Christ the Controversialist is not one of John Stott’s most popular books, especially on this side of the pond. However, it is an excellent corrective in a world that no longer knows how to disagree and a church that no longer understands what it means to speak the truth in love. This is the first post in a series that will summarize the material from the book for an American audience.
The first essay is called A Defense of Theological Definition. Stott points out that, although the modern perception of Jesus is that he was meek and mild and tolerant and sweet, the truth is, much of his ministry was made up of controversy with other religious leaders. As evidenced by recent events such as the Elephant Room debacle, the modern church is caught up in a spirit of pragmatism that refuses to tolerate unpractical theologizing. This introductory essay is extremely useful and timely.
Stott points out that the modern world has an extreme dislike of dogmatism, yet rightly notes that as Christians who believe in a revealed word from God, we are by nature dogmatic. If there is a word from God that may be read and received, it is sin and folly not to regard it. However, this does not give us the right to be arrogant. We do not and cannot know everything, but we are called to know, live by and declare what has been revealed.
We should never be modest about revealed truth. Stott writes, “A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.” While we should be open minded, particularly about things on which scripture is not clear, we are reminded of what Chesterton wrote, an open mind is like an open mouth, it is meant to close on something solid.
The second way that Stott describes the modern world is that if people insist on being dogmatic at least they should be quiet about it. A person shouldn’t try to impress his or her brand of truth on others, or really be open about it in a public way. This is evident in the controversy at Vanderbilt University and in the strong reactions to Tim Tebow over his overt displays of religion.
The Christian, especially the Christian pastor and teacher, is expressly commanded to both teach sound doctrine and to refute false doctrine (Titus 1:9). Stott makes a helpful distinction between being tolerant in mind and tolerant in spirit. A Christian should always be tolerant in spirit, giving people the benefit of the doubt, loving people, forgiving and forbearing, etc. However, this is not the same as being tolerant of mind. We cannot be tolerant of ideas that expressly contradict God’s revealed truth.
Christ was a controversialist, he never shirked from the spirit of the age and was unafraid to challenge the religious leaders of his day. Ultimately, Stott challenges us, we must ask ourselves if we are more enamored with the love and acceptance this world offers, or the love of God and His Glory. If we love God’s glory more, we will not shirk our responsibility to speak the truth in love, even if it means engaging in controversy.
Stott finally turns his attention to the brand of ecumenical movement that seeks to close ranks in common defense against opponents of Christianity. The result of this is what Stott calls “Lowest Common Denominator” Christianity. It is the kind of Christianity that papers over deep and meaningful differences for the sake of cooperation and tolerance. It is weak and powerless because it minimizes fundamental truths for the sake of unity. He asks, “how can we expect to defeat this common enemy if we surrender the Gospel, our only effective weapon.”
Ultimately the antidote is more clearly defined terms and positions, and a robust, confessional Christianity. We need less fog and more clarity. The task of the church is to confess the truth, regardless of the spirit of the age.