I recently opened my inbox to see an article by Steven Furtick asking this very question. Over at Outreach Magazine, Furtick rights:
One of the greatest things preventing many pastors and churches from reaching their optimal level of impact is their fear of controversy. . . . They avoid criticism, which no one likes to receive. But they forfeit something far greater:
Influence. You can’t have influence if you are not willing to be controversial.
Just ask Jesus. . . . If Jesus’ ministry was controversial, why do we expect ours should be any different? . . . If you want to be like Christ, expect controversy. If you’re faithful to what God has called you to do, you are going to be misunderstood. Criticized. Maybe even hated.
But don’t worry when people are criticizing you. Worry when they’re not criticizing you. Because at that point you’ve blended in too much to be worth noticing. Personally, I’d rather be misunderstood than ignored.
So how ’bout it? Should leaders be comfortable with controversy?
Should leaders create controversy?
Well, this is a subject I’ve been mulling over for some time, and more intently since reading this article.
Our controversial message
On the one hand, it’s easy to say yes, church leaders should be willing to be controversial. Those who stand up for the truth, who proclaim the gospel unashamedly will inevitably create controversy because they are holding fast to the Word of God.
“For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing,” Paul wrote in 2 Cor. 2:15-16, “to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.”
The gospel is offensive in and of itself because it confronts us with an accurate view of ourselves—we are faced with the truth that we are hopelessly lost in our sin. We have exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worship and serve created things instead of our blessed Creator (Rom. 1:25). Left to our own selves, we are idolators whose hearts are so deceitful and corrupt we cannot even rightly evaluate ourselves (cf. Jer. 17:9).
There is no darker picture of the truth of humanity than the one we see in the Scriptures, and yet no brighter hope for our reconciliation with God. God isn’t content to leave us to our own devices to make ourselves right with Him—the price is too high, the debt is too great!
So instead, He does it for us—the Father ordains our redemption; the Son accomplishes it in His perfect life, death, and resurrection; and the Holy Spirit applies it to us, bringing life to the spiritually dead, renewing our hearts and minds in Jesus Christ.
So, if that’s the message we proclaim, absolutely it’s going to be controversial… and we should absolutely embrace the controversy that comes from it.
Our uncontroversial attitudes
As clearly controversial as our message is, the Scriptures make it clear that Christians are to be decidedly uncontroversial in our approach to our calling. Consider what a brief survey of Paul and Peter’s epistles reveal on this matter:
…let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. (Col. 3:15)
…aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs… (1 Thessalonians 4:11)
An overseer must be above reproach . . . sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable . . . not quarrelsome… (1 Timothy 3:1-3)
[Christian leaders are not to have] an unhealthy craving for controversy . . . and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. (1 Timothy 6:4-5)
Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us. (Titus 2:7-8)
a person who stirs up division . . . is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned. (Titus 3:10-11)
…let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. (1 Peter 3:11)
…in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect. (1 Peter 3:15)
Whether inside or outside the Church, the apostolic witness is consistent and clear: Christian leaders, and indeed all Christians, are to be pursue self-control, peacefulness, and be above reproach (that is, beyond criticism, especially from unbelievers).
Just because Jesus was controversial…
The trouble with Furtick’s argument in his article is its flawed approach. It represents, at best, a half-truth.
Was Jesus controversial? Yes.
Why? Not because He was dangerous in the earthly sense.
Remember, Pontius Pilate found no fault with Him; He wasn’t a political upstart or a revolutionary in that sense. The danger Jesus represented was (and is) in His complete denunciation of our futile attempts to earn our own salvation and for His repeated declarations of His divinity.
There’s nothing more dangerous and nothing more controversial than that.
But here’s the thing… we don’t get to be controversial the way that He was.
We can’t make the claims that He did and we cannot perform the deeds that He did.
The danger of a half-truth comes when it’s presented as a whole truth. When that happens, a half-truth becomes a whole lie.
For the Christian, our call is more like that of John the Baptist—Jesus must increase, but we must decrease (John 3:30). It’s a call to humility. We don’t sacrifice influence by rejecting the notion of creating controversy. We increase in godliness as we consider others more significant than ourselves (Phil 2:3).
The only controversy that should ever come from our ministry is the faithful proclamation of the gospel. But anything else—if our methodology is stirring up division within the body, if our attitudes are creating cause for concern among believers and confusion among unbelievers, then we’ve not only missed the point, we’ve revealed we’re not fit for the ministry.
Controversy is not always wrong, but it’s pursuit is never to be commended. Influence is not wrong, but it is not something we, ultimately, can earn. It’s a gift from God given in whatever measure He deems fit. Steward what you have well and let Him worry about the rest.