The Cost of Reputation (RJS)

The Cost of Reputation (RJS) December 23, 2010

This week leading up to Christmas provides opportunity for another reflection – one related to the story and  discussion in Tuesday’s post (Discrimination?).  The sermon this last Sunday at our church was centered on the texts in Isaiah 7 and Matthew 1 … in particular the reaction of Joseph to the discovery that Mary was pregnant.

And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying,” Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. …  And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife

Scot elaborates on this passage in CH 8 of The Jesus Creed, noting that Joseph here puts his reputation on the line, actually gives it up, to obey the commandment of God.

Our reputation (what others think of us) is not as important as our identity (who we really are). Spiritual formation begins when we untangle reputation and identity, and when what God thinks of us is more important than what we think of ourselves or what others think of us. (p. 76)

This isn’t lip service, it is whole-hearted surrender.

Sometimes the implication of listening to the voice of God is that we ruin our reputation in the public square. Loving God, as the Jesus Creed teaches, involves surrendering ourselves to God in heart, soul, mind, strength – and reputation. The minute we turn exclusively to the Lord to find our true identity is the day reputation dies. We learn, as Thomas à Kempis puts it, that when you surrender your reputation, “you won’t care a fig for the wagglings of ten thousand tongues.”  (p. 79)

This also isn’t a matter of religious reputation within the church versus secular reputation in the public square – this is a matter of being true to the calling of God, which quite frankly can get one in trouble on all sides. Joseph was not sacrificing his secular reputation – but rather his reputation within those who strove to be righteous.

Joseph learns that who he is before God (his identity) is more important than who he is in the circle of his pious friends (his reputation). (p. 81)

This leads me back to the post on Tuesday and to the question for discussion.

What role should the fear for reputation and position play in the way we as Christians present ourselves and engage within the public square?

One of the points in the NY Times article is that an internet search brought Dr. Gaskell’s 10 year old lecture to light and contributed to this conflict. Apparently it isn’t so much his church affiliation as that he is on record somewhere as weighing in on the science/faith discussion from a faith perspective. Thinking through the issues he may have used expressions that set warning bells. Given such a document it would make little difference if his thoughts on the issues had matured or changed through the years, he would have been forever suspect.

New technologies and the way the internet can make the most obscure document or lecture immediately and permanently public. This transparency changes the rules of engagement – one must always consider the fact that a  conversation with audience A, say a church group, may be accessed by audience B, say a member of a review panel evaluating research proposals, or a member of a search committee. Anything that can be said, can be misinterpreted or taken out of context. This leads to a need for a level of caution. Regarding this concern a commenter on the last post noted: I’d suspect that many church members would not understand this and might see it as “being ashamed of the gospel” vs. “being a light” or some such false dichotomy. Of course he’s right, there are many who would suggest that this is simply caving in to peer pressure.

This is not all one way of course – with scholars and academics fearing discrimination of the sort alleged by Dr. Gaskell. Christians, both pastors and scholars, often also fear for reputation and livelihood. There is a pressure to be careful with public statements. This is true, for example, of  many who feel that evolutionary creation and Christian faith are compatible, and for some who are simply open to the possibility that they may be compatible and we must explore the evidence.

What do you think? Is it simply a cop-out to be concerned about reputation in the public square?

When is it a measure of wisdom to exercise caution and when is it a measure of cowardice, a failure surrender to God in heart, soul, mind, strength – and reputation?

How would you counsel someone faced with a decision between protecting reputation and taking a public stand?

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  • I think a key is that we need discernment as to our calling and then seek to be faithful to that, come what may.

    For me I think we need to speak up when it comes to the creation/evolution debate. But I do so selectively, because I know in some contexts at least, when I do so, it will not be fruitful. How to be as wise as a serpent, but harmless as a dove seems important in this matter, as well as in its original context, and actually not unrelated.

  • Jason Lee

    Once again, fascinating choice of topics RJS. A few thoughts:

    First, it seems to me that this topic is far more important than might first meet the eye. Consider that a large (potentially increasing) number of the world’s Christians live in countries that are formally and informally much more hostile to Christian faith and practice than the US. Just as Muslims are discriminated against in the European labor market, so too Christians are likely discriminated against in Chinese, Indian, or Thai labor markets. So these questions are not simply the domain of American Christians in academic institutions or other professions that draw scrutiny from multiple directions. No, these questions are a daily tension for a lot of the world’s Christians.

    Second, I think it also may helpful to think about the different ways a Christian in a setting of public scrutiny may “take a stand.” OPTION #1: A Christian may share all of her thoughts and views in public Christian and non-Christian settings (and on the web, those are the same thing). And while there’s nothing necessarily wrong with making a lot of public statements about one’s faith, it may have other costs (i.e., losing one’s job or losing the ability to be a faithful presence in certain spheres). OPTION #2: On the other hand, she may “take a stand” by being very matter of fact about the fact that she’s a practicing Christian but take the less is more approach to verbalizing things about her faith in public settings (Jesus may have done the same many times, no?). She may also decide to not affiliate with the evangelical megachurch in town but rather affiliate with the smaller, less notorious Anglican church in town. She may be very disciplined about not making a lot of public statements and declining public Christian speaking engagements and such in order to still be a faithful presence in her professional circles.

    In other words there are different ways to “take a stand.” Option #1 may seem “stronger” than the other, but it may actually be weaker than option #2. Option #1 may simply lead to the further ghetto-ization of practicing Christians. And this is often what you see in countries like Indonesia (and America?). Christians often live and work in insular cultural ghettos.

  • smcknight

    There is a biblical text here and, though it is metaphorical, applies directly: “do not cast your pearls before the swine.” This text was about knowing when and when not to take a stand for Christ. The issue is not “if” but “how” and “when.”

    I trust my friends to discern and do this wisely, and much more often than not I trust their judgment. Only they can walk their life.

    Jason met a statement the other day that directly applies, and he might want to speak up again for how he is doing this.

  • Jason Lee

    which statement are you thinking of?

  • smcknight

    Didn’t you say something about your name or what you say in public … no?

  • Jason Lee

    I would never deny that I am a practicing Christian in public, but here are a few “wise as serpent but innocent as dove” approaches I take. I’d be interested in hearing other thoughts:

    -I signed up for a google alert of my birth name. I am then alerted to the fact that I need to ask well-meaning friends/family/church to remove my name from their Christian blog (often a blog/site that has many interpretations of Christian faith[not to mention political views] I cannot affirm or do not want to be associated with). I’ve only had to do this three times so far.

    -I only use my birth name for professional things, never for church things. Before speaking at a church or something(which I rarely do), I get a firm agreement that my name will never appear on their newsletter or website. And I only speak for groups I know and trust well (so they’re obligated to make good on their promise to not post my name).

    -I “deactivated” by Facebook account. If I were to resurrect it, I’d only friend professional people (you never know when good ole Zuckerberg will post for all the world to see all my Uncle Bob’s lovely fundamentalist rants without my permission).

    -In both nonchristian professional spheres and church spheres, I mainly try to express my faith at any length in informal personal conversations. If I ever write anything for a Christian audience, I’d use a pen name.

  • smcknight

    Jason, so “Jason Lee” is not your name?

  • Rick

    “Jason, so “Jason Lee” is not your name?”

    It sounds like his real name is Jason Bourne.

  • Jason Lee

    No, it’s not my birth name. I have no reason to use my birth name on a Christian blog.

  • Jason Lee

    Rick, I hope your joke is not meant to belittle the real struggles and tensions faced by many Christians who relate deeply with the non-Christian world.

  • Rick

    Jason #10-

    Not at all/just the opposite. Actually it was an attempt to combine a joke with a compliment.

    Even though I am one who likes to protect my privacy, I can’t imagine having to keep such close track of the use of my name.

  • Susan N.

    Jason, I have worried the potential for others’ “guilt by association” assumptions of me, as well. I also have family of the fundamentalist variety. Many (if not most) of my homeschooling associations are with a very conservative group. To a lesser extent, the way these associations affect my identity with the secular world (non-believers), caused me to issue a few “disclaimers.” My in-laws are Hindu; so it matters very much to me how they see Christ in and through me. Over the years, it has been more about practicing love and being open about how faith in Christ influences my ways.

    But, I have to say, as with Joseph, the real issue I have had is with the pious set. In identifying myself as part of their group (family, homeschooling community), it became very clear to me at a certain point that the general assumption in their minds was my total agreement with their views on religion, politics, science, etc. By keeping silent, I kept the peace with them. But I had no peace, and felt my integrity was compromised. There came a point for me that my convictions about what the gospel means was compromised by these groups’ “add on” beliefs, to which I did not and do not subscribe. The implications of the “add ons” were/are in fact so important to me that I felt/feel that the gospel is impeded by allowing them to stick to me in representing Christ rightly. I’ve spent a lot of time publicly clarifying (maybe partly for myself as well?) what I believe, and why. My faith is stronger, my conscience is clearer, but I can’t say all this has made me very popular! Oh well… I think it’s very important to be true to those convictions which God has placed deeply in our hearts. Science happens to be the least of my issues atm, though the creation/evolution debate is very boisterous in the social circles I’m a part of, as you might imagine. My husband exercises caution in expressing his views publicly to the masses (as in Facebook), due to potential negative effects with co-workers or career. I think he has wisely discerned the situation and keeping silent is best. Any “spilling” he does is on a one-on-one basis, judging how much to say or not say.

  • I read a quote just the other day to this effect (unfortunately I cannot remember from who).

    ‘Let your light shine, but not always on high beam as it will annoy those around you.’

    I think we would all agree about the importance of witness to and for Christ (word and deed), but we should also be careful ‘how’ we choose to witness. The ‘how’ is just as important as the ‘when’ and ‘where.’

    Another great post. Thanks.

  • Jason Lee

    Susan (11): Different ones of us will discern (hopefully after counting the cost) different hills we must die on. It’s just that dying on one hill may preclude dying on another.

  • DRT

    A wonderful topic for a post rjs, this is vitally important for every single person both with respect to what they are doing and how they judge what others are doing. As Ted said in #1 we all have different callings and that requires discernment in our relationship with the world. For some the correct answer could be 100% transparency at all times, and for others something else. We need to respect what each chooses.

    As I get older I am better able to converge my life so that I am living One Life much better and not multiple lives. Work DRT, Dad DRT, Wild DRT, Husband DRT, Explorer DRT, Lazy DRT and Christian DRT can at least see each other now and get along.

    My advice to the young out there, don’t be in a rush to converge your life. One of the points of the OP is that once you say or do some things they can not be unsaid or undone. I think Scot’s quote of the peals to pigs is a good one in this. There really is no need to do it and they may trample you.

  • DRT

    ha, trample you as they slip on the pearls….

  • Susan N.

    Jason – #14 and DRT – #15, so true, both comments. So much of my own recent experience coincided with my teen daughter’s struggle for identity in a stage of life that demands cultural and social conformity. I felt on some level that I couldn’t urge her to resist the pressure to conform and be confident in her identity, if I didn’t practice the same with my “peers.” She is very quiet and gracious by nature, and has made the decision not to engage in debate/argument with her peers on the issues of religion/politics/science. But, because she at least talks openly with me (thank You, God), I know who she is and what she believes, and what’s more, *she* knows. It isn’t always necessary to announce it to the world, or to convert someone else to one’s own view(s). I respect my daughter’s inner confidence and outward grace. She’s very patient with God and His timing, perhaps more than I can be at times. God is/will give her a unique “voice”, when the time is right in her life.

  • Jason Lee

    Susan, how interesting … the way that the convergence of children and technology complicates the picture for those trying to maintain a lower profile. Tough … but a potential opportunity to teach children from an early age to be wise about where they throw pearls (going back to DRT’s forward-looking advice to the young).

  • Susan N.

    Jason, yes! And I’m very cautious (protective) of my daughter in terms of social media… As I reread the discussion so far, and think about this, my mind goes back to the fact that our witness goes beyond what we say (or write) and ultimately depends more on how we act and live out what we say. As in Dr. Gaskell’s case, what he wrote 10 years ago came back to bite him. The problem with the written word is its permanency. Minds change, hearts change (praise God for that, actually!) — and yet, many times once judgments are formed, human nature makes it difficult for us to “erase” the opinions and prejudices we form, and take a fresh perspective toward a person and his or her views. God is capable of fresh starts and second chances, but flesh-and-blood beings struggle with this.

  • DRT

    Susan #17, congratulations on the relationship you have with your daughter. You feel blessed and she gains wisdom. Awesome. I am pretty certain your in laws understand how important generational ties are to learning.

  • It does not help anybody if you are the “annoying Christian guy.” I think our priority at work should be work. I also think it is okay to leak in how our faith affects our job and our lifes when appropriate. If you never talk about God in certain spheres because you are afraid, then maybe you should ask what you are afraid of?

  • DRT

    I want to address the question in the OP again : What role should the fear for reputation and position play in the way we as Christians present ourselves and engage within the public square?

    I believe the word fear in this question is misplaced and perhaps gives the wrong impression. I would say prefer to state it as the management of reputation and position. Like all things in our life we should judiciously manage what we have.

    Some more coaching (you have to realize that for the past 15 years or so I have been managing managers and executives so I tend to do a lot of coaching), early in my career I would somehow feel manipulative when purposely going out and setting the expectations of others. I would feel it was not right to go out to peers and others in the organization and neighborhood and family and church and tell them what they should be perceiving or expecting from me. It sounded manipulative. Well, as it turns out it is manipulative. The issue though is that it is appropriate and desired to manipulate. As long as what you are doing is manipulating for truth and understanding. When I used to speak in my church I would go and set expectations with the Pastor concerning what I was going to do. I would tell him if I was going to try and be inspirational, or solemn or detailed, or ambiguous. Setting expectations with others allows them to anticipate what you are doing and thereby smooth the whole experience.

    When someone is working on a project in their workplace, or church or even family it is strongly desired to go out and manage expectations and perceptions so that people will not be disappointed or, from a positive standpoint, that they will know how to appreciate and take advantage of what you are doing.

    So back to the point, I feel the question should be “What role should reputation and position management play in the way we as Christians present ourselves and engage within the public square? And the answer is, a great big role! Manage and use what we have wisely.

  • Rick


    “I feel the question should be “What role should reputation and position management play in the way we as Christians present ourselves and engage within the public square?”

    Good question. I was wondering how this post/topic relates to the goal of being “missional”, so you helped clarify somewhat with your question and answer.

  • Watchman

    Great article with excellent insight.

    I can only speak from my own experiences. But, I have found that we must be willing to forsake our reputation for the cause of the kingdom of God. What does this mean? Forsaking things of this world, making sacrifices, disagreeing on a few issues, perhaps losing the approval of a few friends and family members, and giving total surrender and trust to God. I think the early disciples could relate.

    Most recently, my theological view on a few things have changed dramatically from that of my conservative friends. My reputation as a theologically conservative, Republican-voting, Christian has dwindled and have unfortunately lost a few Christian friends as a result. I have become more liberal on a few social issues and have become apolitical on my, well… political views. I no longer see things as black and white on secondary theological issues instead see a lot of gray issues. As a result, my reputation has changed. Many see this as a better reputation while others see it as a step in the wrong direction.

    Either way, I align my views with how I see it in Scripture and what Christ emulated and taught while on earth. Therefore, I really don’t care so much about my own reputation, but more about my standing before God. And ultimately, that’s all that really matters to me.

  • gary davis

    I would pose this question: Why is it an all or nothing discussion? Is it possible to be a person of both good reputation, while at the same time having an identity of strong character?

  • rjs


    I don’t think it should be all or nothing – but the internet does make a difference.

    I would like to know, though, the advice or perspective of pastors here – how would you advice those you know?

  • AHH

    I think a passage from I Peter is relevant to this post:
    If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.

    There are lots of ways in which my “reputation” among coworkers, peers, family, neighbors, etc. could suffer because of taking a stand.

    If others think less of me because I follow a God incarnate in the crucified and resurrected Jesus, so be it. Similarly for a reputation that suffers because your Christian ethics make you unwilling to cut corners for employer profit, or unwilling to cheat to win a sports competition, or if your life priorities keep you from working the 80-hour weeks expected to get tenure at some universities. We should not run away from “the foolishness of the Gospel” or its ethical implications to preserve our reputations.

    On the other hand, sometimes our reputations suffer not because of the foolishness of the Gospel but because we are being fools.
    If others think less of you because you claim the Earth is flat (or scientific nonsense of similar caliber that comes from some Christians), or because you gracelessly beat people over the head with your Bible, or because you carry a “God hates fags” sign, then you are not suffering for Christ but rather for your own faults.

    Of course I have described extreme cases, but I think this is a good framework to keep in mind as we consider more difficult cases at the borderline.

  • AHH

    There are also strategic considerations when it comes to speaking up for your Christian convictions and/or preserving reputation. One must choose one’s battles. Barging into a secular situation with “I’m a Christian and you are wrong” as your main message is a good way to have zero influence. But if you can cultivate the respect of others (without serious compromise of your values), then others are more likely to listen on the (perhaps rare) occasions when you do speak up.
    Of course one can use this strategy as an excuse for never speaking up, which I confess would be my tendency.

  • I once worked with a woman who was gay. We were fairly close, but she avaoided talking to me about her relationship (and did not tell me she was gay or tell anyone else either). There came a time she was very sad and I asked her what was wrong to see if I could help and be supportive. She cautiously told me that she was gay and that her long time partner hd broken up with her. My resonse to her was “how could anybody do that? You’re such a great person!” She sat back very surprised and said that it was not the response she expected, followed by the words,”cause you’re a Christian.” Ouch.

    My reputation as a Christian (and that of other Christians) spoke louder than my love for her until that time. A strong lesson for me.

  • boy, do I need to spell check before I post… sorry

  • HAB

    AHH – I think your comments go along with my concerns. I am a young, college student and I am constantly torn between being confident in what I know the Lord has asked me to do and what the role of listening to others advice comes in.

    I know there is wisdom in hearing what others have to say about an issue but I also know there is a place where people will be speaking from opinion and not from wisdom given to them by the Lord.

    What about cases like John the Baptist and Jesus? They were both living out what God desired of them and they looked completely the opposite.

    Where does advice and the voices of others come into play?

    I would love to hear thoughts on this.