Those now famous words were uttered by Marlon Brando’s character Terry Malloy in the 1954 classic film – “On The Waterfront.” It is the plaintiff cry of a man who woefully missed what he thought was his mark in life. But the second phrase is really revealing: “I could’ve been somebody.” My point? Sadly, many today in the Church – even if they won’t admit it to themselves, imagine they could be “somebody” too, if they could be “contenders.”
Now there is clearly a powerful exhortation in Jude about the need, indeed the urgent need (both then and now) for Believers to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” One of the highest responsibilities of the Church is to be a guardian of the truth of God’s Word as given to us. It is a never-ending battle which admits of no respite. And every generation of Believers must be about it in their day and context.
Sadly though, there seems to be some confusion in our day between earnestly contending for the Faith, and being contentious about the faith – as well as contentious about other things. (Can you spell P-O-L- I-T-I-C-S?) It is as though being contentious in itself is somehow inherently virtuous. It isn’t. We forget that firmness is not the same as harshness. That correction is meant to be in gentleness, which at the same time does not yield to compromise. That the truth of the Gospel is never to be communicated through clenched teeth. That there are no prickly pears listed among the fruit of the Spirit. Uncompromised truth does not require irascibility. Jesus never had to yell at those he boldly opposed.
I was reminded by a friend this this week of a quote I had read (and forgotten) by John Newton in a letter to a friend about handling controversies. While Newton encourages him to contend for truth, he also gives this very insightful and balanced consideration:
“It seems a laudable service to defend the faith once delivered to the saints; we are commanded to contend earnestly for it, and to convince gain-savers. If ever such defences were seasonable and expedient, they appear to be so in our day, when errors abound on all sides, and every truth of the Gospel is either directly denied, or grossly misrepresented. And yet we find but very few writers of controversy who have not been manifestly hurt by it. Either they grow in a sense of their own importance, or imbibe an angry contentious spirit, or they insensibly withdraw their attention from those things which are the food and immediate support of the life of faith, and spend their time and strength upon matters which at most are but of a secondary value. This shews, that, if the service is honourable, it is dangerous. What will it profit a man if he gains his cause, and silences his adversary, if at the same time he loses that humble, tender frame of spirit in which the Lord delights, and to which the promise of his presence is made!”
The point is clear, and necessary – the cause of Christ, must be conducted in the Spirit of Christ. Oh, may we not lose “that humble, tender frame of spirit in which the Lord delights” as we wade into the necessary contentions of our day.
None of us should ever think that we “could’ve been somebody”, if only we had really been “contenders”, punchers in the ring.
Tragically, in our day – some have built their ministries on this aberrance.