Controversy, our Conduct
Controversy is defined as, "to dispute, debate, or quarrel" (RHCD, pg. 293). The Christian is not to be contentious or a brawler (cp. I Tim. 3: 3, 2 Cor. 12: 20). Also, he is not to waste his time and energy in exchanges that are worthless and trivial (Tit. 3: 9). However, controversy is a vital and indispensable feature of pristine Christianity. Christians are commanded to "earnestly contend for the faith" (Jude 3, see addendum). Paul was set in defense of the gospel and staunchly contended for the truth (Phili. 1: 17; Acts 15). We read of controversy between Christians and non-Christians and Christians with Christians (Acts 19: 8, 9; 15: 1, 2, 5). At times, the disputation was heated (Acts 15: 1, 2, see addendum). The posture that all controversy is sinful is itself sinful. There is a time and place for controlled controversy and to deny this is to reject the scriptures.
One of the first signs of apostasy is the denial of challenge. The late Christianity Magazine was famous (or infamous) for its policy of "no rebuttals." The devil promotes the philosophy of "you cannot question or challenge one's teaching, to do so is sin." However, the scriptures do regulate controversy in that the conduct involved in disputation is prescribed.
Honesty must characterize the disputants. We must first be honest with ourselves. We practice self-honesty by examining our own beliefs. Nobility is assigned to the Bereans because they " searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so" (cf. Acts 17: 11). Self-examination is required (2 Cor. 13: 5). A number fruitlessly engage in exchanges when they themselves do not even know what they believe. We must honestly compare our beliefs with the scriptures and then with our disputant. We also must be honest in our motives. Are we differing with another because of envy or our ego? Perhaps we are offering opposition to be accepted into a clique or circle. Some, I am convinced, contend just because they like to argue (some have admitted this to me).
Do not assign unknown motives to others. Jesus was a superb debater, he not only knew the truth, but he also knew the hearts of men whom he debated (Matt. 15: 1-9, Jn. 2: 25). You and I must observe the fruit of men, unless they divulge to us their motives (Matt. 7: 16). The fastest way to preclude a discussion from being productive is to assign a sinister motive to another. "You are opposing the social gospel because there is more money for you in opposing it," sort of thing. The devil is the ultimate example of motive assignment (Gen. 3: 4, 5). Motive assignment is deflective and usually indicates there is strong probability that the one so doing has a weak position.
Do not misrepresent you opponent's position. None of us enjoy being misrepresented. The first matter of urgency is to precisely determine the position of the one with whom you are differing. Much energy is wasted in discussions that are not germane. Paul first established the teaching of certain errorists and then how their teaching deviated from the truth (Acts 15: 1, 5, 24; 11, 19, 24). Misrepresentation creates division and barriers that prevent resolution and eventuate in division. A simple example of such misrepresentation is when denominationalists persist in charging Christians with, "you believe in water salvation." One can teach the essentiality of water baptism without teaching water salvation or baptismal regeneration. However, such misrepresentation creates prejudice and diverts from the real issue, the scriptures require water baptism (Acts 2: 38, 22: 16).
Do not slander and malign your opponent. The "Golden Rule" of "whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them" applies to controversy as well. We must be very careful about ascribing ungodly conduct to others (Acts 21: 27-29). Never try to cause "truth" to prevail by unjustifiably belittling one whom you believe to be an errorist.
We must hate all error but love those teaching the error. Yes, we must hate error. The Psalmist wrote, "Through thy precepts I get understanding: therefore I hate every false way" (Ps. 119: 104). However, we must separate the one teaching error from the error (Rom. 12: 8). Another matter, we must be willing to patiently work with those who err (2 Tim. 2: 24, 25, cp. Matt. 7: 6). Remember, "Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins" (Jas. 5: 19, 20).
Addendum: W. E. Vine comments thus on "earnestly contend," "epagonizomai signifies 'to contend about a thing, as a combatant' (epi, 'upon or about,' intensive, agon, 'a contest'), 'to contend earnestly,' Jude 1:3. The word 'earnestly' is added to convey the intensive force of the preposition." (Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words.) A. T. Robertson explains the intensity of the confrontation between Paul and Barnabas and the false teachers: "When Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and questioning with them. Genitive absolute of second aorist middle participle of ginomai, genitive singular agreeing with first substantive stasew▀. Literally, 'No little (litotes for much) strife and questioning coming to Paul and Barnabas (dative case) with them ' (pro▀ autou▀, face to face with them). Paul and Barnabas were not willing to see this Gentile church brow-beaten and treated as heretics by these self-appointed regulators of Christian orthodoxy from Jerusalem" (Word Pictures of the New Testament).