The Right Attitude Toward Theological Opponents

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

During the past couple months, I’ve had several long discussions in Facebook comment threads about a certain televangelist who was coming to Thailand to put on a big event in Bangkok.  The brothers and sisters who commented on my posts had various different approaches, both as to their thoughts on this man and his ministry, and also in their tone and manner of discussion.  Sometimes the comments were helpful and furthered meaningful discussion.  But, as anyone who has spent much time on Facebook can tell you, some comments were not so helpful.  But one thing became clear: the attitude you have towards others and the way you say something matter just as much as what you say.

In light of that, I found the following testimony about Asahel Nettleton’s attitude towards those with whom he differed to be rather instructive, and a good reminder.  Nettleton, if you are not familiar with him, was an early nineteenth century evangelist whose Calvinistic preaching resulted in many revivals with lasting fruit as he itinerated throughout New England and the mid-atlantic states.  His theology and methods came into direct conflict with those of Charles Finney and his followers.  Biographers Bennet Tyler and Andrew Bonar, contemporaries of Nettleton, said this about him:

Such being his convictions, he could not hold his peace. It was, indeed, painful to him to disagree with his brethren; but he felt himself laid under solemn obligations to maintain what he believed to be the truth, and to bear testimony against what seemed to him to be dangerous error, whatever sacrifice it might cost him. Accordingly, he said to one of his brethren: "Such is my conviction of the tendency of these views to corrupt revivals, and produce spurious conversions, that if all New England should go over, I should prefer to stand alone."

But while he was thus decided in the maintenance of his own religious opinions, he entertained the kindest feelings towards those of his brethren from whom he felt compelled to differ. He was, as has been already remarked, grieved that their influence should be exerted to promote what he considered the cause of error; and he felt it to be his duty to expostulate with them. With some of them he maintained repeated and long discussions. But he never engaged in bitter and angry controversy. He always treated his brethren with kindness. He never impeached their motives, nor depreciated their talents, nor aspersed their characters by loading them with reproachful epithets. And his brethren never doubted the sincerity of his heart, however much they may have been grieved by the alarm which he felt and expressed at their supposed errors.1

1 Bennet Tyler and Andrew Alexander Bonar, Asahel Nettleton Life and Labours (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1996), 395. 

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