Seven Cautions for Eager Polemicists
“Polemic” comes from the Greek word for war. It refers to a contentious argument or controversy. A polemicist, therefore, is one who does not shy away from controversy but strenuously argues for his position, often trying to refute a rival position in the process.
I am not against polemics. It is a necessary virtue for Christians in so far as Christianity believes in the immovability and central importance of truth. Where would the church be today if Athanasius, Augustine, and Luther eschewed polemics? Christians must be willing to enter the fray and engage in controversy if they are to be faithful in a fallen world.
I also know there are many dangers with polemics. I see them in myself and can spot them (more easily, sadly) in others.
1. Polemicists can be over-sensitive to certain errors. Have you ever noticed that most Christians (at least the ones engaged in controversy) have one particular error they are particularly good at spotting? I admit that I tend to be most critical of liberal theology and liberalizing tendencies in the church. I’m sure this is owing, in part, to being taught liberal theology in college and being in a denomination where almost everyone is more liberal than I am. I think often this sensitivity to liberal trends helps me guard against error and protect others from the same. But it can also mean that I’m too quick to pounce on theological mistakes that are more in the category of “honest ignorance” than malicious mendacity. For others, it may mean they are too eager to swing a large mallet every time a little fly of Arminianism (or Calvinism) or Egalitarianism (or Complementarianism) buzzes by.
2. Polemicists can be under-sensitive to other errors. Over the years I’ve had to learn that just because liberalism is a problem, it doesn’t mean the most conservative position is always the solution. It feels safest to swing as far away from our enemies as possible, but sometimes that only serves to push us into another mistake. I’ve come to appreciate (if that’s the right word) that liberalism isn’t the only mistake bedeviling the church. Some people are loveless, some don’t pray, some can’t get along with others, some are legalistic, some are antinomian, some get off track with justification, others with sanctification, others with end times nonsense, and on and on. A good pastor, or a good Christian for that matter, must have the maturity to see that theological dangers come in many shapes and sizes.
3. Polemicists can lose all sense of proportion. We all have a tendency to lock onto our “thing,” whether that thing is gender issues, homosexuality, doodling in worship, the regulative principle, church architecture, real wine at communion, the Trinity, the ordo salutis, the poor, or seeker sensitive churches. The problem is not with having convictions on all these things. I think many of the items in the list above are extremely important. Several get to the heart of the Christian faith. The problem is when every issue becomes as big as every other issue, so that family-integration, every week communion, and justification by faith alone are all equally essential to the gospel. It’s fine for the Lord to call us to fight certain fights in our day, but we must not assume every fight is as critical as every other.
4. Polemicists can see everything through a single lens. This is true across the theological spectrum. For some people everything comes back to gender roles. That’s their bread and butter. That’s what’s wrong with the world (on either side of the issue). Everything is about the empowerment of women or the assault of feminism. Other people can’t stop railing against revivalism and Charles Finney. For still others, everything is about confessionalism, or pietism, or polity. When I dove deep into the emergent church I vowed to myself that I would not be the anti-emergent guy my whole life. I did not want to see emergents under every rock and be dropping them into sermons and lectures for the next thirty years. They weren’t that important and I didn’t want to become that imbalanced. Some of us never learn to let go of old battles and we never learn there are other things worth fighting for.
5. Polemicists can be less than careful with their attacks. There is a tendency in controversy to oppose what we shouldn’t oppose just to make sure we can oppose what should be opposed. I’ve always thought that N.T. Wright’s correctives regarding Second Temple Judaism would be more helpful if he didn’t go out of his way so often, and in my opinion so carelessly, to take swipes at imputed righteousness, the Bush administration, and anyone who has ever believed in going to heaven when you die. Just as bad are those bloggers who may or may not have an important point to make, but they always find a way to make the point with as much vitriol and alarm as possible.
6. Polemicists can give their opponents too much power over them. There are lots of people in this world and plenty of positions that really bug me. Some of them deserve to be opposed. Many of them deserve to be ignored. None of them deserve to have mastery over your life. It saddens me to see Christians who can’t seem to go a day without thinking nasty thoughts about Tim Keller, or John Piper, or Rick Warren, or the Religious Right, or Barack Obama, or Mark Driscoll, or complementarians, or homeschoolers, or TGC, or two kingdom theology, or the missional mindset, or Sovereign Grace, or megachurches, or those prickly Calvinists, or inerrantists, or your denomination, or your fundamentalist upbringing, or the church that fired you, or that one pastor who hurt you, or that one time your ex-friends were mean to you, or that school that made you wear uniforms as a kid, or whatever. Fight the good fight in the day of battle and give the rest over to God. The only thing worse than That Thing you oppose is what you are like when you can’t stop raging against That Thing.
7. Polemicists can forget that there is more to life than controversy. We can get so wrapped up in the latest blog battle or political gaffe or theological misfire by someone we’ve never met that we forget about our own kids, our own church, our own flesh and blood friends and family members. We can forget to0, that the people we are opposing are complex characters, which doesn’t mean we always have to play “nice,” but it does mean we should remember that every human being we interact with is a mess of sins and struggles and hurts and fears and bright spots and dark places. A little dignified respect is in order, for the sake of God’s image if for nothing else. And most crucially, as we look at the fine print of some present controversy may our eyes not become so squint that we can no longer behold the wonders of being God’s children and the beauties of God’s world. Let us not become morose, peevish, and small when we serve such a good God with such a great gospel and such a glorious heaven. A heaven in which Christ will be all in all, and all our polemics will be put to their just and final end.