and 13. It follows that a relational approach should characterize how Christians campaign and handle controversy.
There will almost certainly be Christians who disagree with the thrust of this blog. They will argue that God hates evil and we should stop at nothing to defeat it. They are convinced that ‘error has no rights’ and remind us that the Apostle Paul instructs churches to break relationships “with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler” (1 Corinthians 5:11) But he also tells Titus to have nothing to do with a divisive person (Titus 3:10) So, whilst controversy is sometimes unavoidable, even necessary and right, we should still conduct ourselves with civility and respect for our opponents, mindful of Jesus’ command to love even our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48).