For Christians who are trying to faithfully be in but not of the world, one of our chief concerns should be the rhetoric and tone we use to share and defend our faith. If we use a style of persuasion that is incongruous with our faith (for example, arguing that Islam is dangerous to American Constitution rather than sharing our faith with Muslims and seeking to live with it peacefully), then at best we will be ineffective and at worst we will bring serious dishonor to Christ. In a recent series of posts (Part 1 and Part 2), Matthew Paul Turner has challenged the all-too-common rhetoric of evangelism which asserts that we merely need to share the “simple” “truth” of the Gospel with strangers without actually making an effort to love them and speak to their specific needs. While Turner is right to criticize this style of evangelism that is offensive in all the wrong ways (the gospel will always be offensive, but we do not need to give additional offense to help it out), his language seems to suggest a fairly one-dimensional view of those who engage in this style of evangelism.
Turner tells the story of going to lunch with a couple who rather bluntly witness to their waiter while the poor kid tries to work his job and be polite to these overzealous Christians. Insofar as the story is representative of a type of evangelism which prioritizes the subject of the Good News without acknowledging the importance of the recipient of that news (thinking that says, “my job is to hand someone this tract, regardless of who they are”), the story is a good starting place to discuss what it actually means to share the Gospel. And Turner is certainly right that this couple, Shawn and Katie, were inconsiderate and perhaps even arrogant in their witnessing. That said, I was disappointed to find that Turner’s tone was often quite condescending towards this couple.
For example, he describes how he made his “best attempts at pretending to be really interested in hearing more about Shawn’s opinions of what he called the ‘brilliant theology’ of Ned Flanders.”
Why was it necessary to give us this information? What do we learn about Shawn that helps us understand why his witness was poor? From what I can tell, all that this quote contributes is the implication that Shawn is a bit of a cultural Philistine. He likes to think that he is hip and edgy because he applies theology and popular culture, but really all we can do is feign interest in his opinions.
He writes: “Our food arrived, and as they ate, Shawn and Katie plotted as to how they would seal Timothy’s spiritual fate, and hopefully before he brought the dessert menus.” Why this language? “Plotted”? “Seal” his “fate”? Is there no possibility that they genuinely were concerned for this kid?
Or take this quote from Turner’s second post in which he describes the angry email Shawn sent him after their lunch: “Apparently some of his questions were more important than others, because they were in all caps. Most of his questions involved his curiosity about what I believed were Christianity’s absolutes. ‘THE NON-NEGOTIABLES,’ he called them, the list of beliefs that, according to him, added up to ‘A TRUE CHRISTIAN.'” What do we gain learning that Shawn used all-caps in an email? The knowledge that Shawn was arrogant and a tacky writer?
Let me again stress that Turner is right to chastise Shawn and Katie for an approach to evangelism which was fundamentally insensitive and counterproductive. But I would like to humbly and lovingly suggest that there is a more gracious and biblical way to deal with situations like these, one which applies more broadly to all criticism within the church.
In Philippians 1:15-18, Paul describes two groups who were sharing the Gospel after his imprisonment. The first group shares out of love, the second out of rivalry. But note what Paul concludes in verse 18: “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice.” Paul publicly rebukes those were preaching out of rivalry by describing their motives as “pretense.” He does not conclude, as some Christians today might have, that since they are proclaiming Christ then he will not speak out against them. No, he very clearly describes what they are doing as wrong. However, he takes one more step, a step that is counterintuitive, and says that as long as they are proclaiming Christ, he will rejoice!
This passage has troubled me for a long time. I would like to say that whenever someone shares the Gospel using a coercive, manipulative, selfish, un-doctrinal, shallow, unsensitve style then they must not be truly proclaiming Christ. But Paul challenges this natural notion in me. He seems to be saying that the better attitude is a complex one: rejoicing and being thankful while still strongly rebuking and condemning. Thankful that just as Christ works through my arrogant rhetoric and mistaken doctrines to bring Himself glory, He also uses people like Shawn and Katie.
For all my revulsion over theologically vacuous and aesthetically inane Christian movies, music, and t-shirts, I believe that we have an obligation to rejoice in God’s sovereignty and grace. And this rejoicing, if we let it take its natural effect, requires us to “hope all things” about those who make such offensive “Christian” works; it forces us to acknowledge the loveliness, beauty, passion, selflessness, commitment, and love which often drives Christians to make really bad art, to proclaim the Gospel through corny bumper stickers, and to annoy waiters with untimely and insensitive questions. If the church in America is to mature out of ignorant, unloving, and unbiblical “fundamentalism” (in all its manifestations), it can only happen if we make the double movement of exhorting and rebuking those who cause offense while rejoicing that Christ is still proclaimed and loving them as recipients of the same grace which covers our own grievous failings.
I want to thank Dianna and Jared for the Facebook discussion that sparked this post. It is always a blessing to be challenged by thoughtful friends.