Have you ever read letters written back and forth between great Christian leaders who disagree? In those letters you’ll find well-articulated arguments, interesting theological positions and fascinating insights. You will also almost invariably find something else—you will find the flesh. It is my contention that we can fight: take a stand, articulate a position; and be right with God. But after our position is attacked, it is difficult if not impossible for us to respond to the attack and stay right with God.
We begin by stating a position. We see a problem and a principle that relates to that problem. We state our position on that problem and principle.
This is good. Although our position in a sermon or in writing may have been in response to what we believe were some serious errors, we took the position to honor God, uphold His Word, and advance His cause.
We shift to scoring points. After we have taken our position, some people disagree. They begin to express their disagreement and the following scenario unfolds:
1. There is an attack.
2. We answer.
3. We are involved in an argument.
When we stated our position, we were simply telling what the Bible said. Now, we are arguing with what someone said about what we said the Bible said. Though many of the things we say are scripturally correct, we are one step removed from the Bible because we are answering an attack rather than declaring a Bible position. Of course, our answer is answered in turn and we must answer the second attack. Now we are two steps removed from the Word of God and each further response tends to carry us farther and farther away.
It is almost unavoidable that people involved in this kind of a battle will look for ways to “score points” instead of to state their position.
Once we get involved in answering each response, the following things tend to happen:
1. Our flesh and ego get involved. We feel personally attacked and maligned. Our blood pressure rises. Our heart rate increases. Our voice may quaver a bit. We want to show someone else the letter and say, “Look what he said.” Instead of standing for Christ, we are now standing against our opponent.
2. We get off the main issue. A brother once wrote me to criticize a sermon I had preached on the issue of salvation. In one of his points he said, “The verses you sight (sic)…” You know what I wanted to do? I wanted to explain to him that there are three ways to spell cite. Sight is to see something. Site is a piece of property on which you may wish to put a building. Cite is to quote or refer to. Of course, this had nothing to do with the matter of salvation. Had I written him as my flesh wanted to, I would merely have been scoring points, telling him that at least in that area, my spelling was better than his. It might make my letter “zing” a little more, but it wouldn’t do anything for the cause of Christ.
3. We involve others. A good friend of mine wrote an article recently and passed it to a few preachers for their comment. One preacher who got a hold of it was very critical and took it to a theological seminary where he made copies and passed it out to several professors. The pastor smiled as he said to me, “There are more copies of my article at that seminary than I ever passed out myself!”
Not only do we want to score points; we want to get people on our side. The more people we get to agree with us that our adversary is wrong and we are right, the better we feel. This, too, has nothing to do with the cause of Christ.
4. We give ammunition to our adversaries. Every letter we write will contain one or more statements which can be misconstrued, misunderstood, or misapplied. Each response becomes a stockpile of ammunition for those who oppose us to shoot back at us.
5. We become like our attackers. A young man in our church became aware that a certain preacher had attacked me. He very properly sent me a kind card which he had had signed by some of his fellow students indicating love and support. Then he said, “Shouldn’t I write this guy a letter? Somebody ought to answer him. We can’t let him get away with this stuff.”
My advice to him was simple, “Shut your mouth, pass your classes, get your diploma, and go serve God. If you write an answer to that man, you have become just like him.”
Be very cautious about running battles. It is usually best not to answer criticism. Sometimes it is necessary to state our position and sometimes it is necessary to establish a record. But most often it is better not to answer the critics.
I have a standard letter that I write to those who criticize me. It says, “My dear brother, May God bless you for caring enough about me and my ministry to take the time to write. I promise you that I will consider the things you said. God bless you, Sincerely.” This is the nicest way I know of letting people know that I have received their letter and the things they were complaining about were none of their business.
Deal with principle and not with personality. When Dr. Hutson was alive, there were some who persisted in writing critical letters and articles about him. I noticed that they could never stick to the issue. They would criticize his lack of formal education. They would accuse him of being insecure. They would suggest that he wished to control all of Fundamentalism. None of these had any bearing on the issue. (I wrote a poem for Dr. Hutson which I read at his last Sword of the Lord board meeting. Part of it said, “While others stooped to calling names and questioned motive too, you only dealt with issues and each word you wrote was true.”)
Remember that building is our primary job and battling is our secondary job. Of course, we must do both. Nehemiah, however, would never have constructed the wall if all he did was battle. His main job was to build, and then when the adversary came to attack, he had the trumpet blown, the swords unsheathed and the battle joined. Our job is like that of a gardener. We are trying to grow plants. Of course, we wish to kill all the weeds that interfere with the life of the plants. We have not done our job simply because we have killed weeds. We have done our job when we have grown flowers.