Compassion and Controversy
July 14, 2015
I don’t like controversy even though I write things which, judging by my inbox, get me into a little hot water now and again. We are a soft generation so I understand how any willingness to confront error or rebuke one who spreads it seems to be mean-spirited, Pharisaical, or lacking in compassion. But it seems to me that the church’s new standards for compassion are shaped more by our culture than what is actually modelled in Scripture.
Please understand that I believe God’s people ought to abound in compassion. We have been shown breathtaking compassion by our Lord most especially by his dying for our sins. Daily we are recipients of God’s compassion. So compassion ought to characterize our lives. Like God, we ought to be slow to anger and abounding in love. This should be so not just in the case of those who are kind to us but to those who have mistreated us. In fact, we owe compassion to our neighbors (all of them). As recipients of the greatest act of compassion in the history of the universe we are obliged to be overflowing in compassion to others.
But God is not merely compassionate. He is also holy and just and jealous. In our own lives compassion must not go un-complemented by biblical clarity, jealousy for God’s glory, zeal for holiness, and love for the peace and purity of the church. This is why we see many exemplary acts in Scripture that would not typically be described as “compassionate” in our day.
• Were the prophets being compassionate when they railed against the unfaithful shepherds of Israel?
• Was John the Baptist being compassionate when he called a group of sinners “vipers”?
• Was it compassionate for Jesus to publically rebuke the teachers of the law for their biblical ignorance and lack of mercy?
• Was Jesus being compassionate when he made a whip and physically drove swindlers from the temple?
• Was Jesus compassionate when he compared Peter to Satan?
• Was it compassionate for Peter to preside over the deaths of Ananias and Saphira?
• Was Paul being compassionate when he publicly named individuals who were troubling the church?
• Was he compassionate for commanding the Corinthian church to kick out a member for sexual sin and “turn him over to Satan”?
• Was it compassionate for Paul to invite the judaizers in Galatia to emasculate themselves?
I could go on but you get the picture.
I am not saying that we ought to recommend self-mutilation for every person guilty of error. But it is clear that compassion for the church and compassion for sinners will at times be expressed in strongly worded rebuke toward those who traffic in error or otherwise harm the people of God and distort the good news.
That means that compassion sometimes requires that we wade into the thick of controversy. Sometimes our presence should offer a soothing word to quiet unnecessary thunder. There are times however when a soothing word is the opposite of what compassion requires. I can think of not a single example in Scripture where those teaching error were dealt with politely. And why? Because of compassion for the flock of God. Compassion for the church will lead to clear rebuke for those who trouble her. Those are the times we discover that men who are “personally orthodox” but unwilling to contend for the truth do more damage than those who are actually peddling the error.