The Agora
Bible Articles and Lessons: C

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Contending earnestly (Jude 1:3)

When Jude wrote his warning to the saints of the first century, he certainly had reason to be alarmed. There seems to have been a tremendously dangerous problem at large; those who were disrupting the ecclesias were not even described as brethren; they were "certain men.... ungodly men" (Jud 1:4). Jude's other terms for them are even worse: lascivious, brute beasts, greedy, lustful, mockers, sensual. It is hard to imagine sins heinous enough among the brethren of today ever to justify such terms.

Even though Jude says that these men "deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ" (Jud 1:4), it is most unlikely that they would deny association with Christ altogether. More likely they were such as those against whom John warned in his second epistle: teachers who so confounded the nature and the work of the Saviour that in their minds the gospel message was hopelessly distorted.

In judging from the catalogue of vices of these men, and considering those with whom they were compared, it would appear that they were of the "libertine" school. To such men nothing done in the flesh was truly sin, for they possessed a superior knowledge. It was the old lie of the serpent: that there is nothing wrong in "experiencing" all aspects of life -- the evil with the good. "Let us continue in sin, that grace may abound."

"The question must be asked: were these monstrously dangerous false brethren in fellowship with those to whom Jude wrote? From verse 12 it would seem they were: 'these are a blot on your love feasts, where they eat and drink without reverence' (NEB). On the other hand in verse 19 Jude says of them; 'it is they who set up divisions.' Presumably if they were in the ecclesia it was only in order to draw it away from the faithful brotherhood into an orbit of their own in which they would be 'wandering stars' " (AE, "Problems of Fellowship in the First Century Ecclesia", Xd 108:210,211).

In such a distressing situation it is certainly understandable that Jude would rise to sound an alarm. If ever there were a time to protect the flock from the wolves, it was then.

However, considering the enormity of the errors rampant (worse, it must be admitted, than anything that has troubled the brotherhood in modern times), Jude shows a remarkable restraint in his instructions as to the type of contention to be waged. First, he emphasizes the positive actions which should counteract the evil influences:

"Build up yourselves in your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God..." (Jud 1:20,21).
And secondly, he implies that God will judge these sinners in due time; all of his examples and comparisons tending toward this view: it was God Himself who singled out the generation of Israel to die in the wilderness (Jud 1:5); it was God who sent forth the fire and earthquake against Korah and his followers (Jud 1:11). Even Michael, an archangel, does not bring a railing accusation against his adversary (whoever that might be is irrelevant to this discussion), but merely promises that God will rebuke him (Jud 1:9). These evil men against whom Jude warns were present at the "love feasts" (Jud 1:12) -- the Breaking of Bread! -- yet Jude writes not a word commanding their exclusion!

Despite the seriousness of the sins, Jude does not command a blanket disfellowship of the false teachers, much less of their deluded followers. His view is the same as that of Brother Thomas, who, in writing of the same period, stated his belief that the "Antipas" class could "contend earnestly for the faith" quite effectively and Scripturally even while continuing as members of very imperfect ecclesias (Eur 1:335).

Much more is inferred from Jud 1:3 than the context will bear. True, there are times when brethren must "contend for the faith", but must that "contention" involve the excommunication of guilty, possibly guilty, and uninformed "toleraters" alike? And how much of all the "contention" which seeks its justification from Jud 1:3 is contention for one's own views and opinions and importance rather than contention for the faith?

"It is easy for men to deceive themselves into thinking that unrighteous and unjust extremes are simply the evidence of their zeal for truth. Even a readiness to listen to the accused is regarded as weakness. Such extremists cry shame on the very effort to be fair, and in their determination to have no compromise with error they sometimes exaggerate faults, and so grossly misrepresent the objects of their attack that they become guilty of offences worse than all the error against which they are trying to fight. We must not fall into the mistake of taking an extreme view even of the extremist. God has been merciful to such men in the past, and we must be merciful now even in our thoughts. We may state most emphatically, however, that it is wrong to exaggerate the faults of anyone or to find ugly and misleading names with which to label those who do not quite see eye to eye with us. It is quite possible to be valiant for the Truth and zealous for the Lord without being unfair even to those who are mistaken, and it is always wrong to be unfair. In faithfulness we must point out the danger that in great zeal for the jots and tittles of the law men may lose sight of the foundation principles. All their faith and works may become valueless through lack of charity" (IC, "The Scriptural Principles Governing Controversy", Xd 61:344; see Lesson, Collyer on Controversy.)
It is not necessarily true, then, that all contention is proper or profitable. Jude has more to say of contention than simply in Jud 1:3: It is possible, he says, that men, in thinking they do God service, may "speak evil of those things they know not" (Jud 1:10), and in their accusations and antagonisms become as "raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame" (Jud 1:13). "Indeed there is a spirit which strives against impurity which is itself impure; furthermore where the spirit is right but the method is wrong there may be a generation of heat without light" (C Tennant, "The Epistle of Jude", Xd 104:404). James adds his voice to the same effect: "Whence come wars and fightings (contentions!) among you?" Because you are zealous to contend for the truth? Not always! "Come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?" (Jam 4:1)

We must always remember that the greatest abhorrence of sin is not necessarily found in the one who is most condemning of the sinner, and that in contention for truth the loudest and most self-confident voice is not always the best. The example of Christ should serve us well when we are faced with ecclesial problems. From him we learn that patience and tact and love and prayer are our most effective tools. We do possess a "sword", and we may finally have to use it. But let us not rush headlong into every controversy with it drawn. Like the surgeon's scalpel, it must be the last resort, after all other possible healing attempts have conclusively failed.

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