The Dangers of Axe-Grinding

Previously published in another location on March 24, 2016

Have you ever seen or used a grinding wheel? I’m not talking about the handheld power-tool here, but one of those old-school things that people back in the day would sit at to sharpen their tools. Like this one:


Okay, some good friends of mine have one, a vintage one, which I’m afraid to touch because it’s really old and I’m really clumsy. I was hanging out over there one day, and their son sat down at this thing with an axe and started going to town, sharpening it.

Two things I noticed:

  1. He was totally consumed by the axe-grinding.
  2. It was kind of scary.

It wasn’t scary, like axe-murderer scary, just kind of creepy. I don’t know, I guess you had to be there. The scary part really has no point to this blog… it just produced a slight emotion of fear in me for whatever reason. Random. I know.

However, how the axe-grinding consumed him gave me a perfect depiction of what happens to us when we as Christians get carried away into controversies that really have nothing to do with the gospel.

They consume us.

Think about a time you got carried away into a controversy over a non-crucial issue with another Christian. You just KNEW that your idea was the right one. So you had mock arguments with your steering wheel, your mirror, your dog, and maybe even some of your kids’ stuffed animals. You pretended those inanimate objects were your adversary.

What was the outcome of those mock arguments?

Benefits: Okay, you won EVERY argument… congratulations, you have better reasoning skills than a teddy bear.

Drawbacks: Too many to list. But just for a start – your blood pressure spiked, you mentally slandered a Christian brother or sister, you probably yelled, and you lost your entire sense of inner peace and joy that should mark the Christian life.

I know what you’re thinking… How does he know so well about the effects of theological axe-grinding? Well folks, the truth is: I’ve done my fair share.

And I’m DONE. D-O-N-E (spelling it out). Done Done Done Done.

Theological axe-grinding over non-critical issues will consume you. It is a tool of Satan to steal the affections of your heart that God intended for His own sake. It is a tool of Satan to distract the people of God from building the Kingdom of God.

While you’re grinding a theological axe, you’re not focused on expanding the Kingdom of God through sharing the gospel with the lost. You’re not focused on equipping disciples of Jesus. You’re not focused on being the Kingdom of God by working to be restoration to a broken world.

Get this. Here’s what Paul told Timothy in his first letter. He told him to:

…charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion… (1 Tim 1:3-6 ESV)

So, will I pick up the axe and start grinding again? Not if I want to stay focused on what really matters. Not if I want to make as big an impact for Christ’s Glory among the nations as possible.

Paul instructed Timothy to warn the believers to avoid ‘devoting themselves to myths and endless genealogies’ (theological axe-grinding of the first century). Why? Because they lead you away from a true devotion to Christ.

I have to ask another couple of questions here:

Is it possible to engage in a debate without it being theological axe-grinding?


Is it sometimes necessary to engage in a theological debate?


Okay then, when is it okay to engage in a debate?

Only when the truth of the gospel is threatened.

True doctrine is important. The truths of the gospel are important. Like, life or death, heaven or hell for all eternity important! The first half of Paul’s charge to Timothy was to “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine.” 1 Peter 3:15 also commands us to be prepared to defend the truth gospel when it is threatened.

In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, he says this:

Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know they only breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness…” (2 Tim 2:23-25a ESV)

In other words, you should avoid the axe-grinding and step in to the arena to correct false teaching only when it really matters.

But when are called to step into that arena to defend the gospel, you had better be kind, not quarrelsome, gentle, not arrogant or harsh.

And before you step, take a long look in the mirror and a loooong look at the issue itself. Are your motives right? Does this matter really threaten the gospel or just your preferences on a non-critical issue?

So, here’s what to do if you’ve engaged in some theological axe-grinding:

1. Pray

Just stop shouting at the steering wheel and pray. And this is the toughest step. Because you know that when you go to God with your heart in such a messy condition, His Spirit knocks it right out of you and makes you focus on Jesus. That’s the Spirit’s role: to point us to Jesus (John 15:26). When we examine the cross, we lose our all rights to hold a grudge or to be unkind.

2. Ask for Forgiveness

First, ask God for forgiveness. He’s the first person you offend when you act or think in an ungodly way. Sin hinders our relationship with God. Get right with him first.

After you ask God to forgive you, ask the person you’ve been arguing with to forgive you. But do not go to them until you’re read to ask forgiveness without expecting something in return.

If you expect them to admit their wrongs, you’re not ready. You didn’t really comprehend or embrace the forgiveness God gave you. Go back to God and sit with him some more. If you truly understand the magnitude of Christ’s forgiveness on the cross, you won’t care if they apologize. You understand that being right with your fellow man is a requisite for walking right with God. Don’t let “being right” on a non-critical issue rob you of the joy of walking in righteousness with Jesus.

3. Go and axe-grind no more!

Go share the gospel or do somersaults or both! I’m sure you’d either keep their attention or totally weird them out.

When you experience the gospel playing out in the practical forgiveness between you and a brother, the sense of joy and relief is overwhelming. You’ll probably cry. Yeah. I was brought to tears at the resolution of my last axe-grinding episode. I felt the freedom of the gospel releasing the chains of sin that try to crawl back onto my heart.
So, to conclude: Don’t back down from defending the truth of the gospel, but avoid axe-grinding at all costs. When you are called to step up and defend the gospel. Do so with gentleness.

Walk wisely my brothers and sisters.

In Christ,

Quentin Self