Michael Patton wrote a post the other day concerning the idea that one ought not to respond in the same way that the Lord and Paul responded to people in terms of their being harsh with others. Of course, I guess we can respond as they did when they weren’t harsh, but emulation only works one way apparently. In any case, I wanted to make some points as to why Michael’s post isn’t really accurate, as Michael and I have discussed this issue before and I feel he’s basing his thoughts on some bad exegesis. I do want to say that I like Michael. I agree with Michael on so many things. But this is our John Mark. I vehemently disagree with him on this, and think it's important for the sake of those to whom we speak to get this right.
- The passages Michael uses are being misinterpreted via ethnocentric eisegesis. We tend to live in a society that overemphasizes tone as the standard for right behavior. Aggression is bad. Because truth is no longer something that can be known, what is really important is the way you talk to people. No one can come to the truth, so arguing over it vehemently or coming at someone with a harsh rebuke, as though you know the truth and he doesn’t, is not acceptable. Instead, one needs to simply deal with others by respecting their opinions and their attitudes toward those opinions. So what is really important is not the truth or a display that the truth is important by being rigid and harsh about it to those who treat it lightly, but rather how we treat people in our interactions with them. That can be our universal good, rather than vying for what is true, since the only true virtue that we can know is the virtue of respecting others and other people’s opinions by not acting as though they are evil (even though we may nicely try to say that they are evil in a roundabout, irenic fashion). But saying that they are bad and acting like they are evil are two different things. Our behavior toward those ideas should not follow what we think of those ideas. Hence, relativism (and a compartmentalizing of feelings and thoughts) feeds into this interpretation.
But there is something else going on as well. Because we are always looking at our culture as the foil for biblical standards, we end up thinking that the term “gentleness” means “irenic,” since whatever the culture is practicing in that regard must be less gentle than what the Bible is calling for.
In fact, however, the term in biblical literature is closer to something like “non-violence,” with an emphasis on physical violence. You have to remember, a lot of cultures beat people into submission (many still do this). In many cultures, teachers hit their kids (including teenagers) in school when they act up. Parents often beat their children with full permission of society. The biblical command is in contrast to this culture, not ours, and the command to be gentle is one where we are not to grab, hit, violently scream at someone in order to instruct them in godliness. Instead, we are to rebuke, reprove, correct, and exhort with all patience. Sometimes that rebuke is harsh and sometimes that rebuke is soft. I would suggest we actually do emulate Christ and Paul here, as opposed to Michael’s advice, and respond to each person according to what they need, i.e., according to their spirit of humility toward God’s Word or rebellion against it. That looks to be a lot more biblical than Michael’s culturally-bound suggestion that we just be irenic with everyone without exception, or we are being sinful (which is very much the implication of these sorts of arguments).
But what is worse with Michael’s exegesis is that he fails to understand that the command to be gentle (i.e., non-violent) and give respect in the Petrine passage he uses here (and there is a long line of people misusing this passage) is that it is in the context of a subordinate to a superior (i.e., it’s not talking about how we address each other or a superior is to address a subordinate—he deals with that separately in his command for husbands to treat their wives well). Peter is talking about slaves with masters, wives with husbands, citizens with government. He’s not talking about everyone with everyone. This is made clear by both the context and the word he uses for “respect” (i.e., “fear”). “Fear,” as I’ve argued before, is a term given to convey that one ought to recognize another’s authority over him or her. It doesn’t mean respect in the sense that our culture sees respect in terms of every individual. We think respect means being irenic. Peter is talking about recognizing authority and not acting in violence against it. Hence, the recipients of the command and the sphere in which this command applies is made plain by the context and the words used. This is addressing a subordinate-superior context only. If we want to see if this is true for all contexts, we have to look at the entire Bible, and when we do that, the argument against being harsh doesn't hold. See how different that is when you pay attention to context and the words actually used, rather than assume that your English Bible and modern context are sufficient to interpret the Word of God?
Michael’s interpretation here is everything he poured into the text, and virtually nothing of what he pulled out of it. But he has a strong zeitgeist on his side, and this is a big problem for modern evangelicals, as they tend to confuse the inward and outward pull of the zeitgeist with the Holy Spirit who is usually in opposition to it. I’ve said this all before to Michael, but his traditions are greater at this point, so he just keeps on keeping on, since everybody else around him seems to interpret these passages the same way, so how could he be wrong?
- The justification of Jesus and Paul (not to mention pretty much everyone else in the Bible) that it was OK for them to be belligerent because they had the authority to do so, assumes that authority somehow allows for a greater leniency rather than a greater restriction of one’s actions.
First, we are actually told to imitate both Christ and Paul, and so I’m not sure who our models of behavior should be if not them.
Second, we are told that their harsh reactions are due to being filled with the Holy Spirit, not a demonic one, unless Michael wants to commit the unpardonable sin here.
Third, and this is really important, we, as authorities in the Church, have the same authority as Christ and Paul. We’re given the task to take over their ministries and keep them going in the world. We’re given their authority. If we don’t have it, I’m not sure why anyone thinks he has the right to teach or discipline others within the Church. I’m pretty sure Michael believes in apostolic succession as everyone else does, so in one form or the other, someone today (whether each individual Christian or Church elders in line with orthodox teaching) has the same authority to proclaim truth on the earth as the Lord Jesus and the apostle Paul did. Their authority is not something different than ours.
- If it is belligerent to approach someone in harshness, and I’m assuming Michael is saying this is bad (i.e., wrong, not glorifying to God, not becoming of a Christian, and therefore, a sin), then appealing to authority is a red-herring. One’s authority has nothing to do with one’s right to sin. In essence, Michael is saying, “Yes, well, Christ and Paul did something bad, but because of their authority, it was good in their cases.” Hugh? If it’s wrong to treat a human being in a less than irenic fashion, then it’s wrong, period. If it’s sometimes right and sometimes wrong, depending upon the situation, then I’m in full agreement with Michael. But that’s not what he argued.
- I have to point out that Michael has been harsh with people many times before, but it’s usually people who commit the unpardonable sin of having the wrong tone. In fact, Michael and I parted company on this point. You can claim to be a Christian and be committing a horrible sin, and you can stay on his blog. You can bring all sorts of theological error to his blog and not be removed. But if you have the wrong tone or are too harsh, then you get rebuked and threatened to be removed. Now, Michael didn’t do this to me, although he made it known that he didn’t like me being harsh many times. Instead, he just told me if I couldn’t agree with his rules concerning tone (I thought they were a capitulation to relativism and still do), then I shouldn’t comment. I chose not to comment anymore, as I felt that all of what we argued for as true would be diminished as less important than how we interact with one another, and that for me undermines, not the technicality of truth itself, but the importance of truth.
So I think that Michael’s post is woefully unbiblical, indicts every prophet, wise man, and teacher of God from the Bible to the many harsh souls who took truth just that seriously throughout Church History.
I, of course, am not saying that we should not, in general, approach people with an irenic spirit. My point, and many points made by those who commented on his blog, is that it takes more discernment and reading people in their comments to know how to respond than just making blanket statements that we should always respond one way to everyone, because that’s what Jesus, who didn’t do that, wants of us.
There is a lot more I could unpack here: the tendency in our culture to no longer see God as wrathful, although not something Michael would believe, does feed into what we consider “godly” and what we do not. If godliness means to be like God in His character, loving what He loves and hating what He hates, why in the world would it not include a wrath toward what is deceptive and evil? Why in the world would it not include a harsh tone in rebuking obstinacy in what has the possibility of dishonoring God and murdering souls?
Does this mean we should always just respond to people in whatever way we feel like doing so? No, we should respond to them according to the issue and the person’s attitude toward godliness and truth in learning about that issue. Many times that’s to respond in a very irenic fashion, but sometimes that means we ought to respond in a very harsh tone.
I’ve seen people rescued in both ways, but I’ve seen more people saved from things like suicide by harsh tones than soft ones. There is just something the person needs that is conveyed in a harsh tone that is not conveyed in a soft one. There is something about truth that is confirmed with a harsh tone that is not conveyed in a soft tone.
Now, I realize that Michael lives in the South and I live in the wishy-washy Northeast, so it may be that when he hears me or anyone else speaking directly and harshly, he thinks of some belligerent fundamentalist preachers spouting off and yelling at people for no good reason. These people are often not thoughtful people who consider what the other person is saying. So be it. But it is equally a fundamentalist move to blanket a one-size-fits-all response that condemns all other responses because you’ve had a bad experience with it, and would rather just remove other responses altogether rather than keep them and use control and discernment. It’s easier to just get rid of the TV; it’s easier just to reject dancing altogether; it’s easier just to not watch a movie, or celebrate a holiday, etc. than it is to have control of oneself and use discernment in their use. In the same way, being harsh can be abused, and it often is, but that is absolutely no reason to condemn the bulk of Christian teachers who were harsh as often as they were soft in their tones throughout biblical and ecclesiastical history because of that abuse.
In the end, Michael has prooftexted his way to establishing a cultural ideal, and this is dangerous, as he also acts upon this to deal out rebuke and discipline, thus dividing the people of God over a cultural ideal rather than seeking the peace in truth. Let us be unified in truth, speak it with love for God and others as our motivation, and never divide Christians between those who we feel have a nice tone versus those who we feel do not. Such is the work of the cult in culture, not the Spirit of Truth in the Body of Christ.