Paul’s words echo as if exclaimed from a canyon, yet we often fail to hear them. “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Rom 12:18). At the same time if we listen closely, we can hear the resolve in Jude’s voice as he urges believers to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3). We are at war, but we are to be peaceful. This is no contradiction. Jude urges vigilance against false teachings within the church. Paul urges that we be as peaceful toward people as possible.
Paul illustrates both when he contends vigorously against different gospels and their teachers within the church (Gal 1:6-9). His contention extends even so far as a public rebuke of Peter because of his legalistic error (2:11ff). Peter’s later response illustrates that Paul’s efforts were unifying not divisive (2 Pet 3:15). Paul provides another example in Acts 17, when he interacts in a very peaceful and respectful way with unbelievers who were steeped in paganism. Paul labors to expose them to the truth, but does not force their hand – nor even condemn them. The response to his efforts was mixed: some sneered, others were eager to learn more, and some believed (17:32-34). Paul didn’t expect that everyone would respond well, and his approach was not determined by the response he expected.
Paul illustrates that Christians can fulfill both mandates. When interacting with believers, he teaches them and reproves, holding them to the high ethical standards God prescribed for Christians. When interacting with unbelievers, Paul never appeals that they change their behavior. Instead he turns their eyes toward Jesus that they might understand who He is and what He had done for them. Paul models an opportunistic, rather than offensive evangelistic style.
Peter likewise advocates for opportunistic interaction with unbelievers when he reminds believers to be “always ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you…” (1 Pet 3:15). Peter’s apologetic mandate is a response to those who ask (αἰτοῦντι). Peter does not prescribe for Christians to take an offensive, but rather a defensive stance. He is certainly not prohibiting believers from initiating conversations, but apologetics is responsive, rather than initiatory. Peter adds an important qualifier for our apologetic responses – that they should always be “with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet 3:15).
Contending without being contentious is an example of how if we simply consider contextual factors we can understand that some apparent contradictions are not contradictions at all. Solomon illustrates this exact principle, when he gives guidance to readers that they “Do not answer a fool according to his folly” (Prov 26:4). In the very next verse, he seemingly contradicts that statement, saying, “Answer a fool according to his folly” (26:5). But there is more to it than that. 25:4 adds, “or you will also be like him.” In that context, one should be careful in responding to a fool’s folly, lest the responder find him or herself in the same foolishness they are answering. 26:5 adds, “that he not be wise in his own eyes.” There is an appropriate time to answer a fool, and there is an inappropriate time for such responses. Solomon doesn’t contradict himself; he explains how one can discern the right response for the situation. Rightly assessing the situation helps us respond properly. Sometimes we should contend. Other times we should not be contentious. At other times still, we should be both. As Paul implies, sometimes whether we are at peace is dependent on us, and sometimes it isn’t. We need to discern the difference.