A Polemical Faith

Polemics has a rather bad name—perhaps not surprisingly, since it comes from the Greek word polemos, meaning “war”. Some people in particular are distressed when they see in Christian writers anything polemical or negative. Why, they ask, do these Christian writers have to denounce certain trends and ideas? Can’t we all just be positive, upbeat, and encouraging? After all, Jesus preached a Gospel of love. Can’t we just speak about things that are true without denouncing things that are false? Often such criticism of polemics combines with a kind of ad hominem attack, in which the polemical writer is reproached for a lack of charity, sympathy, and general kindness, and is portrayed as a misanthrope and as deficient in Christian spirit—despite the fact that the person launching the ad hominem broadside has no personal knowledge of the polemical writer whatsoever.

There is some value to a reluctance to engage in polemics. St. Paul cautions that the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome (2 Timothy 2:24), and must avoid stupid controversies which would be unprofitable and futile (Titus 3:9). St. James reminds us the wise man should show his wisdom in meekness, and that true wisdom is peaceable, gentle and open to reason (James 3:13,17). We all know of people who love to quarrel and are always spoiling for a fight, people who love nothing better than to correct everyone else. When we meet them online, we refer to them as “trolls”. Long familiarity with them is enough to give anyone second thoughts about the value of polemics.

But polemics in Christianity are not so easily rejected. Trolls can misuse it, but the misuse does not invalidate a proper use. The proper use we see in the words of the apostles. That is because it is not enough to simply speak the positive truth, and say that 2 + 2 = 4. Sadly the world is full of people who cannot help listening to the anti-Christian propaganda which floods our culture, and who therefore will believe that 2 + 2 also equals 5 as well. It is not logical, of course, to believe at the same time two things which are mutually contradictory and incompatible, but multitudes of people do it nonetheless. That is why good people need not only to be given the truth that 2 + 2 = 4, but also the complementary truth that 2 + 2 does not equal 5. They need not only to be given the positive truth, but also a warning not to receive error.

That is why the apostles in their epistles spent so much time warning others against error and sin. They did not simply say who Jesus was and counsel works of righteousness. They also said not to listen to those who would distort the truth about Jesus and warned them against particular acts of sin. The apostolic faith is polemical at its heart. If you doubt this, try this experiment: go through the New Testament epistles and underline everything negative, every verse in which St. Paul warns his readers to avoid error and denounces sin and heresy. You will be doing a lot of underlining.

For example, in his epistle to the Romans Paul argues with the Jews at great length; in his epistle to the Corinthians he denounces his detractors as “false apostles”, as Satan’s servants; in his epistle to the Galatians he insists that those who reject his teaching about circumcision have been severed from Christ, and fallen away from grace; in his epistle to the Philippians he calls his adversaries “dogs”, “evil-workers”, “mutilators”; in his epistle to Timothy he names names, and says to beware of “Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have delivered to Satan [i.e. excommunicated] that they may learn not to blaspheme” (1 Timothy 1:20).

And it is not just St. Paul, as if the apostle to the Gentiles were something of a humbug. St. James also denounces sin and sinners, telling them to weep and howl for the miseries coming upon them (James 5:1). St. Peter warns against sin, sinners, and heretics, describing the offenders as “bold and wilful” and as “accursed children” (2 Peter 2:10f). St. Jude’s epistle consists entirely of warning against heresy, and he describes the heretics as “waterless clouds, fruitless trees, wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame, wandering stars for whom the nether gloom of darkness has been reserved forever” (Jude 12-13). Even St. John, the apostle of love, writes that his readers must beware of false teachers, whom he stigmatizes as “antichrists” (1 John 2:18f), and he commands his flock to have nothing to do with them—not even to let them into their houses or give them a greeting (2 John 10f).

It is not as if such vociferous denunciations of sin were something foreign to the faith. Indeed, one might say that it was from Christ Himself that the apostles learned of such zeal. Christ’s denunciations of the opposing Pharisees as hypocrites, children of hell, whited sepulchres, serpents and broods of vipers are well-known (see Matthew 23:13, 15, 27, 33). Those who suggest that Christianity is about love, love, and only love speak the truth, but they do not know what love really entails. Christ and His apostles did not make such fearful denunciations in a fit of pique, but to warn off their hearers from the doom which awaited them if they refused to repent.

It is no good then demanding that polemics be avoided in Christian writing, for apostolic Christianity is polemical at its core. We should not delight in giving offense, but we dare not avoid it when it is necessary. After all, squeamishness is not one of the fruits of the Spirit. As Dorothy Sayers once said, (in her piece Creed or Chaos?), it is “a grave mistake to present Christianity as something charming and popular with no offense in it. Seeing that Christ went about the world giving the most violent offense to all kinds of people it would seem absurd to expect that the doctrine of his person can be so presented as to offend nobody”. There is nothing for it: polemics are an unavoidable component to the Christian Faith. This should not be surprising, for we are all Christian soldiers, and the Church is a Church which is spiritually at war.


  1. It takes a lot of grace and well grounded confidence to engage in a polemical discussion and keep it peaceable. From what I have heard on AFR and in my own parish, our Priests and those who work in the ministry have set for us good examples. At Church I find myself drawn to people who have an evenness in spirit, and are not highly opinionated. I pay attention to how they speak about stressful situations. They have a calmness even with adversity. I have observed this a lot in our Priest when times are rough. I hope in time (quickly!) that it will rub off on me 🙂 .
    Thank you Father…a good message for these difficult times we live in.

  2. I believe, and correct me if I’m wrong, Father, that what Paula says about what kind of heart it takes to be able to engage in polemics is the key. I was given to understand that as Orthodox, we are taught that we have to be extremely careful not to think that if Jesus overturned tables and called the Pharisees hypocrites, and many of our great saints engaged in what we might think are polemics, then we can do the same. A saint is a saint. An elder is an elder. I am neither, so though I am to imitate them in many things, in others I have to be careful, as it would not be a true imitation, but a fraud born of pride or arrogance, and leading further pride and arrogance.

    Am I mistaken?

    1. No, I don’t think you are mistaken. It is so easy to mistake our own fallen anger for “righteous indignation” when it is nothing of the kind. Part of the task of godly polemics is to make sure there is no anger when we write or speak, but that we respond in order to correct those we love. But the human heart is prone to self-deception, and one has to be very careful.

  3. This post has intrigued me. Remembering who Jesus called Satan, I see something in Paul’s letters that I think many people miss. I think Paul is separating the sheep and the goats. Jesus calls Simon the son of Jonah, Satan and Cephas, Peter. Now why would Jesus call the man born of the Man swallowed by a hug fish, numbering153–Cephas and SATAN?? Jesus says to Simon “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me. For you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” Are we all like sheep led astray…for we too are set up by the teachings of our Church to stumble over the rock the chief builders reject? Separating the followers from the leaders and strengthening the faith of leaders and followers alike while letting all grow up and mature together is what I think Paul is up to. Paul says it very well when Paul very motherly and sisterly says…My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12What I mean is this: Individuals among you are saying, “I follow Paul,” “I follow Apollos,” “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? “Then Paul goes onto talk about how worldly how Cyrenaic their outlook on life is. Remember, it is Simon the Cyrene who carries the Cross of Jesus (Mark 15:21). And it is Simon aka Peter aka Cephas who says…in Acts 4:11 “It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. 11He is ‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone.’” Thus it is that Paul like a mother says…”When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man (an adult), I set aside childish ways. 12Now we see but a dim reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. ” Love matures people and helps them resolve their differences and quarrels, gives them great worldly pleasure and lets their faces shine like the sun.

    1. Linda,
      Before even beginning to respond to one who identifies themself as a person of faith, it would help greatly if the language were common to both. Upon reading your comment, I truly had no idea what your point was. After viewing your website I now understand your perspective. In addition to being a person of faith, you also identify as a feminist. If I would have known that from the start, your comment would have made much more sense. But it is revealing that your wording seemed foreign to me. I thought about this. I should have seen through your words since I am of the generation of the 60’s where tradition was utterly rejected. I believed it and lived it. Feminist ideals were part and parcel. My journey has led me to an entirely different life and I am now an Orthodox Christian. This is my identity. Which brings me back to my point about common language. There is a thing in the Church called the Orthodox mind. This is the opposite pole of an individualistic mindset. We see ourselves as many persons in One Person and individuality can only but dissolve. As in any group who shares commonality, we also speak the same “language”, which is more that just words, it is a mindset…an Orthodox one. Upon hearing any other “language” without knowing the perspective of the one using the other language makes consequent dialogue that much more confusing.
      So now that I have figured out why I did not understand your comment I, in all due respect, have nothing further to say. Father Lawrence’s post addresses the issue of polemical discussion and I am in no way fit nor interested in defending the Church against feminist ideals.
      But your comment caught my attention Linda and caused me to think. I thank you for that and wish you the best.

      1. Paula,
        Thank you for your feedback. The insider mindset of the Orthodox mind is what non-Orthodox feminists may have trouble with. As Dr. Alexandros Papaderos points out to Robert Fulghum in his “Mirror Story,” his intent as an Orthodox theologian, philosopher and politician was to reconcile two people the German and the Cretan who were of two different mindsets. I am a United Church member and the United Church is a member of the World Council of Churches. Many United Church members do not trust the Orthodox Christian mindset because many Orthodox Christians seem unwilling to try to engage in dialogue with Christians like myself who have feminist ideals. So, thank you Paula for your candid feedback. Perhaps in the future we will find ourselves some common ground upon which to have a fruitful discussion and learn from each other about the possibility of living together in God’s house as individuals with different view points and mindsets and be one in Christ at the same time. I look forward to that day.

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