Showing Grace When Evangelical Leaders Speak Intemperately

Recent comments in the wake of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, from the likes of Mike Huckabee and James Dobson, among others, have evoked an impassioned conversation on the public representation of evangelicals and how evangelicals best engage the culture.  A few pieces offered here on this blog have addressed that conversation — and here is another fantastic entry, this one from Rob Schwarzwalder of the Family Research Council.  This is a bit longer than the typical blog post, but it’s a worthy piece and I hope you read and share it.

Evangelicals, Embarrassment, and Engagement

By Rob Schwarzwalder

The need for both grace and truth in public discourse and action is demanded by the character of the Savior Christians profess to serve (John 1:18).  Grace, the unmerited kindness of a loving God, and truth, the irreducible standard of right and wrong from which there can be no compromise, together should animate the political and social activities of Evangelical believers.

That’s hard.  It also presupposes that service born of love for the Lord Jesus Christ is the essential issue in life for all who profess His Name.  If not, why engage, as Christians, in the public square or anywhere else?

Some argue that the salient issue in Evangelical participation in politics is tone: They cite statements by well-known Christian leaders that they believe demonstrate arrogance, crassness, cruelty, and ignorance.  What makes such accusations particularly painful is when they come from other Evangelicals.

No one in public life is free from occasional intemperance.  I know of no one – no one – who has not said things he does not regret (sometimes almost immediately), publicly or at least privately.  This has been true of every leader throughout church history, in every sphere of ministry.

The larger question is twofold: (1) Do those who make such statements later regret them, and (2) does the spasmodic off-remark invalidate a person’s entire ministry?

Do apologies suffice when public offense has been given?  In one sense, no: We are responsible for our comments and the pain they cause.  Yet humble contrition for error is what Scripture calls upon God’s people to experience and express.  When it is given, and when steps are taken to rectify the harm done, believers should accept such contrition with welcoming forgiveness.

In addition, what of the totality of the ministries of those leaders who occasionally employ unwise language or take too severe a tone?  Is a legacy of compassion, integrity, and evangelism discredited because a man who is continuously in the public eye for decades proves guilty of isolated spasms of rhetorical excess?  I think not.

I wonder how Paul the Apostle would fare in the eyes of some North American Evangelicals.  He spoke the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), but in that context could be quite blunt, as the hard candor that resonates in his epistles demonstrates.  Perhaps, were Paul still with us today, an ever-wise Evangelical leader, someone who sees himself as perpetually imperturbable and above whatever fray is taking place would write the something like the following:

Paul is a fine man and, of course, an apostle.  He has experienced trials and tribulations few, if any, of us will ever know.  But does this justify him saying that all Cretans are liars or that some weaker believers belong to the devil’s synagogue?  Paul needs to take a step back and consider his relational skills within the Body of Christ.  He is exhausted, worn down, and needs time to reflect on the pain he is causing.  A qualified Christian counselor probably could help Paul come to terms with the deeply-rooted anger that causes him to say things like, “I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (I Corinthians 5:15).  It is this kind of pretentious, self-arrogating attitude that makes Evangelicals everywhere look ridiculous.  Paul – stand down, please.  You’re embarrassing us.

Such comments of course reflect a low view of Scripture, but are they really too far afield of what some believers write about their brothers and sisters on the front lines of the culture war?

Am I suggesting that searing attacks on one’s opponents are ever justified?  No.  Our speech should flow out of hearts filled with both the love and purity of Christ.  This should discourage giving free-flow to our emotions, especially when our blood is up.

Yet should we publicly excoriate anyone who, in our view, occasionally deviates from a pristine attitude of Godly speech or conduct?  There are times when public confrontation is needed; witness Paul with Peter in Galatians 2.  Yet sharp and even condescending criticisms of other believers find no basis in the Word of God.

We should extend charity to those we call on to extend charity to those they oppose.  Should we approach them, humbly and privately, before reproaching them publicly?  Should we be quick to forgive them when they apologize, and eager to restore them as they seek to honor their Lord?  Evangelicals should know their Savior well enough to be able to answer these questions without guidance.

Let’s be frank: Not every Evangelical leader is quick to apologize for his or her verbal excesses.  Some get quite defensive and dismiss criticism out of hand.  However, those in this category truly are few and far between.  Moreover, everyone has blind spots – should we be ready to hold in contempt someone whose public tact is not always as strong as it should be?  The eye from which a large log protrudes might be your own.

Additionally, it is important to recognize that the politics of moral conviction are inherently oppositional.  One person believes that two men should be allowed to “marry,” with all the same legal and cultural sanctions this historic term implies.  Another believes that marriage is an institution between one man and one woman, without qualification.  There is no common ground between them.

Thus, no matter how winsome we are in our demeanor and language – and winsome we should, indeed, be – our stand for marriage will draw not just disappointment from its proponents but active and, increasingly, enraged resistance from them.  We will not universally be liked.  There will be those who hate us.  Truth can have that effect, to deny which is mere fabulism.

The most gracious Man Who ever lived was scourged and crucified.  He was incapable of being obnoxious, yet was scorned and murdered.  Is there a lesson here for us?

At times, the vigor with which one seeks to advance his deeply-held convictions can surmount both his humility and good judgment, not to mention his central allegiance to and recognition of the Lordship of Christ.  The men who lived in the trenches of the First World War experienced very limited frames of vision.  Paul Fusssell, in his classic book The Great War and Modern Memory, quotes Max Plowman’s moving description of life therein:

Shutting off the landscape, (the trenches) compel us to observe the sky; and when it is a canopy of blue flecked with white clouds…and when the earth below is a shell-stricken waste, one looks up with delight…

Long-term entrenchment can induce a perspective very limited and intense.  We appreciate narrow slits of hope but surveillance of a bleak cultural landscape can produce sadness, anger, even depression.  This, in turn, causes us to forget the real purposes of our spiritual enterprise, the winning of men and women to Jesus Christ and obedience to Him in all respects.

This is a danger for Christians involved in politics and the formation of public policy more than Christians involved in, say, boat-building or elementary school teaching.  Those of us in social and political combat can become indignant too quickly and insufficiently sober-minded to evaluate what is before us with grace and wisdom.  Too caught-up in the battle at hand, the sense of our indispensability can become too great and the gravity of the issues with which we are dealing too heavy.

We should always bear in mind that Jesus is sovereign, and wins: These are the great lessons of biblical eschatology.  No endeavor, however noble or difficult, ever should rob Christians of the peace these truths bring.  No one, and no political victory, will bring about the Kingdom of Christ; He reserves final triumph for Himself, and we should rejoice in that great truth.  The poor will always be with us, the world will always be fallen, and the needs of our broken fellow humans will always be great. Belief that any political action can bring permanent remedy to these things is unscriptural and immature.

At the same time, not to care about outcomes in the name of submission to the will of Christ is more a form of Islamic fatalism than biblical faith.  If 3,200 children are being aborted in our country every day, how can we as heirs of Christ their Creator not seek to defend them with compassion, wisdom, and energy?  And when our efforts fail, such failure should induce grief, sometimes quite intense, not a shoulder-shrugging dismissal as one flits off to the next thing.

Not to care deeply about political results is to substitute Rogerian therapy for public policy.  It fails the tests of fidelity to the Word of God and the realities of human nature.  Should we linger on our disappointments, failing to remember God’s sovereignty?  Most certainly not.  But disappointments are disappointing: This reality is undiminishable.

There are some younger Evangelicals whose distaste for politics is moving them toward a less confrontational approach to politics and policy.  Those who seek to bring light more than heat are to be commended, as they desire not to rend but to build, to heal and not divide — things which please their Lord.

And yet: While bridge-building is essential, it is also not an end in itself.  Should we work with political actors of all types to ensure that more children find loving, secure homes?  Yes, but with our eyes ever open to the fact that homosexual adoption is both prominent politically and indefensible biblically.  When we are castigated for opposing it, should we apologize for our intransigence and accept the accusation that we are mean, bigoted, heartless, etc., or, with love but also resolve, stand against a cultural shift that would hurt the very children that shift seeks to help?

When I hear some younger Evangelicals speak about civility, what they really seem to be saying is that (a) they want to avoid contention at any cost and (b) not be identified with the stereotypical (bigoted, uninformed, etc.) “Religious Right.”

Of all generations, these younger brothers and sisters should be the first to eschew stereotypes and quit believing that the card-board cut-outs of conservative Evangelicals displayed by the news and entertainment media are genuine.  Many of them also allow meaningful subjective experiences (“my cousin is gay … my sister had an abortion”) to influence their policy views to the point of eroding their fidelity to the biblical witness.

And, put directly, some of them need to grow up: To stand for truth is, simultaneously, to oppose, and be opposed by, evil.  That’s reality.  Brace yourselves for it.  Sweet reason will carry some days; unyielding boldness will carry others.  That’s intractable reality.

Proverbs tells us that “a gentle answer turns away wrath” (15:1).  It also tells us that “the righteous are as bold as a lion” (28:1).  Both are needful, depending on the circumstances.  That’s where wisdom comes in.  But don’t hide behind a sham fence of civility to justify moral cowardice, a desire to be liked by the sophisticated and educated elites.  Evil is real, and evildoers sometimes need courteous but stiff resistance from lion-like Christians.  And minimizing the seriousness of evil and its effects (“but those two guys really love each other”) is not compassion but conscience-dulling weakness.

We must be filled with grace and truth, neither to the exclusion of the other.  Kindness and confrontation are not mutually exclusive; not to confront evil, or to pretend it is less than what it is (“an alternative lifestyle” or “a woman’s choice”) is loveless.

Have earlier generations of Evangelical leaders made mistakes?  Yes.  They have imperfectly realized the moral grandeur of our Savior.  They sometimes have said things out of anger rather than wisdom.  They sometimes have so vilified their political opponents that the latter are rendered more as caricatures than persons, as demons to be fought than image-bearers of God who merit respect.

Young Evangelicals would do well to remember that over the course of their lives and ministries, they will do exactly the same things, or do other things that are equally offensive to the Lord.  Many younger Evangelicals I know are subject to deep intellectual pride, an inflated sense of their own uniqueness, and a readiness to judge others that is more attendant to puerility than righteous indignation.  These too will need grace, just as the errors of the prior generation call for grace today.

None of us, elderly, middle-aged, or young, Reformed or Arminian, Pentecostal or Cessationist, is now or ever will be perfect until we “see Him as He is” (I John 3:2).  This does not mean we should not strive to be more and more conformed to the image of Christ, in character and conduct, privately and publicly, in belief and motivation.  It does mean that we should accept one another in love, learn from one another in humility, confront one another according to the commands of our Lord (Matthew 18), stand for human dignity, and fulfill the Great Commission with hearts and minds fully yielded to the King of kings.

We do Christ no great favor by believing in and obeying Him.  We only can offer our paltry and scarred lives to His service.  Are we?

Rob Schwarzwalder is senior vice-president of the Family Research Council and a longtime member of the Evangelical Theological Society.

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  • George

    One thing I have found missing in the political discourse of Christians is the notion of grace. We seem to act like non-Christians in that when our opponent makes a mistake we do everything we can to destroy the opponent. This is true on both sides of the political divide. It seems to me that to be Christian is to act differently than non-Christians. We may agree with non-Christians on a given political issue but how we treat others should be with grace and an attempt to create understanding, even if we do not create agreement.

  • Bart Breen

    I understand the sentiment. Yes, public spokespersons are in the cross-hairs (no pun intended given the context of the comments in question) and we need to give consideration and grace to them as we would wish for ourselves. This is especially true within the body of Christ and believers.

    That’s were I part paths with this blog however. Such public spokespersons are not simply speaking within the church. They have assumed or in some cases presumed to speak into communities that are not the church and in so doing they are not preaching in a church. They are evangelizing and representing Christ and the church to the world.

    People who presume to do that, have to be questioned and challenged in the same forum in which they have made their comments, not only for their benefit or the benefit of the church but also for the benefit of those outside who have heard the original comments and need to hear the correction and response from others for the sake of the representation of Christ to that world.

    So, that certainly should temper our comments and there is no reason to be personally cruel or dismissive, even if the tone and message being addressed can be seen as such. Far too often however, the idea of “touch not God’s annointed” seems to be invoked in these situations and all that serves to do is silence others and leaves the world with the impression that we endorse and support these messages being given that impugn the very love and character of God.

    Thanks. But while I’ll seek to be civil and gracious in responding, I will respond and I will be clear in that response as to why these types of statements are completely contrary to the Gospel and the character of God in Christ. The sad thing is, that these aren’t just occasional incidents. Maybe it’s the nature of our media and press, but it’s becoming predictable that these type of statements are aired in the wake of any tragedy. At the very least, these spokespersons need to be aware of the impact of these comments and learn to expect them and to temper their own language. The problem in the end isn’t in the response to the comments. It’s the comments being made in the first place and that is the point of primary control.

  • Eric Pettersson

    I have to agree with the comment from Bart above. Jesus showed compassion towards sinners while telling them to sin no more, but he also publicly condemned the religious leaders of his day when their words and deeds were becoming a stumbling block to those who might otherwise come to God. Thus, following Christ’s example means we need to be gentle towards outsiders but strict with those who claim to speak for God.

  • RedWell

    Toughtful post, but I also have to agree with Bart. In addition, I want to expand on George’s point, though from a political perspective: I suspect that many younger believers think these strong, controversial positions are more than an uncomfortable PR situation: they are self-defeating. Declaring gay marriage and gay adoption unbiblical and a sin is any citizen’s right, but then drawing a straight causal line between specific sins and national decay or the disintegration of the family is an oversimplified and often misleading story. Many younger believers see this: the gay couple that is more devoted than the serial monogamists over at the mega church; the nonbelieving teachers who (sometimes literally) lay down their lives for students; and so on. I’m not condoning sin, but if you want to achieve policy consensus in a democracy, you have to build a big tent. I would say many of these outspoken Evangelicals are taking prophetic positions, but not democratic ones. The problem is that they are seeking change in a democratic public sphere.

  • Jay Saldana

    Wonderful sentiments. The justification is clear. Your nobility is assured in your own eyes. I can show you the same nobility and the same sort of self serving theology all through church history. You are losing the argument and are so convinced you are correct that you refuse to acknowledge it. You are cotton Mather looking for witches and arguing over what is a cauldron! You are like a modern version of the Sanhedrin arguing about the temple and can it be rebuilt in 3 days or 3 months. Look around you – the political argument is in tatters. In many ways by your actions you have made the opposition stronger. You made them unite against you. Instead of arguing against sin you have argued for political superiority and lost. Yes, the argument against abortion is moving to your side but not because of anything you have done. The humanists have done it for you because you have lost credibility for the way you have politically argued.
    I know of no one that looks to the Family Research Council for spiritual leadership or even information on family restoration because it is a political arm of the Republicans. That is how it is seen. What value is that to the sinner? Oh, I will get a voters guide! Yipee! Nope, you are just part of those conservative southern Republicans. No new ideas except stop people of color from voting. Besides you aren’t even Christian, you guys are Mormon aren’t you?
    Oh yes, those are actual quotes from the field, not an exaggeration. Especially educated people, they can see the difference between a religious argument and a political one. You made very few religious arguments. You quoted a lot of Scripture for political ends, and people saw through it. Please don’t blame it on the media although they did do everything to encourage you in your walk off the cliff. You have spent years doing this all by yourself. Our leaders, our Pharisees, our Sadducees. We, your congregants, played dumb and helped. But the time of self justification is over. The time of making money as political consultants is over. Jerusalem has been sacked. It is way to late to worry about slips of the tongue and political gaffs. We need to deal with sin and people and God not politics.
    My prayers for grace in your transition,

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Jay, this seems pretty far off topic. The purpose of this post is not to give you an occasion to vent all your hatred against the Family Research Council. It’s to talk about the proper response, especially amongst Christians, when their Christian leaders say something intemperate.

      The Family Research Council is a political lobbying organization. Of course no one looks to it for spiritual direction, or for family advice. And of course, conservative Christians can have organizations that lobby for their concerns just like everyone else.

      And no, if you were being serious, the FRC isn’t Mormon.

  • Jay Saldana

    No, I was not being serious about thinking they were Mormon comment and I do not hate the FRC and I am furious at them and at us/me for that matter. I obviously did not get my point across. It is too late for these kinds of things. Looking to correct hurt feelings have long since past. Using the FRC to comment on it is like using Nancy Pelosi to tell the House Republicans how to pass legislation. I know you mean well, but the wound out here is very deep and is not going away. I over reacted – it was a bad day. sorry. I ask your forgiveness.

    So does that cure your irritation with me? Does that make you wanna say “He meant well, but…”
    Exactly my point! You have to earn back what you throw away with an emotional comment or argument. Especially, when it comes to a Religious consideration. “Understanding” doesn’t cut it. We have souls out there damaged by this stuff. We need to move in a new direction completely.
    Have a God filled Evening,


    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Actually, yes, Jay, after you apologized, I really didn’t expect anything more of you or want to inflict any pain or punishment upon you.

      But I do think there needs to be a great deal of healing. We agree on that point. And Christians who still believe sex is intended for a married man and woman need to be sensitive to that.