For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.1 John 3:11
Christians are commanded to love one another. This command permeates through all of life and every facet of ministry. Paul commands the Corinthians church “Let all that you do be done in love.” Therefore all the ministries that are given by God to the Church fit into the framework of love. The ministry of polemics is no different.
a : an aggressive attack on or refutation of the opinions or principles of another
b : the art or practice of disputation or controversy —usually used in plural but singular or plural in construction.”
A polemicist contends for the faith. He disputes arguments leveled at the faith and refutes false teachers. He is like the Shepherd’s watchdog; he barks at wolves and warns the sheepfold to flee — when necessary he will bite.
This ministry is often criticized as unloving. Polemicists are often fancied as “unloving” or simply “disruptive”. Admittedly there are some who for love of controversy and isolation partake in the field of polemics to satisfy their blood lust for argumentation. However, it is an unbiblical character to assume all men who pursue this field of ministry are unloving, ungracious bloodthirsty beasts. In this article, I want to show how polemics fulfills love to a threefold audience.
Before I begin let me state that there is a presumption to be made: Whoever engages in polemics must be rooted in sound doctrine. The polemicist should be trained and well equipped for the work. If a man is not devoted to study than the polemicist is an arrogant lunatic trying to fight the battle for the Lord naked of all the necessary. If you want to do polemics you must be well-studied. Under the assumption that the polemicist is intellectually equipped for the work, he is performing a most loving task.
Love for God
John Calvin once said,
A dog barks when it sees that its master is being attacked. I would be a real coward if I saw God’s truth being attacked and remained quiet without making a sound.
It is love for God that drives a man to speak when his master is attacked. Perfect love casts out all fear. It was God who saved the polemicist and so his devotion to God produces a righteous hatred for that which opposes his Lord. The man whose heart is set on God will be bold in refuting liars who dishonor God. The man who has spent hours studying God will hate anything that defames the Lord. David displays this when he says, “Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way.”
but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,1 Peter 3:15
Before one is even to engage in a polemical battle he is commanded to set his heart on Christ. Only a heart set on the glory of Christ is ready for the work. It might be said that the one who engages in the field of battle for the Lord is not less loving that other saints but perhaps he has been blessed with a greater love for the Lord!
My last proof is that the word of God commands polemics (Titus 1:9, Jude 3) Jesus said, “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” Polemical ministry fulfills love for God in that it is a ministry born out of obedience to Christ’s commands. In and of itself, it is proof of love.
Love for the Church
Engaging in polemical battle is a sign of love for the brethren. A polemicist is a gift to the Church from God, a token of His love. God gave the church Pastors and endows them with a two-fold ministry:
He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.Titus 1:9
The Pastor must be equipped with sound doctrine, committed mind and heart to the Word for a two-fold purpose: to teach the people of God the glories of God, and to spot the lies of heretics that he might refute them.
Do we not see this love fulfilled in Paul as he battled the heretics infiltrating the Galatian churches? How Paul relentless rebuked the Circumcision party even calling them an anathema displays true love. It is love in action. True love warns.
Love for your Enemy
Those who commit the sin of false teaching need sharp rebuke. While Paul is on the topic of false teachers he affirms the unholy lifestyle of Cretans and he gives this recommendation to Pastors:
Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith,Titus 1:13
Rebuking an errant teacher will result in one of two things. The teacher may repent. Perhaps the man spreading false doctrine is indeed a brother in Christ. Through sharp rebuke, he may come to his senses. This was the case with Paul and Peter (Gal 2:11). When Paul rebuked Peter for living out of step in the gospel Peter repented and Paul had gained back his brother. All the Saints have the Holy Spirit who will guide us into all truth. Therefore rebuke a brother and he will flee from sin.
The second possible outcome is the teacher will not repent. This will expose him as truly a false teacher and perhaps even a reprobate. The polemicist lovingly gave the heretic a moment to repent, yet he hardened his hard and exposed his sinful condition. Paul commands that a divisive man be warned twice, out of courtesy, and if he does repent then have nothing to do with him (Titus 3:10).
Contending for the faith is thoroughly a loving activity. As long as we equip our hearts and our minds for this work love will drive us to battle. Many of the brightest lights for the Lord have engaged in the fight. Spurgeon, Calvin, Knox, Tyndale, Luther, and Edwards all engaged in polemical theology. If you have no desire to partake in this battle at least do not despise those whom God has gifted to the church for this work.
Selderhuis, H J. John Calvin: A Pilgrims Life. IVP Academic , 2010.