Browbeating is not the way of Jesus.
As He interacted with men and women, He could be provocative, compassionate, probing, even angry. He did not employ one standard relational template as He spoke and listened and taught.
However, He did not harangue. He taught the truth unequivocally but did not insist on agreement with it. His interest was not in demanding acquiescence but persuading and leading people into God’s kingdom. But He did, and does, demand decisions: Accept or reject as you might, but when it comes to the claims and teachings of Jesus Christ, neutrality or indefinite ambivalence are not options He allows.
In our time, persuasion is essential, especially among younger people. No one likes being lectured, but men and women 35 and under are particularly off-put by what they see as harangues. “Millennials want a personal connection,” writes Jeff From in Advertising Age. “Millennials don’t want to be spoken to; they demand to be spoken with.”
This can be difficult, as sometimes the wise course seems so obvious that to discuss whether or not to take it is just silly. Having a dialog on whether or not to put your bare hand on a hot stove is to claim that fact and logic have no meaning.
Yet dialog – respectful conversation that invites the other person to articulate his views, and responding with civility – is imperative if Christians are to win people to Christ and go on to make disciples of them.
Dialog does not park itself at the door of the church. Younger believers, as well as many older ones, are leery of being taught Scriptural truth in a didactic way. Many of them want to be romanced into the fullness of the orthodoxy they profess. Christians struggling with doubt need to be heard. Their inner conflict can be intensely painful, and their intellectual questions deep.
Similarly, those confused about Christian moral teaching regarding such things as human sexuality, sexual ethics, the nature of justice, and environmental stewardship should be allowed to express their disagreements without fear of reprimand.
There is a point, however, where professing Christians who persistently question biblical teaching stop pursuing intellectual integrity and social compassion and instead lapse into spiritual poutiness: The Bible says things with which they feel uncomfortable or with which to agree associates them with people with whom they would rather not be identified.
Spiritual rebellion and honest questioning are not the same thing. Ongoing dialog that refuses to reach a destination is mere rationalization and resistance, aimless spiritual globetrotting, an erstwhile quest for something the searcher says he seeks but does not truly want.
Such “dialog” ceases to be a means of understanding and persuasion and instead becomes merely a form of pandering (by those who wish to accommodate) and petulance (by those whose demand to be heard is really a demand for submission to their views).
Dialog is illegitimate if the questioner has neither a sincere heart nor the humility to receive instruction. This is not to suggest that the other participant, the mature Christian, has all the answers or cannot learn from the one struggling. The only source of revealed truth is the written revelation of the Bible, not the smug mind of the pompous believer.
But the Bible’s teaching on a host of issues is sufficiently distinct and consistent that it can be understood and applied. For example, Scripture’s teachings on such doctrines as the atonement and the deity of Jesus and such moral matters as sexual conduct and personal ethics are clear. This does not mean that all of these teachings are easy to accept or practice or that complete comprehension of what they mean is possible.
Rather, it means that the propositional declarations of the Bible, once understood, must at some stage be either accepted or rejected. Living in a “gray twilight” of chronic ambivalence is not an option for those who have come to trust in Christ as Savior and made a decision to follow Him as Lord.
Some Evangelicals rebel against a demand for decision. Influenced more by post-modern deconstructionism than the self-explanatory text of the Old and New Testaments, and more occupied with justifying anti-biblical conduct or belief than submitting to the Lordship of Christ, their dissatisfaction with orthodoxy and orthopraxy dissolves into whining, arrogance, and sin.
Not all opinions are equally valid. A few years ago I spoke at a gathering of perhaps 100 believers from across the country as well as across the theological and political spectrum. Although designed to foster dialog among Evangelicals of diverse political perspectives, the conservatives among us seemed more concerned with not appearing to have three heads than with persuading our brethren (“Yes, I’m pro-life, but I really, really don’t hate women” – this was unspoken but captures the tenor of the even).
More importantly, what struck me was the essential equivalence given to all the perspectives offered. This was more than frustrating; what some of the believers in that meeting needed was not a listening ear but a heart willing to accept instruction. Instead, the prevailing attitude seemed to be inoffensiveness above all, as though comity was an end in itself. Tolerance, whether warm or hostile, is not an end in itself; it must be a means, for Christians at least, to a far greater end – agreement about an unchanging core of truth before which we commonly should bow.
Christians are to measure their standards against those of the Word of God. When we stray from the truths of His Word, it is our job to conform to them, not try to contort Scripture into something it is not nor can ever be in order to gratify our preferences or rationalize our rebellion.
Yes, some of the Bible’s teachings are hard to accept. Yes, some of our fellow believers might not be people with whom, in our flesh, we would choose to associate or with whom we would want to be identified. Yes, there are some matters whose clarity is less than crystal: Eschatology and ecclesiology come readily to mind.
But what I like is far less significant than what is true. And the core of truth found in the Bible concerning God, His work, and His will is sufficiently transparent as to be accessible to all who want to know it.
We do God no great favor by submitting to Him. He created us for His glory, and does not frantically rub His hands together in the hope that we might like Him. He is compassionate and patient, but He is not desperate for our affection. He is not willing that any should perish, nor is He willing virtually beg us to repent and be converted.
Browbeating is not the way of Jesus. Neither is placating, desperately humoring, or exalting oozy warmth at the expense of truth.
There is no love in not telling people the truth and calling on them to make a decision about it. Such a call must be made graciously and compassionately, but also firmly and without equivocation.
There’s good precedence for this. It’s what Jesus did.