Unprofitable and Worthless Quarrels
Paul’s words in Titus 3:8-9 struck me this morning:
The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people. But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.
Clearly, Paul is here concerned about those who would nitpick about theological controversies and not care about people. It’s important to also clarify what he is not saying:
(1) He’s not saying that theology, doctrine, and what we confess to believe are unimportant. If you read 1-2 Timothy and Titus as a whole, you’ll see that he over and over again emphasizes the importance of holding fast to sound doctrine and imparting it to others. So he’s clearly not saying that teaching the truth is unimportant as long as we’re doing good deeds.
(2) He’s also not saying that the law of God is irrelevant for us now. The “quarrels about the law” likely refer to controversies among the Jews in that time period who were constantly bickering about minute details about the application of the law, much of it focused on how to puff themselves up over someone else, or actually how to get around the law by giving an appearance of holding to it in minute detail.
But clearly he is saying this: we who have believed in God must do good works. It is not optional. And we must not engage in unprofitable and worthless quarrels about minute matters. Regarding the latter point, Calvin says,
In doctrine, therefore, we should always have regard to usefulness, so that everything that does not contribute to godliness. shall be held in no estimation. And yet those sophists, in babbling about things. of no value, undoubtedly boasted of them as highly worthy and useful to be known; but Paul does not acknowledge them to possess any usefulness, unless they tend to the increase of faith and to a holy life.
Of course, in practice, we we get into the life and work of the church, this can be difficult, because the very things that I may see as vital and key for the life of the church may be seen by others as minute, unprofitable, and worthless. So of course we still require grace and wisdom in dealing with these matters. But perhaps two questions would help us in any theological controversy:
First, is taking a clear stand on this a matter of “holding firm to the trustworthy word as taught” (Titus 1:9)? I understand that even in this, in a denomination such as mine, it’s not so simple as we do allow exceptions to non-vital matters in our confessional standards (the Westminster Confession and Catechisms). But this is likely why we do require one to affirm the standards and are not supposed to allow any exceptions which strike at the vitals of the system.
Secondly, is this controversy profitable and worthwhile? Will it sap our energy and ultimately have little positive effect on godliness?
We must ask those two questions when we engage in theological discussion, otherwise we may find ourselves under the rebuke of the apostle Paul in his letter to Titus.