Fighting for the Faith

Contend for the Faith.

Last year, I wrote an article explaining apologetics. I am excited that it sounds like we are going to have a class in the future to discuss apologetics more, especially as a tool of evangelism. Another word often confused with apologetics is polemics. This means debating with those who use the Bible to deny the faith. Historically, it dealt with views we would now call cults. Unfortunately, it seems that in even dealing with other Christians, some believers using polemics will pull out the heresy card just to win an argument. Polemics comes from a name for the god of war in Greek, polemas.  James uses it when he asks, why do Christians war with one another? (James 4:1) Polemics is for viewpoints that use Scripture in a way to deny the faith by setting up a false faith. Apologetics is for those who do not accept the Scriptures.

There is a place for polemics even though it sounds negative. Jude writes in verse 3, “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” This verse is also used to encourage apologetics, but it applies more directly to polemics. Jude encourages Christians to engage in polemics in verse four against those “who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” Apparently, these false teachers were teaching something heretical about the person of Christ that justified using grace as an excuse for sin and ungodliness. That is a serious error.

Do not Contend for Everything.

Polemics does not encourage us to have contentious spirit. Unfortunately, Christians engage in a polemical spirit with other Christians over less important matters. In another sense, polemics teaches us that we do not have to contend with everybody who disagrees with us. Dr. Al Mohler has a helpful way of helping us sort this out. He calls it “theological triage.” If you remember in the old MASH shows, the doctors would often evaluate patients outside of the surgery area to determine which patients needed attention first. This is called triage. Mohler says it is similar in theology, some issues need immediate attention, some need further attention, and some issues can wait. He uses three levels to distinguish those issues. The first level involves theology that defines Christianity such that all true Christians believe this.  Believing these determines whether a person is saved or not. Included are the Trinity, the incarnation of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, and salvation by faith alone for justification. Jude calls it “the faith” or those teachings which define Christianity. The second level involves the kinds of questions that distinguish denominations and usually involve issues about the church. We join churches based primarily on second level issues. The third level involves things of lesser importance, opinions. People going to the same church can debate these and still fellowship together. Paul uses not eating certain foods as an example in Romans 14. He calls these issues of no matter, adiaphora in Greek. We are to love each other even to the point of limiting our own legitimate freedoms if they violate another’s conscience. When someone raises their opinion to a matter of salvation, then it becomes a first level issue that needs a polemic response. In 1 Timothy 4:1-6, false teachers teach that rules about eating certain foods are mandatory for all Christians. Paul calls this “doctrines of demons.”

Assess issues as Accurate and More Accurate not Right and Wrong

While the first level teaches clearly that there are some things that are right and some issues that are wrong, not all things have to be classified as right and wrong. When it comes to levels two and three, we can classify some issue as “accurate” and “more accurate.” Let’s look at the example of Apollos who engages in polemics. (Acts 18:24ff.) He came over to Ephesus from Corinth. He is described as an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. He was fervent in spirit and taught boldly and accurately the way of God. He debated Jewish unbelievers in public and demonstrated from Scripture that Jesus is the Christ of the Old Testament.  Yet, he was “wrong” about baptism, only knowing the baptism of John. So, Priscilla and Aquila took him aside and explained the way of God “more accurately.”

Take People Aside Rather than Challenge Them Publicly

Notice first that they took Apollos aside. They did not call him out, they did not challenge him in front of others to show their theological prowess. They asked to speak with him in private. This is a good lesson for us in public teaching times like Sunday School. We should not disagree with the teacher in public unless they are denying something in the first level. If we have a different opinion about something, we should let it rest or talk about it as an opinion that is being brought up in spirit of discussion not debate. But overall, if we feel something needs addressed, we should do it in private out of love for them, the truth, and God. (Matthew 18:15)

Affirm What Is Right in Their Beliefs

Also, notice the issue was not presented as right and wrong but as accurate and more accurate. This is an example of theological triage. Priscilla and Aquila knew this was possibly not a first level issue. Still it was an important one. This approach affirms in the other person where they are right in other areas and even in the weak points. Apollos did teach baptism, just not accurately. He taught many other issues quite well like the deity of Jesus and that he is the promised Messiah.  Just think if we approached issues like this more often. Apollos listened and they maintained fellowship. How much more unity would there be among us?

Be Slow to Speak and Quick to Listen and Be Willing to Be Wrong

We need to consider Apollos before we leave this passage. He listened. “I thought I heard the Captain’s voice but it’s hard to listen while you preach.” If we think we are always right, we will not listen. Apollos was right about a lot of things in a stellar way. But he could also be wrong. If the word of God is truly our authority, then we should expect to be wrong sometimes. We should welcome it. It is a Christian virtue, not a weakness to say I am wrong and change our mind. That is not to say we are not sure about a lot of truths, we must be sure, especially the first level truths.

Strive for Unity

Christians are called to unity. We are to strive for unity. In Ephesians 4;1-6, where Paul calls us to unity, he lays out first level issues that Christians unify around. First level questions determine the people with whom we are to strive for unity. After that, we are to find as much unity as possible in second and third level questions. Matthew Henry said, “If Christians cannot agree, who can?”  Even doing apologetics and polemics is in the hope of gaining first level unity with people when they repent and believe.

But also Strive for the Truth in Jesus

Apollos did powerfully refute the Jews in public. The word could also be translated “thoroughly disprove.” They were denying that Jesus was the Savior predicted in the Old Testament. Apollos showed or demonstrated from the Old Testament Scriptures that Jesus is that Savior, the Christ. This illustrates the description given of an eloquent man competent in Scripture. We should draw encouragement from Apollos to stand up for Jesus. First level issues include: his being predicted in the Old Testament, being God who is also “with God” (the Trinity), his humanity and deity united in one person, his virgin birth, his sinless life, his real death on a cross and burial, his bodily resurrection from the dead, his ascension to heaven, and salvation through faith alone in him. What Jesus meant when he said, “and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it (the church)” is a second level issue. What he wrote in the dirt with the “woman caught in adultery” is a third level issue.

Always Speak the Truth in Love

Priscilla and Aquila did not do polemics. What Apollos did in debating the Jews was polemical because they held to the same Scriptures. What Paul did in dealing with the philosophers at Athens was apologetics. All of them are concerned with contending for and defending the truth. Yet, even our “war” is to be done in love.  To avoid war with other believers, following Dr. Mohler’s idea of triage and the adequate more adequate approach by lovingly pulling people aside, can help us properly practice polemics and maintain unity.


Brad Swygard

Brad Swygard

Brad Swygard received his two best gifts while at WTSU, his salvation and his wife, Jeanette. They have been married 31 years and have three grown children, Sarah, Joel, and John. Brad has been in the gospel ministry for 27 years, most recently as Senior Pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Dewey, Oklahoma for the last seventeen years. He graduated from WT in 1985. He received his Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary in 1990. He has started a window washing business in Amarillo while pursuing his Ph.D. in Biblical Studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City. He has been a church planter and a school principal, as well as coaching a High school speech and debate team for sixteen years. Brad likes to spend time with his wife, ride trains, hunt, fish, and train his bird dogs.

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