We must contend for the faith. Jude commands us, “Contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
But we must not be contentious. Speaking on head coverings, Paul gave a prohibition against contentiousness that applies to any situation: “If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God” (1 Cor 11:16).
What does it meant to contend? What does mean to be contentious? And how can we contend while not being contentious? By reviewing the meaning of contend and considering the meaning of contentious, I’ll attempt to answer these questions below.
Defining the Term Contend
In a previous post, we examined the word contend:
The word translated “contend” has the idea of expending intense effort and energy. It comes from epagōnizomai, a relative of agōnizomai, from which we receive our English word agonize. Jude’s form of the word is used only here, but its relative refers elsewhere to fighting (John 18:36) or to participating in an athletic contest (Heb 12:1). Whether as a verb or noun, the New Testament repeatedly uses this word as a metaphor for aspects of the Christian life: salvation (Luke 13:24), perseverance (Heb 12:1), self-control (1 Cor 9:25), prayer (Col 4:12), suffering persecution (1 Thess 2:2), and the gospel ministry in general (Phil 1:30; Col 1:29; 2:1; 1 Tim 6:12; 2 Tim 4:7).
Following Christ, controlling ourselves, praying, suffering, and ministering to others—all of these activities require intense efforts on our part, a struggle made possible by the power of Christ (cf. Col 1:29). Opposing false teachers and their teaching, contending, is one of these struggles, and Jude urges us to contend for the faith.
So, here in Jude, contending is intensely opposing heretics and their heresies that have crept into God’s church.
For this post, I thought it would be helpful to add some thoughts on contending without being contentious.
Defining the Term Contentious
Paul concluded his instruction on head coverings with a prohibition against being contentious: “If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God” (1 Cor 11:16).
“Contentious” stems from philoneikos, used only here in the New Testament. If broken into its parts, this word literally means “a lover of victory.” Someone who has an inordinate love for victory has to be right in every dispute. And the sad thing is this—sometimes this love for being right is so blinding that a contentious person thinks he is right in his love for being right. People like this are contrarian, quarrelsome, and contentious.
Another Greek word translated “contentious” is eritheia, found seven times in the New Testament (e.g., Rom 2:8 KJV, “unto them that are contentious”). It most often shows up as “selfish ambition” (Phil 1:17; 2:3; James 3:14, 16) and is also translated as “hostility” (2 Cor 12:20) or “rivalries” (Gal 5:20).
Whatever the translation, every instance of this term refers to something sinful. These passages list related sins: “unrighteousness” (Rom 2:8), “quarreling, jealousy, anger… slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder” (2 Cor 12:20), “enmity, jealousy, fits of anger… dissensions, divisions, envy (Gal 5:20–21), “conceit” (Phil 2:3), “bitter jealousy… jealousy” (James 3:14, 16). Whatever contentious is in these passages, it is something selfish and goes hand-in-hand with being sinfully quarrelsome and divisive.
Perhaps we could borrow the ideas from both words to say that someone contentious is one whose selfishness drives them to be quarrelsome and to achieve victory in every disagreement. Interestingly, this description fits pretty well with the definition for the entry “contentious” in the eleventh edition of the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: “exhibiting an often perverse and wearisome tendency to quarrels and disputes.”
Whether one chooses philoneikos, eritheia, or the entry from Merriam-Webster, no Christian should be contentious.
With a definition of contentious in hand, here are two further thoughts on contending without being contentious.
Contend While Showing the Virtues of the Faith to Unbelievers
Instead of being quarrelsome, we must contend while being kind, patient, and gentle (2 Tim 2:24–26). When defending our Christian hope and even when being wronged by those who listen, we must do good while being respectful (1 Pet 3:15–17). Unlike others who preach truth for spiteful reasons, we should humbly count others as more significant than ourselves (Phil 1:17; 2:3). Following the example of Peter when he firmly but lovingly rebuked Simon the Sorcerer for trying buy the power of the Spirit, we should not necessarily seek to be right but seek for our listeners would be right with God (Acts 8:18–24; cf. 2 Tim 2:25).
Contend While Showing the Virtues of the Faith to Fellow Believers
Jude has unbelievers in mind as those with whom we must contend for the faith. Perhaps we could quickly remind ourselves as Christians how to handle our disagreements between one another. Christians obviously disagree, individually or corporately, over many matters—distinctive beliefs, ministerial philosophy, practical applications, etc. But disagreement is not necessarily the same as persistent disobedience or unbelief. If possible, we should enjoy what levels of fellowship we can have and handle disagreements as charitably as possible. God is glorified when we welcome one another as much as we are able and seek peace and harmony for His glory (Rom 14:19; 15:2, 5, 7). Even for any Christians affected by significant error, Jude reminds us to be merciful and save whomever we can (Jude 22–23). Christians can contend for the faith and disagree over lesser matters while not being contentious towards one another.
Contending Without Being Contentious
As Jude commands, yes, contend for the faith, but contend without being contentious. Whether saving a Christian from error or an unbeliever from unbelief, proclaim and uphold the faith in a Christlike manner.