Showing Grace When Evangelical Leaders Speak Intemperately

Showing Grace When Evangelical Leaders Speak Intemperately January 7, 2013

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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