Jesus exhorted his followers sent out on mission to be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves in their missional activity. It was important that they combine the traits of both creatures in their witness given that they were being sent out as sheep among wolves. They would face severe danger and persecution for their witness to Christ: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16; ESV).
What do the images of shrewd serpents and innocent doves mean?
For starters, the word “innocent” does not mean gullible in this context in that the dove imagery is combined with that of the serpent. Being gullible entails being easily duped and deceived. We must be innocent, not gullible or stupid in our engagement of the world. Shrewdness or prudence serves as a good complement to innocence and keeps it from degenerating into gullibility. That’s why Jesus brings together the images of serpents and doves. In the ancient world, serpents were often conceived as symbols of prudence. Doves are often viewed as innocent.
Jesus knows that his followers will face persecution as they go about their missional journey. They need to be prudent without being overly cautious and holding back in fear from bearing witness to him. They need to be innocent without being easily deceived and abused.
We who follow Christ are to be like serpents and doves—what a contrasting pair! The two sides kind of balance out one another: if it weren’t for shrewdness, innocence might end up as gullibility; if it weren’t for innocence, shrewdness might end up as undue caution and paranoia. How are you doing with mixing and matching serpents and doves? I, for one, struggle. I am often shrewd as a dove and innocent as a serpent. In what follows, I will try and illustrate my difficulties with living out Jesus’ teaching when enduring “persecution.”
For starters, have you ever tried operating a voice-activated copy machine? I have. The sign on the new copy machine read, “Voice-activated.” The chief administrator at the seminary where I work informed me that all the faculty had been asked to practice operating the copy machine by speaking to it. Always eager to be a team player, I gave it a try. When it did not work, the administrator instructed me to speak louder. Only when she asked me if I knew what day it was (April 1st) did I realize what had just transpired.
The persecution did not end there. The next day, when one colleague heard the story, he said that if you look up “gullible” in the dictionary, you will find my name listed under examples. Another professor quickly replied, “And Paul said, ‘Really?! I’ll have to take a look.’”It never ends. All this came back to my mind today when I found “Suggestion Box for Dr. Metzger’s suggestions” taped on the seminary shredder. I was told that it, too, is voice-activated. Just so you know, I did not go for it this time. I’ve grown a lot in discernment since the previous event. Do you think I should be concerned, though, about the conversation that ensued around my suggestion box? The Dean responded to the question, “Where is the box for complaints about Dr. Metzger?” by saying, “I have a big filing cabinet in my office for all those concerns”? Next thing they’ll tell me is that the same filing cabinet contains evidence of the Cuban government supplying funds to the Democratic Party, just like with Watergate.
In addition to my colleagues believing I lack shrewdness, I wonder if Campus Security sees me as lacking innocence. Why do I wonder that? They tell me all the time about the cameras hidden in my office and the microchips in my head. I keep looking for them, but haven’t found them yet. Perhaps I should not venture out, as they are out to get me. Still, no matter where I go, security and their cameras are there…
If this is how it is when I face “persecution” in my workplace, which I really like, how will I ever be able to function well in the world where Christians don’t always experience such friendly fire?
When we who are Christians feel we are experiencing persecution for the faith, we need to make sure we are not concocting it in our minds or giving rise to the attacks based on our own negative behaviors. Far from appearing as innocent doves, we Christians often appear poisonous and obnoxious in our public profiles. Poisonous snakes are far more discreet and subtle in their public engagements. At least, they have mastered the element of surprise!
Beyond examples of negative witness, we Christians must not be surprised when we face persecution for being innocent as doves. It happens. Unfortunately, I easily forget what the Lord said. Remember that voice-activated “persecution” aside, the Lord is well aware of it, warned us, will preserve us, and reward us for witnessing to him and participating in his sufferings (Matthew 10:5-42).
So be prudent, not paranoid, innocent, not gullible. Don’t become paralyzed and fail to witness based on wariness of persecution or respond to persecution with counter-attacks. I am prone to go in one or both of these directions when I am not prepared. Beyond these points for preparation, whatever else you do, watch out for voice-activated copy machines.