Moral indignation without compassion is little more than petulance and self-righteous smugness.
Mercy and acceptance untempered by a steadfast commitment to unchanging truth constitute moral weakness and can indicate, at times, self-loathing.
Finding the perfect mean between these two demands a measure of spiritual maturity difficult to achieve and even harder to sustain.
We want to be bold for the truth, yet personally gracious and courteous. We want to call sin sin, but don’t want to be harsh or condemnatory. We want to make arguments structured logically and informed factually, but we don’t want to forget that we’re dealing with fallen, finite, needy people to whom reason can seem cruel as they face their private pain.
Wedding grace with truth is always a tough union, but for Christians in the public sphere, such a marriage needs a lot of help to keep it going. The Internet has given volume to myriad Evangelical voices. It has become a place to persuade and to vent, to argue and to harass. Christians who talk professionally—politicians, radio hosts, pastors, counselors, etc.—will be the first to admit that they sometimes err too far on the side of grace and sometimes too far on the side of truth. The wire on which they walk is high, and when they fall from it, there can be calamitous results.
The difficulty in always maintaining a “truth in love” tone is compounded by the crevasses of human nature. Any form of public proclamation involves the taking of a position. This can bring out the peevishness in many of us, especially those harboring a perpetual discontent with almost everything in Evangelicalism (and perhaps their lives at large).
Even if the position is both indisputably biblical and attractive to secular society—fighting human trafficking comes to mind – there are those believers who will criticize the stance taken: It distracts us from sharing the Gospel; it involves too much cooperation with the world; wouldn’t the money be better spent on (name your preferred ministry here)?; it doesn’t get to the root of the problem; and so on, ad nauseum.
There are only a few alternatives for the believing church: (1) Shut up, do acts of private or relatively non-public charity, and tread quietly through an increasingly hostile culture, hoping no one will notice us and, if they do, that they’ll really like us; (2) justify bombast in the name of courage and ranting in the name of defending the faith, giving free rein to obnoxious self-presentation that glories in verbal beatings; and (3) do our best, in the power of the Holy Spirit and with the direction of the Word of God, to wed grace and truth, as our Master did (John 1:14-17), and ask Him to scour away our unavoidable errors of tone and content.
Of course, such errors—sometimes sins—are not wholly eradicable. The history of the church is checkered with episodes of unforgettable vice and even viciousness in the Name of Christ, and we Evangelicals in America have had (and still do have) any number of Christian leaders whose moral failings, verbal excesses, and theological eccentricities have blemished our testimony.
We always will, but this justifies neither of two extremes: apathy about saying or doing wrong or foolish things or near-paranoid preoccupation with saying and doing everything with immaculate expression. Neither alternative has value: inaction animated by fearful caution is as unacceptable as arrogance and aggressiveness masked as prophetic boldness.
The real issue is one of a commitment to maturity, personal and spiritual. A significant part of Christian maturity is the humble recognition of our sin and our ignorance and their manifestations in the public square and a ready willingness to repent of them.
This does not mean we accept immediately every criticism hurled at us (“You’re against same-sex marriage? You’re a homophobic hater!”). It means that we are honest before our God and those to whom we proclaim various aspects of His truth and are quick to seek forgiveness when we’ve blown it.
Christian communicators have a unique duty to proclaim truth faithfully and mercifully. Here are a few suggestions about how better to do so:
(1) We need to study (on an ongoing basis) the Word of God, Christian theology, and church history. Too often, Christian commentators speak out of earnest hearts but relatively uninformed minds. Unschooled in theology and unfamiliar with church history, these good brethren are susceptible to false teaching and bad ecclesial history. “Study to show yourself approved unto God,” Paul told Timothy (II Timothy 2:15). Good intentions and sincere convictions bereft of sound theology and an understanding of the Christian past lead to errors of all kinds.
(2) We need to read commentaries, articles, and books with whose conclusions we disagree. Listening to MSNBC once in a while won’t kill you. You will not die if you read The New Republic or the editorial page of The New York Times. Doing so will challenge some of your pat-answer conclusions and help you view those who disagree with you as real people, many of them highly intelligent and quite sincere (and sometimes, if we’re honest, right in their conclusions). Moreover, you might not enjoy reading Barbara Ehrenreich or even Noam Chomsky, but wouldn’t it be wise to have a least some knowledge of what the other guys are saying? How can you “understand the times” if you never read about the influence of deconstructionism on contemporary education or check out what NARAL is saying about the emergence of a pro-life majority?
(3) We need to guard our hearts. Truly righteous indignation is never personally demeaning or hateful. Truly Christian compassion never minimizes the gravity of sin or false teaching. Truly thoughtful criticism is never petty, and truly sober-minded tolerance is never morally weak. “Let a man examine himself,” says Paul with respect to the Lord’s Supper (I Corinthians 11:28). Not bad counsel for the way we live and move in the public square, either.
(4) Ask Godly friends for counsel about the way you are coming across. Give them the freedom to speak freely. You might be an Evangelical megastar; just remember you’re also fallen, frail, mortal, and prone to pride. Legends in their own minds die like the rest of us. So, take everything but the Bible with at least a small grain of salt; however, if several trustworthy friends approach you about something you said or the way you said it, have enough humility at least to consider whether you need to apologize for it. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend,” Proverbs tells us. Loving exhortation is as valuable as genuine encouragement.
This advice derives in part from the principles of Scripture and in part from the fact that I too often have failed to apply them as I write and speak to audiences both Christian and secular. They also come from decades of political experience in which I’ve witnessed both the best and the worst of Evangelical Protestant presence in the public arena.
So, love God, hate sin, love sinners, stand for what’s right, have a humble spirit. Easy, right?
Because combining these things is so difficult those who have been born again have been given God’s self-revelation in Scripture and the presence of His indwelling Holy Spirit. Whatever our audiences, whether a three year-old at home or a nationwide following, let’s all lean harder on them.