We see the logical conclusion of someone’s belief, and we immediately jump to accuse them of that conclusion.


The other day I wrote a summary of John Newton’s approach to controversy

Today I just wanted to talk about one more rule. This one comes from Archibald Alexander. Tim Keller has done a four part series on this same issue. (Part 1 can be found here)

But in part 2 Keller summarizes something that Alexander had to say. Here is what Keller says:

Perhaps Alexander’s most interesting rule however, was this: “Attribute to an antagonist no opinion he does not own, though it be a necessary consequence” (Calhoun, p. 92). In other words, even if you believe that Mr. A’s belief X could or will lead others who hold that position to belief Y, do not accuse Mr. A of holding to belief Y himself, if he disowns it.

Most of the of time, none of us are smart enough to see all of the pot holes and ditches our various doctrines or interpretations of passages will drop us in. This is why discussion and association with like-minded individuals is important. Others usually can see the problems with our doctrine before we can.

But far too often this rule is broken. We see the logical conclusion of someone’s belief, and we immediately jump to accuse them of that conclusion. If they claim to not hold to a particular error, then no matter how much we think their current beliefs could lead that way, we cannot say that they are already there.

I pray we will be more careful in our discussions.

A Good Disagreement

It never fails. Just a quick glimpse up and down the news feed reveals tons a disagreements. What’s more, there is usually not a lot of understanding wrapped up in those threads.

Our culture is quick to speak (read: type) and slow to hear or to even understand. Add to this our penchant for self promotion and sinful pride, and a news feed boils over with bad controversies and horrible disagreements.

Now I am not vying for no disagreements; I am after good ones. Most of the time the disagreements suffer from:

  • A useless topic (pretty much anything not theological)
  • poorly constructed arguments
  • bad form in the way of people argue.

John Newton wrote to a friend who was about to write an article criticizing another minister. (Yeah you read that right. Think about, the guy who wrote Amazing Grace is writing a letter on dealing with controversy) I think Newton’s advice needs to be repeated and heeded. Newton tells his friend to consider three things.

Consider Your Opponent

Here is what Newton has to say:

  • Pray for him before you criticize him
  • If he is a believer, be gentle because you know the Lord loves him, and the Lord has been gentle with you.
  • If he is an unbeliever, don’t believe that charge too hastily, be even more gentle.

If you write with a desire of being an instrument of correcting mistakes, you will of course be cautious of laying stumbling blocks in the way of the blind or of using any expressions that may exasperate their passions, confirm them in their principles, and thereby make their conviction, humanly speaking, more impracticable.

Consider the Public.

Newton wanted his friend to think about the various people who would read this critical article.

There will be those who disagree. Just consider the things already spoken.

There will be those who disregard religion. They may not be good judges of doctrine, but they certainly can tell tone and attitude. They expect us to act like we say we believe, but they can tell when we are being peevish, sarcastic, and biting. Write with a view that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven. (I said that last sentence, not Newton, but I think it is in the spirit of Newton)

There will be those who agree. Perhaps your writing will establish them further in their doctrine, and maybe it will show them the proper way to disagree.

Consider Yourself

To write on controversial things is both dangerous and honorable. Through confrontation many a man can be won to the truth by gentle firm appeals, but it is dangerous because it can harm you. Many have slid from controversy to pride, or anger, or running after secondary matters. So do not take offense if you are attacked. In fact, don’t mention their attack on you, simply keep to the truth.


The whole letter can be found at Ligonier Ministries, and I believe worth your time to read.