Lee Gatiss has written an interesting post on the Church Society website. You can read it here. His essential argument appears to be, just because Jesus and Paul (and others) sometimes excoriated those who stood in opposition to the gospel, we shouldn’t do the same. The key section of Lee’s post states:
We are neither divine, all-knowing and sinless saviours, or apostles of Jesus Christ with prophetic insight and revelation. So I think we ought to be more wary of too quickly claiming to imitate Jesus and the godly authors of Scripture before we have heard their strictures on harshness, discourtesy, and disproportionate argumentativeness. Let’s attempt to do as they say, before we boldly permit ourselves to do as they did.Church Society
His article closes with the following questions for reflection:
- Why are there wolves and heresies in the church?
- In what ways do we face the same kinds of opposition Jesus did?
- Should we do as Jesus did, or do as Jesus says?
I don’t know whether it was a product of Lee’s particular context or not, but his article didn’t seem (from my Dissenting perspective) to really hit the nail on the head. Let me explain why with reference to his questions.
Why are there wolves and heresies in the church?
There are any number of ways we might answer this question. Ultimately, it is because sin exists and will never be eradicated in either the world nor the people of God fully until we get to glory. So, wolves and heresies exist because sin exists. But we could also say wolves and heresies exist in the church because the church refuses to handle the heresies and remove the wolves from fellowship.
Now, I am sure Lee is driving at this point. Would that the leadership of the Anglican Church removed heretics and wolves from their midst. But there remains another problem. There aren’t just wolves and heretics in the church, but there are wolves and heresies being advanced by those in positions of authority. So, what does one do when one’s authorities peddle heresy and manifest lupine tendencies?
Isn’t that precisely the situation Jesus did find himself in with the Pharisees and religious leaders of his day? The Lord, and the apostles after him, are pretty clear in both the things they said and they things they did exactly how we should react under such circumstances. Jesus had no problem telling the religious leaders just what he thought about them and Paul is quite clear, ‘those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear’ (1 Tim 5:20).
I sense the reason heresies and wolves are running rampant in some quarters is a decided unwillingness to do either as Jesus and the Apostles said or did!
In what ways do we face the same opposition as Jesus?
Jesus was most fiercely opposed by the religious leaders of his day. Jesus saved his harshest criticism for those who knew the scriptures and yet chose to ignore them. Jesus faced his harshest opposition from those who should have known better and ought to have fully recognised and welcomed him as God’s promised messiah.
Like him, we ought to save our harshest criticism for those who know the scriptures, place themselves in positions of authority and lead swathes of people astray with their false teaching that is heard because of their position. Lee is quite right, ‘Jesus certainly did not give a deservedly harsh answer to every ridiculous thing said against him.’ But he did give something of a dressing down to those who set themselves up as authorities, who sought to undermine him, with a fair degree of frequency.
It is evidently true that Jesus didn’t reel off a list of insults as the crowds were crucifying him. But we shouldn’t ignore the fact that there was a crowd full of people, many of whom were not the ‘should have known betters.’
It would likewise be foolish of us to try and answer every critic or offer a defence against every stupid accusation. If Christ won’t break a bruised reed, and didn’t unload on those who had minimal light, it is hard to mount a case that we should do the same. But wolves peddling heresies, setting themselves up as Biblical authorities, leading people astray, that is a different prospect isn’t it? There surely is a time to roll out the language of whitewashed tombs and broods of vipers. The question isn’t whether we should ever do this, but when we should do this. Both the words, and the example, of Jesus and the Apostles suggest it is specifically when wolves are among us.What wolf has ever been warded off with some kindly words?
Lee lands hard on the commands to gentle speech and loving our enemies. That sounds great but puts us in the realms of suggesting Jesus and the Apostles were wrong (or hypocrites) given that they did see fit to employ some hard words at times. Moreover, it is a faulty view of love. How much love are we showing to the sheep if we refuse to forcefully defend against the wolves? We can insist on the importance of loving our enemies all we like but it doesn’t do much for the command to love those entrusted to your care if you allow it to let the wolf roam free among you, not sparing the sheep. Nor, frankly, is it all that loving to the wolf. Allowing people to carry on, headlong in sin, is never loving. A patronising smile and a pat on the head hardly conveys the seriousness of heresy that leads folk to destruction.
Should we do as Jesus did, or do as Jesus said?
Naturally, it would seem sensible to do both, wouldn’t it? Unless Jesus himself was a hypocrite, or he didn’t mean it when he called us to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect, we probably ought to be aiming to do as he did and he said because those two things oughtn’t to be in any sort of dialectical opposition.
It is quite apparent that Jesus did not answer every criticism he ever faced, and nor should we. It is quite apparent that Jesus did love his enemies, and so should we. It is also evident that he managed to love them whilst, at the same time, saying some pretty hair raising things to them. Indeed, he was loving them as he said it because, had they listened, they would have been saved from the path of destruction they were intent on walking. It certainly showed love and care for those who dared to listen to their errant teaching because, whether their leaders heard or not, some of them did and they were saved. I am wary of driving a wedge between what Jesus said and did, as if those two things should somehow be at odds.
That being the case, we should do both as Jesus said and as Jesus did. We ought to lay down our lives for him just as he laid down his life for us. We ought to care about the glory and holiness of God as he did. We ought to care about the purity of his church as he does. We ought to care about those entrusted to us as he does.
When we look at how he did that, a familiar pattern becomes clear. Lee is right, Jesus didn’t look to answer ever criticism or break every opponent. But he did give short-shrift to those in positions of authority. He certainly had few gentle words for those who would lead others astray. Better that millstones be tied round their neck is hardly the language of ‘mutual flourishing.’ Jesus was quite apparent he had no interest in mutual flourishing. He wanted gospel flourishing. He wanted God’s glory to shine more brightly than he wanted to maintain unity with wolves and heretics. The Apostles seemed to toe the same line.
Whilst Lee is right, we are not Messiahs or Apostles, we do have their teaching preserved in scripture for us. We do have their example to follow. We do have the same Holy Spirit dwelling in our hearts who helps us to understand these things. And we do have the same instructions to look after the flock and to guard against the wolves.
Does this mean I have to go after every bloke who throws an accusation at me on Twitter? Obviously not. But it does mean I should go hard after those who would lead the little ones astray, particularly those within my congregation that the Lord has entrusted to me. It especially means that if those wolves are the leaders who have embedded themselves in the structures to which I submit and have aligned myself, ‘contending’ presumably means – at a minimum – making it abundantly clear that these wolves and heretics are, indeed, the whitewashed tombs and brood of serpents that Jesus called out. That is both what he said, and what he did, and what his Apostles said and did too, would point us to do as well.