Missions and Polemics-the Language to Be Used

Rev. Kortering is a Protestant Reformed minister-on-loan to Singapore.

Polemics is the activity of Christians and the Christian church in which they expose errors which may be within the local church, in the church-world in general, or even among the heathen. It always concerns itself with differing viewpoints and calls the attention of the Christians to the seriousness of errors that may be present. It is to be distinguished from apologetics in that the latter is the science of developing proper biblical answers to wrong teachings and carefully defending the faith from error. Polemics focuses upon the actual activity of doing this. Apologetics is theory, and polemics is practice. 

This activity takes on a great urgency in mission work. There is a real temptation to go soft on differences in order to increase in number and to remove the offense of the gospel. Because of this, polemics may be entirely lacking on the mission field. It may also be that, where it is present, it is compromised.

The Offense of Polemics Today

Our readers are acquainted with the general atmosphere in the church-world today, which opposes any criticism of others and emphasizes instead ecumenism, a coming together of all faiths. A good example of this is the present discussion on "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" and, more recently, "The Gift of Salvation." Robert M. Zins describes his attendance at a recent conference of Roman Catholics and Evangelical leaders:

This meeting did not approach the expressed intent of the cover letter. It was an announcement of acceptance. It was not a dialogue to consider the merits of E.C.T. Needless to say, we felt like the proverbial jilted lover who went expecting to dialogue with his sweetheart over some flirtations from other boys only to find himself in the middle of her wedding reception. He never knew she was seeing anyone else, let alone getting married. Such is the case with Vision New England (the group working to unite Catholics and Protestants in the eastern USA). ("Anatomy of Apostasy," in the quarterly, Theo-Logical.)

In this atmosphere, we can enumerate a few reasons why polemics is taboo and hence polemical language is despised.

1.There is a horrible ignorance which pervades the church-world today. One would think that with all the theological schools scattered throughout the world, the church would be at its zenith in theologizing. Fact is that our age despises careful study of God's Word. In evangelical circles there is so much emphasis on psychology (counseling) and action programs that a careful articulation of the gospel falls into the background. People do not even know biblical terminology and do not care about carefully defined concepts. We live in an age of easy religion. It takes too much effort to expose error and defend the truth against heresy.

2.It follows from this that doctrine is also despised. The emphasis within the evangelical church world is morality and action. The church needs ministries for homosexuals, drug addicts, divorcees, and a whole list of others. Worship is coming together for "praise," and in that context the preaching of the Word of God that sets forth the doctrines and practices of the Bible is minimized. Add to this mixture the appeal of the charismatics and you have a recipe for ignorance. They avoid polemics like a plague, for it will offend people, and their mega-churches require more numbers. 

3.The shibboleth of our day is "tolerance." All criticism of others is viewed as unkind and un-Christian. We must be positive in our outlook, they say. Hence polemics is viewed as an enemy of the Christian gospel. J. Gresham Machen contended with this already in his day.

Presenting an issue sharply is indeed by no means a popular business at the present time. ...clear cut definition of terms in religious matters, bold facing of the logical implications of religious views, is by many persons regarded as an impious proceeding. But with such persons we cannot possibly bring ourselves to agree. Light may seem at times to be an impertinent intruder, but it is always beneficial in the end. The type of religion which rejoices in the pious sound of traditional phrases, regardless of their meanings, or shrinks from "controversial" matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life. (Christianity and Liberalism)

4.The language of polemics is necessarily pointed and usually sharp. True, polemics can be done in a wrong and offensive way. Sometimes it is this fact which causes missionaries to shrink from it entirely. Most of the time, however, the offense of polemics lies in the fact that one cannot do it without criticizing another's position, and this is not acceptable in today's society. All such criticism, such exposing of error, such discernment of unfaithfulness to the Scripture itself is offensive to many.

Biblical Guidance in Our Language of Polemics

As always, we should turn to Scripture to distill from its riches some guiding principles which can help us engage in polemics with proper language.

1. There is obvious use of sharp language in exposing error within the pages of the Bible. Nothing can quite match the scorching words of our Lord Jesus that were reserved for the Pharisees.

But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.... Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.... Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell? (

Matt. 23:13-33


Similar to this is the language of so many of the Old Testament prophets.

Now will I rise, saith the Lord; now will I be exalted; now will I lift up myself. Ye shall conceive chaff, ye shall bring forth stubble; your breath as fire shall devour you. And the people shall be as the burning of lime: as thorns cut up shall they be burned in the fire. (Is. 33:10-12)

No doubt we must exercise caution in making such references. Jesus knew the heart of His opponents. The prophets received direct revelation from God to speak as they did. We do not. But the point is that we must recognize that there is a place for such language when we are in similar circumstances. 

2.It follows from this that we must be controlled by love in all our polemical dealings with others. This will have a huge impact on our language as well. Extreme and harsh language will not be the norm, but the exception, reserved for certain special circumstances when we deal with "mad dogs," that is, unregenerate who oppose the truth. The reason for this is that our goal is not to destroy our opponent but to convince the gainsayers and to convert the brother who may err in his doctrine or practice. Harsh and offensive language seldom gains this end. Jesus used quite different language when he was ministering to a Pharisee who gave evidence of the grace of God (John 4). The words of the Holy Spirit through Paul remind us of this when he said, "admonish him as a brother" (II Thess. 3:15). Such love impels us to implement the words of the Wise, "A soft answer turneth away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger" (Prov. 15:1). 

3.As we engage in our polemical writings and discussions, we ought to use such language and conduct ourselves in such a way that we do it as convincingly as possible. Our goal in polemics is not simply to propagate our position in a public forum. Rather, it is to convince. This will affect our language in two ways. First, we will set forth our position as clearly as possible based upon the interpretation of the Bible and our confessions. Jesus emphasized the need for the Holy Spirit: "If ye love me, keep my commandments (Word). And I will pray the Father and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you forever, even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him, but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you and shall be in you" (John 14:15-17). With the Holy Spirit's presence we must set forth evidence of clear thinking and well-developed argumentation. Second, in upholding the truth, preserving it, developing it, and defending it, we must maintain such a manner that those who have erred will listen to these reasonings. If we use judgmental words, if we attack their person or that of their leaders, we will not convince them, we will only alienate them. If we speak out of our heart in such a manner that they know from our language that we do this in love, our writings will be taken seriously.

4.All polemics must further missions by edifying and building up the church spiritually. Defense of the faith or exposing error which generates hypocrisy among the people is obviously wrong. Such language generates a proud attitude that I or my church is right and others are wrong. Even worse, it leads to such pride that we think we are the only ones who are right. This kind of polemics does not edify. The standard test of all our activity as Christians is that we must do everything unto the edification of the brothers and sisters in Christ. This is the point Paul made in opposing excessive use of tongue speaking in I Corinthians 14:26: "Let all things be done unto edifying." That was his measure of usefulness and faithfulness in the church. If the activity did not build up the church spiritually, it was called into question. Thus with our polemics as well, if it breaks the spirit of the church because of the constant in-fighting or out-fighting, something is wrong. Polemics does not build up the church by itself. Edification comes by the faithful preaching of the gospel, which includes both instruction and comfort to God's people as well as the exposure of error. Polemics must serve the gospel preaching, not take precedence over it. It buttresses the Word preached by defending it and explaining its truth over against anyone who would find fault. This makes the believer strong in his own convictions. This helps the church understand and maintain her confession.

Conclusions to Draw

What can we learn in a practical way from these biblical principles that may guide us in our polemical style, including the language we use.

1. All errors and wrong doctrines which creep into the church are serious and threatening. There are, nonetheless, differences among these. History shows that leaders of the past have correctly engaged in heavy and solemn polemical debate with those who advocate doctrines and practices which are inconsistent with the Christian faith. Alongside of these are other disagreements which have been discussed among Christians themselves, also among Reformed believers, yet not resolved. Differences concerning baptism, hyper-Calvinism, and our understanding of the covenant are very important and must never be set aside as insignificant. Yet in our polemics we ought to realize that it is different when we engage in debate and discussion with those who want to be Christian or Reformed as much as we do, yet interpret the Bible differently. These are brothers and sisters in Christ and our polemical language must reflect this fact. We will engage in our debate by manifesting to the persons involved and to all the readers that we recognize each other as brothers in Christ and use language that demonstrates this.

2.We will recognize that there may be inclinations to err in connection with polemics, especially when we first come to the faith. First, there is the temptation to be preoccupied with polemics and to have an over-critical mentality. It is exciting to come to the faith, especially for a person to come to the Reformed faith. Suddenly everything falls into place. Many questions are answered, and it can be very heady and satisfying. This exposes a person to the danger of wanting to debate, to argue, to put down everyone. Such a person is able to quote the Bible and understand it. He has answers for every argument that anyone might put forth. He sees clearly that his former church did all sorts of things wrong and he feeds on criticism. He is quick to judge and to have no toleration for the slightest differences. Sometimes this leads to a person leaving a church or even to a church split. We know, however, that there are risks involved. Negative criticism cannot sustain a proper relationship with God. Secondly, and closely connected to the above, is what I call "the first love radicalism." I have seen this in those who come to the Reformed faith from Arminianism. I have shuddered to see how they treated their home church in the process of leaving. No language was too strong, no judgment too severe. At the same time they boast about their newfound faith and about their new church, which is so wonderful. Unless we counsel them that such behavior is reason for admonition, they will quickly take this wrong behavior into their new church home and we will rue the day we never warned them. Radicalism has no tolerance for anything except that which such individuals consider to be right. Their language is abusive and they have no sensitivity. Their skin is as thick as the shell of a turtle. In the long run they become an offense to Christ and His church. Their polemical language will ultimately betray them.

3.Polemics within the local church ought to have as its goal the removal of any wrong, whether doctrine or life. Hence, there is no place in such a setting for publicpolemics unless one is willing to walk in the proper way of Matthew 18 and follow Christ's instruction for leading the erring brother to see and confess his wrong. I remember a time when I had a young man in my congregation who thought himself to be a modern-day Luther. He poured out all his gall against our church in public writing. At the same time he refused to walk the orderly way of protest and appeal. As a result he was excommunicated from the church for the sin of schism. Polemics and its language must always seek to correct, heal, and reconcile brothers in the church. 

4.Also concerning polemics which are directed to people outside the local church communion, both public writing and speaking ought to have as its goal a personal face-to-face discussion. If we keep this goal before us, it will control our language and keep it within biblical dimensions. It is easy to write about a person in a public journal and criticize his view, but never intend to discuss it with him. The same is true with a public debate through writings. It accomplishes very little as far as reconciliation is concerned. It is far more biblical that we set as our goal that if we write about another person from another church or from a different theological perspective, that we offer sincerely to discuss this with him personally. This will be very helpful to resolve issues, or at least to demonstrate a charitable attitude that polemics is more than an impersonal debate, but should always include working at better understanding through personal discussion. This is elemental to Christianity. This will help restrain us, so that the language we use in exposing error and defending the truth will be what Christ wants it to be.

Let me close with this quote from the great polemicist J. Gresham Machen:

If the Word of God be heeded, the Christian battle will be fought both with love and with faithfulness. Party passions and personal animosities will be put away, but on the other hand, even angels from heaven will be rejected if they preach a gospel different from the blessed gospel of the Cross. Every man must decide upon which side he will stand. God grant that we may decide aright! (Address given in London entitled, "The Importance of Christian Scholarship in the Defense of the Faith.")

We trust that these few thoughts will challenge all of us, whether within the church or on the mission field, to be faithful in polemics and engage in it in the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ.