Contending for the Faith
By Ron Matsen
The Letter of Jude begins with this instruction:
“Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.” – Jude 1:3
The New Gladiator Games
No one can ignore the amazing access most people have to the information made available through the Internet. From home computers to mobile devices we can post, read, and participate in the online world of digital media. For some, this tool of free exchange of ideas has become a new type of arena for private excitement and public execution. This is where ideology champions carry out their combat, cheered on by their virtual friends in the Social Media Colosseum.
Sadly, Church history is littered with the graves of those who died for having an “unacceptable faith.” The fruit of this intolerance was the bloody persecution of those with different understanding, doctrines or practices. Instead of copying the practices of our enemies who were trying to destroy the work of Christ by throwing the Christians into the Roman Colosseum, we should learn what it really means to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.”
The Question of Contention
The basic question is, what does it mean and how do we successfully “contend earnestly” as Jude suggests? Jude uses a Greek word that is only used once in the New Testament. This word comes for Greek root word ἐπαγωνίζομαι, epagōnízomai (ep-ag-o-nid’-zom-ahee) which means to “struggle, literally (to compete for a prize), figuratively (to contend with an adversary), or genitive case (to endeavor to accomplish something):—fight, labor fervently, strive.”
There is fine balancing act during any competition. You can either compete against your opponent or you co-labor with your teammates. As there are many articles already written regarding the call for all Christians to provide a defense for their faith before the opposition of the world, I have chosen to write this article about the strength that can be achieved in the Body of Christ if we learn how to contend as co-labors instead of combatants.
Having lived in New Zealand I have come to appreciate the fine heritage this country has in the sport of rugby. When their national team link arms and contend together they are a formidable powerhouse. I see this as the strength of the scrum.
King Solomon gives us another word picture of this co-strengthening process, “As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.” The thrill and benefit of this process should be the sharpening, not the sparks.
Contention that Leads to Confrontation
The apostle Paul gives an account of a confrontation between Peter and himself.
“Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy.” – Galatians 2:11–13
Here we see that Peter was called out by Paul for his hypocrisy toward Gentile believers.
What is interesting about this contention is to see how Peter later comes to the defense of Paul which indicates to me that Peter had a great admiration for Paul even after his public correction.
“Wherefore, beloved, seeing that ye look for such things, be diligent that ye may be found of him in peace, without spot, and blameless. And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.” – 2 Peter 3:14–16
Solomon said, “It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise, than for a man to hear the song of fools.” In other words, the lasting fruit of loving contention among our brothers and sisters in Christ should be admiration not animosity.
Contention that Leads to Separation
Luke records another confrontation involving Paul. This time it would be with his ministry partner Barnabas.
“Then after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us now go back and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they are doing.” Now Barnabas was determined to take with them John called Mark. But Paul insisted that they should not take with them the one who had departed from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work. Then the contention became so sharp that they parted from one another. And so Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus; but Paul chose Silas and departed, being commended by the brethren to the grace of God.” – Acts 15:36–40
One might naturally conclude that this contention led to the closer of the relationship between Paul and Mark. The fact is the opposite is true. Mark was with Paul in his Roman prison. “Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, with Mark the cousin of Barnabas (about whom you received instructions: if he comes to you, welcome him),” In his last letter to Timothy he speaks of Mark with great affections. “Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry.” I believe this shows great strength of character in these two men of God. There is no dwelling on past contentions but rather on the loving spirit of co-labors going forward in the service of their Master, Jesus Christ.
Contention that Leads to Correction
As Paul and Barnabas spread the Gospel among the Gentiles, it caused a controversy to surface within the early church leadership.
“And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question.” – Acts 15:1–2
As you read the dialogue captured by Luke in Acts 15 you will notice that a clarification of doctrine and practice was being perfected. In the end, the first Church council in Jerusalem documented their findings and sent Paul and Barnabas back to their ministry among the Gentiles. “Iron sharpened iron.” Mission accomplished.
The Language of Christian Contention
Learning to disagree in an agreeable manner with our co-labors in Christ is an artform that we can all benefit from to one degree or another.
“Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers. And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” – Ephesian 4:29–32
We all need to be mindful that the world is watching us. This is especially true when we mud wrestle each other in the open arena of the internet. Jesus made this very clear. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Paul’s prayer for his friend Philemon sums it all up for me.
“I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers, Hearing of thy love and faith, which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints; That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.” – Philemon 1:4–6
I believe that Paul is stating that in order for the communication of our faith to be effective we need to have love and faith toward ALL SAINTS.
May God keep us in the center of His mercy as we share the message of Jesus Christ to the whole world.