Measuring Discernment and Critism with Gospel and Charity

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

It's late...I'm in a hotel room...on the last night of my last leg of business travel for the year. I'm "worn slap out" as we say here in the south. This is my preface to help offset what I hope is not an altogether uncharitable attitude towards those who are not being very my tired opinion.

A dear friend asked me to read a recent post by a very gifted blogging team whose zeal for sound doctrine and the biblical gospel is ordinarily a spicy, abrasive, sarcastic, and polemic recipe on the menu each week. His post provoked the return of friendly fire on the blog of this very gifted blogging team. I posted a few comments (first here, then here, and finally here)and in turn took some return fire myself from some dear friends.

I think the rub here is simple. We ought to preach the gospel and we ought to guard the gospel. And in both we are called to be discerning of those patterns, trends, or trajectories that will offset, neglect, deny, or altogether reject this gospel. But HOW are we to preach, guard, and discern? In short, the method ought to flow from the message.

In my comments, I point to three essential texts on developing a gospel-heart for those who are straying from the gospel or those who are neglecting and rejecting the gospel.

FIRST, 1 Corinthians 13 is a great place to start, for it defines the type of love we are to have when using our spiritual gifts, including the gift of discernment (1 Cor. 12:10). If one practices their gift of discernment and does not have love, then their preaching can become as much a loud gong or clanging symbol as can loveless-motivated tongues (whether you believe in them for today or not) (13:1). And if you give all your heart and soul in verbally exercising that discernment but don't have love, then it is of no value whatsoever (13:3).

What seems most significant about this text is that it becomes didactic, instructional, teaching literature on how we are to handle and talk and behave toward one another. There is no similar type of literature in the Scripture, as far as I can tell, on handling others with sarcasm. In fact, much of what we read in 1 Corinthians 13 would seem to argue against such communication devices on a repeated and defensive manner.

Further, citing Paul (in Galatians and Corinthians) or Jesus (in the temple angry or with the Pharisees) as examples proves to be difficult for several reasons. For one, it presents basic hermeneutical difficulties. When is it right to emphasize a writer's inspired writing practices over and above what is clearly given to us in Scriptures as direct instruction for our behavior and speech? The argument that this is the Son of God and arguably the greatest Apostle always breaks down at some point. But it seems to hold up here. I'm fearful that as one outside of biblical inspiration I can argue with the same communication techniques and be as effective as they were. If ever there were men who got the balance 100% right, it was these two. I'm not in that group and I don't know of anyone else who is either.

SECOND, if love endures all things, as 1 Corinthians 13:7 teaches, then what does that endurance look like as it regards those who we think are neglecting, ignoring, or rejecting the gospel? That answer seems simple, too. 2 Timothy 2:24-25 shows us Paul's own example. "The Lord's servant must NOT be quarrelsome but KIND to EVERYONE, able to teach, PATIENTLY ENDURING evil, correcting his opponents WITH GENTLENESS. God may grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth..."

Now for those who consistently bring up Paul's tone in Galatians as a defense of how we can talk to people today who neglect the gospel like they did, here's a good question to ponder: is it possible that the Paul of 2 Timothy 2:24-25 showed the same attitude towards the Galatians? If not, why not? If so, how so?

Let's say for argument sake that we are dealing with a different Paul, in terms of these two books lying at opposite ends of his writing career. If so, and I'm willing to grant this very reasonable line of thought, then isn't the Paul in 2 Timothy (facing martyrdom) much more mature than the Paul of Galatians (at the very beginning of his writing ministry)? We certainly see evidence of this in other places, like his progressive humility in 1 Corinthians 15:8 to Ephesians 3:8 to 1 Timothy 1:15; or else his separation with John Mark in Acts 15 and his request for John Mark's assistance in 2 Timothy? Is it possible that if he had it to do over again he might change his tone a bit toward the Galatians like he did toward John Mark? The argument of inspiration with the inclusion of the human side makes this a tough argument to think through, indeed. But it is certainly one worthy to consider.

THIRD, even with this argument when we look at the second letter Paul wrote, 1 Thessalonians, we still see a man, early in his ministry, who had the "tone" of "a nursing mother taking care of her own children" (1 Thess. 2:7), "being affectionately desirous" (v. 8), and "a father with his children" (v. 11). Do we think that Paul didn't have the same heart toward the Galatians or the Corinthians because they were in error? It seems foolish to try to argue that because we don't see the tone of 1 Thessalonians 2, or 1 Corinthians 13 or 2 Timothy 2 in Galatians that it wasn't there at all. This is the gentleness and kindness in "tone" with which Paul dealt with with everyone - from new believers like the Thessalonians all the way to false teachers like those in Ephesus where Timothy was pastoring.

FOURTH, if we look to the Master we see one of the only places in the Scriptures where we get a glimpse of what Jesus is like as a person. That is found in Matthew 11:28-29, and there we are told that Jesus is meek and lowly in heart. He is one to whom those run who are weary and burdened in their lives. He seeks to give rest to people's souls! But this is not and cannot be reflected when we communicate with abrasion and sarcasm. Polemics are necessary, but they ought to be utilized with the spirit and attitude of the gospel...and with the meekness and lowliness of the Savior who has come to rescue them from false teaching.

If we deal with the same thing Jesus dealt with in His day in false teaching, can we expect to handle it with the perfection and precision of speech and attitude in which He did? There's just no way. We're too tainted with sin to even hope to do so. So if we should err on one side or the other in Jesus' responses, it seems most wise and logical that we would err on the side of His meekness and lowliness and humility and gentleness and kindness with people...rather than on the side of the whip-swinging, rebuke-throwing Jesus in the temple and with the Pharisees.

FIFTH, the balance we do see in the Master is found in His addresses to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3. Six out of seven churches got a word of comfort and encouragement, as well as exhortation and warning and rebuke. He gives both. Even in churches where there was false teaching going on (Pergamum and Thyatira) He had encouraging words for them. He looked for evidences of God's grace in them, saw these evidences, and commended them. So much for the blogging crowd and commenters who complain and opine that we don't always have to preface critical remarks with encouraging words! I think that when we are dealing with churches and Christians, even those with whom we disagree vehemently about potential or actual false teaching, there seems no better place to turn than to the Chief Shepherd in these two chapters.

So how do I wrap up a late night blog where I'm hoping and praying that my wearied body and sleepy mind have communicated with some clarity? How about with these words. They seem to give a biblical balance to this whole issue.

"Don't just pretend that you love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Stand on the side of good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other" (Romans 12:9). "Most important of all, continue to show deep love for each other, for love covers a multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8).

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