Today (good Christian people), I shall declare to you the unprofitableness and shameful dishonesty of contention, strife, and argument. So, when you see (as it were, in a scene painted before your eyes) the defectiveness and deformity of this most detestable vice which so tends towards evil, your stomachs may be moved to rise against it, and to detest and abhor that sin which is so much to be hated, and so pernicious and hurtful to all.
Unity not quarrels
Among all kinds of contention, none is more hurtful than contention in matters of religion. “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies,” says St. Paul, “because you know that they breed quarrels. The servant of God must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone” (2 Timothy 2:23-24; 1 Timothy 1:4). In St. Paul’s time there was such contention and strife among the Corinthians; and at the moment we have the same among us English. For there are too many people, in alehouses or other places, who delight to propound certain questions, not so much for edification as for vainglory and showing off their cunning. And so un-soberly do they reason and dispute that when neither party will give place to the other they fall to criticism and contention, and sometimes from hot words to further inconvenience.
St. Paul could not abide to hear among the Corinthians these words of discord or dissension, “‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas’” (1 Corinthians 1:12, 3:4). What would he then say if he heard these words of contention (which are now in almost everyone’s mouth), “He is a Pharisee; she is an evangelical; he is of the new sort; she is of the old faith; he is a sound chap; he is a good catholic father; she is a liberal; she is a heretic.” O how the church is divided! O how the cities are cut and mangled! O how the coat of Christ, that was seamless, is all pulled apart and torn (John 19:23)! O mystical body of Christ, where is that holy and happy unity, without which we are not in Christ? If one member is pulled from another, where is the body? If the body is taken from the head, where is the life of the body? We cannot be joined to Christ our head, unless we are glued together with concord and love, one to another (Ephesians 4:15-16). For the one who is not in this unity is not part of the church of Christ, which is a congregation or uniting together, not a dividing.
St. Paul says that as long as there is jealousy, contention, and factions among us, we are worldly, and walk according to the flesh (1 Corinthians 3:4). And St. James says, “if you harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it… For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice” (James 3:14, 16). Why do we not hear St. Paul who urges us (when he might command us), saying, “I appeal to you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought” in the truth (1 Corinthians 1:10). If his desire is reasonable and honest, why do we not grant it? If his request is for our profit, why do we refuse it? And if we do not wish to hear his petition or prayer, let us then hear his exhortation, where he says:
“I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:1-5 NIV).
There is, he says, only one body — and one cannot be a living member of it if one is at variance with the other members. There is one Spirit, who joins and knits all things together in one — and how can this one Spirit reign in us when we are divided among ourselves? There is only one faith — and how can we then say, “He is of the old faith, and she is of the new faith”? There is only one baptism — so are not all those who are baptised, one? Contention causes division, therefore it ought not to exist among Christians who are joined in a unity in one faith and one baptism. But if we show contempt for St. Paul’s request and exhortation, we must at least regard his earnest plea in which he very earnestly charges us and summons us in this way:
“If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit” (Philippians 2:1-3 NIV).
Who, with any compassion, will not be moved by these pithy words? Whose heart is so stony that the sword of these words, which is sharper than any two-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12), may not cut and break them apart? Therefore, let us endeavour to make St. Paul’s joy in these verses complete, which shall eventually be for our great joy in another place.
Humble Bible reading
Let us so read the scripture that by reading it we may be made better livers, rather than more contentious disputers. If anything is necessary to be taught, reasoned, or disputed, let us do it with all meekness, softness, and gentleness. If anything happens to be spoken disagreeably, let one bear another’s frailty. Let those who are at fault rather amend than defend that which they have spoken amiss, in case they fall by contention from a foolish error into an obstinate heresy. For it is better, to give way meekly than to win the victory with a breach of love — which is what happens when everyone defends their opinion obstinately.
If we are Christians, why do we not follow Christ, who says, “Learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly of heart” (Matthew 11:29)? A disciple must learn the lesson of their schoolmaster, and a servant must obey the commandment of their master. “Who is wise and understanding among you?” asks St. James, “By their good conduct let them show their works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (James 3:13-17). But the wisdom that comes from above, from the Spirit of God, is simple and pure, corrupted with no evil affections; it is quiet, meek, and peaceable, abhorring all desire for contention; it is amenable, obedient, not grudging to learn and to give way to those who teach better for their reformation.
There shall never be an end of striving and contention if we contend about who shall be master and have the upper-hand in contention. We shall heap error upon error if we continue obstinately to defend that which was spoken unadvisedly. For it is certainly true that stiffness in maintaining an opinion breeds contention, brawling, and criticism which, along with other vices, is most pernicious and pestilent to common peace and quietness.
Don’t feed the trolls
Quarrels are often between two people (for no one commonly criticises themselves), and involve two most detestable vices: one is picking quarrels, with sharp and contentious words; the other is giving contrary replies and multiplying evil words in return. The first is so abominable that St. Paul says, “If anyone claims to be a brother or sister but is a worshipper of idols, a brawler, a picker of quarrels, a thief, or an extortioner, do not eat with such a person” (1 Corinthians 5:11). Consider here that St. Paul numbers a scolder, a brawler, a picker of quarrels among thieves and idolators. Less hurt often comes from a thief than from a railing tongue. For one takes away a person’s good name; the other takes away their wealth, which is of much less value and estimation than their good name. A thief only hurts the one they steal from; but the one who has an evil tongue troubles the whole town where they live, and sometimes the whole country. A ranting tongue is a pestilence so full of contagion, that St. Paul wishes Christians to avoid the company of such people, and neither to eat nor drink with them. He does not wish a Christian woman to forsake her husband, even if he is an unbeliever (1 Corinthians 7:13), nor should a Christian servant leave their unbelieving master (1 Timothy 6:1-2). He allows Christians to keep company with unbelievers. Yet he forbids us to eat or drink with a scolder, a quarrel picker.
In 1 Corinthians 6 he says this: “Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor thieves nor drunkards nor slanderers will dwell in the kingdom of heaven” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). It must be a great fault which moves and causes a father to disinherit his natural son. And how can it be otherwise, but that cursed speaking, slander, must be a most damnable sin, which causes God, our most merciful and loving Father, to deprive us of his most blessed kingdom of heaven.
Against the other sin, that is returning taunt for taunt, Christ himself speaks: “I say to you,” says our saviour Christ, “do not resist evil, but love your enemies and speak well of those who speak evil of you. Do good to those who do evil to you, and pray for those who hurt and pursue you, that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven, who causes his sun to rise on both the evil and the good, and sends his rain to both the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:39, 44-45). The teaching of St. Paul agrees very well with this doctrine of Christ: that chosen vessel of God (Acts 9:15) never ceases to exhort us and call on us to, “Bless those who curse you. Bless, I say, and do not curse. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:14, 17-18).