contend = defend?

I recently listened to a message purporting to be an exposition of the book of Jude. Several points in the message were derived out of the speaker’s experience (or his perception of his experience). These points in the main were questionable. One man’s experience is no authority and another man’s experience quite often differs. One man sees fundamentalists as primarily lovers of the fight, whereas another man sees them as lovers of the faith. But whose experience is right? It is true that some men seem simply to be contentious, but how well do we know them and the entire scope of their ministry?

In addition the message purported to be on the subject of separation, but Jude is not a separation passage. As such the message seemed conflicted from the beginning, as text did not match subject.

The weakest point of the message was the heart of the message. We all know Jude 3 as the rallying cry, the banner of fundamentalism. Here it is:

Jude 1:3 Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.

In the message, the speaker called his hearers to the Christian duty of defending the faith. Over and over again came the phrase, defend the faith, defend the faith, defend the faith.

Well… is that what Jude said?

Here is the primary definition of ‘defend’ from the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

1 a : to drive danger or attack away from ?defend our shores?
    b (1) : to maintain or support in the face of argument or hostile criticism ?defend a theory?
        (2) : to prove (as a doctoral thesis) valid by answering questions in an oral exam
    c : to attempt to prevent an opponent from scoring at ?elects to defend the south goal

Defend, according to this definition has the connotation of resistance, of standing up against an attack. In the synonym section of the definition, M-W gives us this “DEFEND denotes warding off actual or threatened attack.” Is that what contend means?

Merriam-Webster on contend:

  1 : to strive or vie in contest or rivalry or against difficulties: STRUGGLE
  2 : to strive in debate : ARGUE verb transitive
  1 : MAINTAIN, ASSERT ?contended that he was right?
  2 : to struggle for : CONTEST

But more important than the English definition for Jude 1.3 is the lexical information for the underlying Greek verb, epagonizomai. It is used here as an infinitive in Indirect Discourse. The controlling verb: ‘I beseech’ or ‘I urge you’ is a verb of communication that takes an infinitive of Indirect Discourse, a statement of the content of the beseeching. In other words, if we were to put it into Direct Discourse, the verse would go something like this:

I felt the necessity to write to you, “Contend earnestly for the faith”

The controlling verb adds urgency and imperatival force, since an infinitive can have either an imperative or indicative sense (‘you are contending earnestly for the faith’). Since Jude is beseeching them, we can see that he intends the imperative.

What does the word mean?

The root of the word is ‘agon’, a contest, struggle, or fight and is a compound of the verb ‘agonizomai’, to struggle, to fight. The preposition that makes the compound ‘epagonizomai’ intensifies the struggle, ‘to struggle on behalf of, to struggle for’.

Here are a few lexical definitions: “struggle for, contend, fight”1 ; “to exert intense effort on behalf of something—‘to struggle for’”2 [as opposed to antagonizomai, ‘to struggle against’]; and it “signifies ‘to contend about a thing, as a combatant’ (epi, ‘upon or about,’ intensive, agon, ‘a contest’), ‘to contend earnestly,’ Jude 3. The word ‘earnestly’ is added to convey the intensive force of the preposition.”3

Now then…

Does ‘contend’ mean ‘defend’? Is it not a much more aggressive word than ‘defend’? Doesn’t it convey the idea of taking the battle to the streets, even launching attacks in favor of the object of contention, ‘the faith’? I think it does.

The battle to be waged is against all sorts of deceptive persons who for their own lusts and personal gain have crept into the church to devour its saints and pervert the faith once delivered. The Christian needs to be more than defensive when it comes to such deceptive persons. He needs to be on the offense. (I hesitate to say ‘offensive’!) He needs to contend. He needs to struggle intensely on behalf of the faith.

Is the fulfillment of this urgent imperative a matter of being more interested in the fight or being more interested in the ‘gospel’ as the speaker alleged at one point? I think that is the wrong question. If you aren’t interested in the fight, you aren’t interested in the gospel. If you won’t contend, but only defend, do you really love the gospel?



  1. Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains []
  2. Louw-Nida []
  3. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words []


  1. Don:

    I’d like to share the following- fwiw…

    In an article in FrontLine magazine, Dr. Arno Q. Weniger, Sr., commented on Jude 3 as follows:

    Those verses contain the mandate! Those are the orders of the Captain of our salvation, and to my knowledge, they have never been withdrawn, rescinded, or countermanded. The job is not yet finished. Jude says it was “needful” in his day to “earnestly contend for the faith,” but the apostasy has greatly deepened since then. Our days are more treacherous and deceitful than were Jude’s.

    Take a second look at that phrase, “It was needful for me to write.” Jude was not only prompted by a great need to write, but the phrase carried with it “an overpowering constraint.” Kenneth Wuest translates it, “I had constraint laid upon me.” By whom? The answer is the Holy Spirit. This business of contending is of the Spirit. It is His will that it be done! Don’t think as some do, that this sort of a thrust is of the flesh. . . . So don’t downgrade this business of “contending.” Don’t think there is a higher road for one to take! Steep yourself in the Word, and after much prayer, as verse 20 indicates, go do it. (“The History and Future of the FBF,” FrontLine: May-June 1998, pp. 11-12.)

    Dr. Weniger continued with an excellent example from the book of Nehemiah of how Christians are to be builders, but also ready for battle at a moments notice.