I really don't like controversies. I know some people who love to debate, but I'm not one of them. It's not that I always try to avoid conflict, and there are times I'll jump into the fray and try to make my point. But I've been around long enough to learn that most people don't change their minds based on arguments but on persuasion.
I was thinking about this when I read the Apostle Paul's words to Timothy: "Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness" (2 Timothy 2:23-25a).
Paul's words are quite remarkable considering they are coming from someone who didn't shy away from a good fight. In Galatians 2:11 we read that Paul opposed Peter to his face, "because he stood condemned." To those who were turning to a "different gospel," Paul wrote, "Let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:8-9). Paul warned Timothy to stay away from "Alexander the coppersmith" who did him great harm (2 Timothy 4:14). Paul stood his ground and overcame that great conflict by the strength of the Lord, so that he "was rescued from the lion's mouth" (v. 17). And yet elsewhere Paul exhorted early believers not to get worked up over those who were trying to discredit him by proclaiming Christ "out of selfish ambition" (Philippians 1:17). His only goal was to see Christ proclaimed "whether in pretense or in truth" (v. 18).
When someone tries to pick a fight with you, what do you do? How do you respond? Do you jump right in with your comebacks? Do you get into defense mode and try to win the fight? Or do you avoid the fight altogether?
We learn a great deal from the way Paul responded to conflict, and how he instructed Timothy to deal with quarrelsome people.
First, is the issue about the core or about the peripheral? Paul never yielded if the issue was the core of the gospel of Jesus Christ. But Paul also recognized that some people get caught up in "foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels" (Titus 3:9), and it's not even worth engaging them in debate. As Paul wrote, "They are unprofitable and worthless" (v. 9).
Second, is the issue about you or about Jesus? When people attacked Paul, but they continued to preach Christ, he let it go (Philippians 1:18). But if they began teaching a "different doctrine" and "wandered away into vain discussion" (1 Timothy 1:3, 6), he warned that they should be rebuked sharply (Titus 1:13).
Third, is the issue going to help build up the body of Christ or tear it down? In Paul's conflict with Peter, it resulted in greater unity among church leaders and the edification of the church. However, those who followed Hymenaeus and Alexander in their dispute with Paul were tearing down the body of Christ, and Paul wrote that he "handed them over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme" (1 Timothy 1:20).
In all of this, we are instructed to be kind to everyone, patiently endure evil, and correct our opponents with gentleness (2 Timothy 2:24-25a). This is where I struggle. It's hard to be kind to those with whom I disagree. It's difficult to be patient and gentle. When someone is in "attack mode," I feel my blood pressure rise, and I too easily start to fire back with my quips, verbal defenses, and rhetoric. I need to remember that my goal is not to "win" but to edify, serve, and help people open their hearts to the One who can "grant them repentance" that they might be led "to a knowledge of the truth" and be freed "from the snare of the devil" (2 Timothy 2:25b-26).
We would all do well if we followed the admonition found in Titus 3, "to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people" (v. 2). And in case we need to be reminded as to why, Paul added, "For we ourselves were once foolish" (v. 3). At some point in your life, someone was gentle with you, and now you have the opportunity to pass it forward.