To Contend without being Contentious

Matthew 12:25
And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand:’

When members of the Body of Christ mark out one another as opponents in the spiritual battle, the contentious seeds of division take root and begin to produce bitter, rotten fruit. The Bible reveals how to contend for the faith according to the will of God, and how not to.

Here in Matthew the Lord warns us that a house divided against itself shall not stand. The spirit of contention is on a mission to turn love to hate, peace to bitterness and grace to conditions of intolerant conformity. If a small local church does not heed the above warning, it is on a path of broken hearts leading to desolation.

We live in a competitive society and are thus well adapted to all the elements of contending in the race to receive the prize. In business, politics, and athletics, we recognize the need for teamwork and internal harmony to achieve our goals. Likewise in the Church.

Contentiousness seizes upon one’s desire for righteousness and pushes it too far. It fosters the “my way or the highway” attitude. It leads to prejudice, intolerance and persecution. Contentious people find reassurance among those of their own ilk. They entertain the false notion that proving how wrong an opponent is affirms how right they must be. This practice is especially evident in American politics.

We are far too quick to criticize undesirable behavior in the Church. We forget that we are called to forbear one another in love as we endeavor to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.

The January/February 1999 issue of The Contender focused on the meaning of the word “contend” in Jude 3: “…that ye should earnestly contend for the faith….” We learned that “contend” is translated from the Greek word epagonizomai (which means to contend as a combatant, for or about). This is a very righteous aspect of our walk in faith. It is harbored in the love of God, anchored in hope and does not focus on the problem but rather on the solution, which is embodied in the Lord Jesus Christ.

The word “contentious” is an altogether different matter in the Christian faith. It is translated from the Greek word erithea and is a very subtle yet powerful weapon in the arsenal of unrighteousness. Erithea is a devilish wisdom that may dwell in one’s heart and is always outside of the will of God. It is disobedient to the truth and destructive to the Body of Christ. It is an evil spirit of envious rivalry and selfish ambition, producing a burning passion to bring harm to an opponent. Erithea produces a stubborn and exaggerated sense of self-righteousness that makes it difficult for its subject to see he is in error.

An amusing bumper sticker reads: “People who think they know it all are especially annoying to those of us who do.” That statement reeks of contentiousness. First, it divides people into two groups: us and them. It makes it clear that both sides think they are right and the other is wrong. Naturally, each of us assumes it is we who really know it all.

Underlying this arrogant stance is the subtle presence of annoyance. This annoyance will nag at the heart of those who harbor it until it “justifies” one maliciously lashing out against the disagreeable party. People lashed out in this way against Jesus. People lashed out in this way against the Apostle Paul. Perhaps they have lashed out against you. Perhaps even you have lashed out against a fellow saint out of a misguided sense of righteous indignation. The sad thing is that they were lashing out against one of their own. Jesus was attacked by the Jews. Paul was attacked by the Christians. Yet both set a strong example of godliness as they contended for the faith without being contentious. They overcame evil with good, speaking the truth in love and allowing nothing to stop them from doing so.

Philippians 1:15 and 16
(15) Some indeed preach Christ even of envy and strife [eris]; and some also of good will:
(16) The one preach Christ of contention [erithea], not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my bonds

Yes, the Apostle Paul was confronted by Christian opponents. Here the Word of God declares that their preaching (at least in part) was motivated by a desire to bring distress to the imprisoned man of God. Yet the faithful servant of the Lord does not strive. Rather than contend against the contentious, Paul chose to rejoice that Christ was being preached, whether in pretense or in truth. However, he embraced those who preached Christ out of love.

Are you, dear saint, in the loving embrace of the will of God? Contentiousness robs the Church of grace and peace and fills it with instability and every evil work.

James 3:14-16
(14) But if ye have bitter envying and strife [erithea] in your hearts, glory not and lie not against the truth,
(15) this wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, and devilish.
(16) For where envying and strife [erithea] is, there is confusion [akatastasia: instability, turmoil, anarchy] and every evil work.

The presence of envy and strife should sound an alarm in the heart of the spiritually-minded saint. The Word of God is clear. Erithea is associated with EVERY EVIL WORK. As much as contentiousness is harmful to the Church, it is most harmful to those who harbor it. Romans addresses this problem with great clarity:

Romans 2:7-10
(7) To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory, honor, and immortality, eternal life:
(8) But unto them that are contentious [erithea], and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath,
(9) Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile;
(10) But glory, honor, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile.

There was a major contention between the Jewish and Gentile members of the early Church. The book of Romans wastes no time in showing the believer that we are all in the same boat. None of us is in a position to wield condemning judgment upon another. God is not mocked. We shall reap what we sow.

This truth is sandwiched in the context of God rendering to every man according to his deeds (Rom. 2:6) and that there is no respect of persons with God (Rom. 2:11). Our God looks on our heart. He knows if we are proceeding with patient continuance in well doing; or out of contentiousness. This deep issue of our heart is exposed in our relationships with one another, especially with brethren whose behavior or beliefs we may find to be unacceptable or disagreeable.

The good news concerning Jesus Christ is that he destroyed our differences on the Cross. Jesus Christ is our peace, having reconciled us all together in himself through his redeeming blood. If we are strong in faith; then we are able to receive a brother who may be weak in the faith with the same lovingkindness that the Lord of Peace received us. We do not strive against him, but seek to restore our brother to the faith in the spirit of meekness.

Those who are contentious are disobedient to the truth. As they obey unrighteousness, their course becomes ruled by revengeful emotions. Their indignation simmers and stews over things that bother them and bursts forth with angry wrath at the slightest provocation. This ultimately leads to the restrictive pressures of tribulation and anguish that imprison the soul.

The Bible makes it very clear that this devilish attitude must not be entertained.

Philippians 2:3
Let nothing be done through strife [erithea] or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.

“Nothing” means nothing! In contrast we are directed to the mind of Christ who chose to conduct himself as a humble servant.

Philippians 2:4-6
(4) Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.
(5) Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
(6) who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God.

If ever a man was in a position of knowing how right he was and how wrong other people were, it was Jesus. Yet he chose not to beat them into submission.

Philippians 2:7 and 8
(7) But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:
(8) and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

1 Peter 2:15-16 and 21-23
(15) For so is the will of God, That with well doing [shades of Romans 2] ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: [now that is how we contend for the faith]
(16) As free, and not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as servants of God…
(21) For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow His steps:
(22) Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth:
(23) Who, when He was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, He threatened not; but committed Himself to Him That judgeth righteously.

What puts to silence the ignorance of men? Reviling? Threatening? Bitterness? Wrath? Clamor? Evil speaking? Maliciousness? No. Patient continuance in well doing puts to silence the ignorance of men. That is speaking the truth in love. That is the heart of contending for the faith.

May God grant us the grace and wisdom to strive lawfully in the spiritual battle we are engaged in, recognizing that our enemy is not our brother, so that we may overcome evil with good. May our efforts serve to edify the Body of believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, our Prince of Peace. May God’s unfailing and unconditional love prevail in our hearts in all knowledge and judgment as we approve those things that are excellent.

Philippians 1:10 and 11
(10) That we may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ;
(11) being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God.

A Non-Contentious Response

I appreciate the basic thrust of this article, and I certainly agree with the author that we are to “contend” without being “contentious.” I believe, however, that he could have been more specific on certain points. I think it must be made clear that we are in a “Word War” against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph. 6:12). This war can and must be aggressively fought with the sword of the spirit while maintaining the attitude Jesus Christ had in doing the same thing. Our battle is not with people, per se, but with the Devil and evil spirits. This battle is for keeps, and words are the “flaming arrows” and the “sword.”

Once you lay that groundwork, then you can talk about the proper attitude with which to contend aggressively, that is, not being contentious or out to pick a fight. “Contentious” is a modifier. What needs modifying is the way we contend, and with whom. As the author recognizes, that we are to contend is a biblical given.

The first paragraph of the article could confuse people when they compare it to Romans 16:17, which specifically says, in regard to believers, to “mark out” those who are causing division. Of course, that same verse gives the standard by which we do this — the Apostle’s doctrine. The first key to “marking and avoiding” someone is to discern that he is teaching things contrary to the truth. Without an emphasis on the absolute necessity to adhere to the unwavering standard of the Word, that might not happen. Though our battle is spiritual, it is people who are the vehicles of both truth and error. God minces no words in setting forth the necessity to both identify those who are contradicting His Word and confront them in love with the truth. But beyond identifying and confronting, nothing is said about totally shunning, ignoring or abusing the person. Love is still the order of the day, even if it is “tough love.”

In regard to Philippians 1:15 and 16, it is a given that “Christ” is being preached. The motive for the preaching is the only variable. This passage does not justify excusing false teaching because of the sincerity of the teacher. Actually the opposite is the case. The point of these verses is that accurate preaching concerning Christ is more important to God than the motive of the preacher. When Christ is accurately preached, Paul rejoices, even if he is victimized by contentiousness.

In regard to the Apostle Paul’s response to those trying to add affliction to his bonds, the author wrote, “Yet the faithful servant of the Lord does not strive.” This phrase is part of 2 Timothy 2:24 in the KJV, where “strive” (machomai) means “to fight in war or battle; to oppose.” We could understand this word as “quarrel,” along the lines of being contentious. A look at 2 Timothy 2:24-26 will reveal that a spiritual leader is to “gently instruct” in the truth even those who are contentious. Again, our “quarrel” is with the father of lies and his lying spirits, not the people themselves. However, sometimes we must “get in the face” of a person who is under the influence of a spirit or the doctrines of demons, and to the untrained eye it may look like we are being contentious. Jesus certainly minced no words when dealing with the Pharisees, who, he said, were “of their father, the Devil.”

After quoting Romans 2:7-10, the author wrote: “None of us is in a position to wield condemning judgment upon another.” The context of these verses is specifically regarding Israel’s “snooty” attitude of judgment toward the Gentile “dogs.” In the surge toward ecumenism at all costs in the Church today, one of the lies being promoted is that Christians are not supposed to “judge” one another. I wrote an article called “To Judge Or Not To Judge? That Is The Question.” I point out that the Bible most certainly does says that we are to judge, because if we do not, we cannot discern truth from error. There are two aspects to sound biblical judgment. First, we are not to judge by our own human standard, but by the Word of God, which judges all things. Second, we are to hold our judgment in humility and not arrogance, willing to be proven wrong.

It seems clear in Scripture that it is those who refuse to believe the truth who often are the cause of division (e.g., Acts 7:51,52;14;ff). To the spiritually untrained eye, however, it looks as if it is caused by those who are speaking the truth, as in the case of Jesus, who actually said that he came to “divide” people one from one another. The line of demarcation between people was the truth, as people chose where they stood in regard to it — either in faith or unbelief.

It certainly is possible to have the truth and be contentious about it. I have at times certainly been that way in my zeal for what I have believed to be the truth. In fact, I have learned much in the past few years about maintaining my convictions while lovingly engaging in dialogue with contentious people. It is my experience, however, that those who oppose the truth are far more often the contentious ones than are those who know and speak the truth.

Countless times Christians have been accused of being “divisive” when all they were doing is preaching the truth. The fact of the matter is that there is no way that all Christians will ever get along, and so we must stay on the path of truth, knowing that those who hunger and thirst after righteousness will join us. If we stand on the Word, we will be joined there by others desiring to do likewise. That is the message of 1 Corinthians 1:10; Acts 2:42; Ephesians 4:4-6, etc.

After quoting 1 Peter 2:15, that by “well doing” we put to silence the ignorance of foolish men, the author then said, “That is how we contend for the faith.” I think we need to clarify this. “Well doing” is not just to do good deeds, independent of speaking the Word. 1 Timothy 1:3-5 speaks loudly in this context. Every time I read those verses I am amazed at the charge given to Timothy to go up to people teaching error and say, “Hey, knock it off.” Of course, he also showed them the truth from the Word so that they could change their minds if they wanted. I doubt if all of them heeded his admonition, but what I am saying is that we must include boldly speaking the truth in love in the definition of “patient continuance in well doing.”

I am thankful to the author for the work he did in reminding all of us to have the heart of Christ toward all our brethren, even if they are being contentious.

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  1. Thank you both the writer of this commentary and also the one who committed…God bless you both Im very greatful. Ive been in some tough situations wantimg to understand what contentiousness looks like to identify any in myself and how to continue forward. Recently I dealt with a contentious issue and person I was not so soft and felt down thinking I was rather quite possibly out of order to some degree. The Lord had said I cant always handle that type of situation and person with kit gloves

  2. ALL of this is GREAT and a needed read for me… God bless you both… I appreciate the wisdom on how to contend, the light that was placed on my own contentious ways and the explanation of the charge to preach truth with the heads up that we can still be viewed as contentious while simply carrying out that responsibility. Again, GREAT read!

  3. What a very inspired writing

    Loved this

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