I’ve read a lot of leadership advice over the last number of years; some good, some… not so much. Most of the time that advice seems to revolve around how to increase our influence. At least one church leader has suggested that the reason we lack any significant influence in the larger culture is because we’re afraid of controversy. We avoid criticism, and in doing so forfeit opportunities to gain influence.1 So if we really want to gain influence, we should be be like Jesus as be willing to embrace controversy—to be controversial even at the risk of being misrepresented or misunderstood.
There’s something compelling about the idea of being the misunderstood outlier. To take great risks, say things people won’t say, do things others won’t do… to do whatever it takes to gain influence in the surrounding culture for the sake of the gospel.
But should we?
Let’s think about it.
Yes, the gospel is controversial—offensive, even
“For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life,” wrote Paul (2 Corinthians 2:15-16). If Paul describes us this way—as there being something inherently offensive about us—we should pay attention. The gospel, the “aroma of God,” is a fragrance of life to some, and death to others. To those for whom it is the fragrance of life, it’s going to be something to rejoice in. For the others—those who “smell” it as death—it is an offense.
So when you think about it from that perspective, those who hold fast to the Word of God, who are committed to the truth, to proclaiming the gospel unashamedly, will inevitably create controversy. That’s just the inevitable result.
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 (Romans 1:25). Left to our own selves, we are idolators whose hearts are so deceitful and corrupt we cannot even rightly evaluate ourselves (cf. Jeremiah 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.
If that’s the message we proclaim, yeah, it’s going to be controversial—offensive, even. And we can’t get away from it.
Yes, Jesus was (and is) controversial—just not the way most people think
So the gospel is offensive, certainly, because it hold a mirror up to our faces, and we don’t like what we see. But perhaps the most controversial thing about the gospel is the one at the center of it: Jesus. But Jesus was not controversial in the earthly sense.
Remember that, during his trials, Pontius Pilate found no fault with him. He wasn’t a political upstart or a rebellious revolutionary. 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. And there is nothing more controversial than that.
Do we get to be controversial like Jesus?
In light of that, there’s an idea out there that if our Lord was such a controversial figure, if he was the person who generated such buzz and was so misunderstood, we should be controversial like Jesus.
But this is—how do I put it—poppycock. To put it extremely generously, this notion is a half-truth. But the problem with half-truths when they’re presented as the whole truth is they become a whole lie. Yes, everything about Jesus was controversial, but when we try to be controversial, we’re rarely talking about making audacious claims about Jesus’ divinity. More often than not, it means we’re trying to stir the pot, whether by being crass, creepy or culty.2
In other words, when Jesus was controversial, it was by pointing to himself. When we try to be controversial, it’s by pointing to ourselves. The first is appropriate. The second is sinful. It doesn’t give us any influence with anyone. It just makes us look like… kind of dumb.
The uncontroversial Christian leader
Instead, if we follow the pattern of Scripture, it appears that Christians are to be decidedly uncontroverisal. Just consider this brief survey of Paul and Peter’s epistles:
…let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. (Colossians 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)
Their point is clear and consistent: Christian leaders—and all Christians—are to be self-controlled, peaceful, and above reproach. We are not to pursue not to crave controversy, nor be quarrelsome, nor proud. To more or less everything we would do to try and gain influence, the Bible says no.
Instead, our influence—whether it is significant or not—comes through humility and the pursuit of godliness. We consider others more significant than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). We don’t go out of our way to build our platforms, in the sense of pursuing celebrity. We gain influence by recognizing that we’re not a big deal, and it doesn’t matter if anyone knows us. Jesus must increase, so we must decrease (John 3:30).
The only controversy we can embrace
We ought to be very careful about how we approach controversy. It’s not something to be feared, but something to be avoided. It’s not always wrong, provided it’s based on the right thing, but we shouldn’t see it out, nor should we commend it. And influence doesn’t matter if it’s something we’ve manufactured. If our methodology is stirring up division, if our attitudes are a cause for concern or confusion, or we’re making headlines because we’re being nitwits, we’ve not only missed the point, we’re not even fit for ministry.
The only controversy we can ever embrace is that which comes from the faithful proclamation of the gospel and nothing else. If we’re going to be known for anything, let’s make it that, shall we?
An earlier version of this article was posted in 2012.