Wise and Innocent

A newspaper article a few weeks ago reported on a federal inquiry into the status of religious freedom in Australia (see Rebecca Urban, “Christians Under SeigeThe Australian May 6, 2017). Urban detailed several instances in which Christians have faced social pressure on account of their convictions:

A Melbourne IT specialist engaged to work on the Safe Schools program was sacked after privately expressing concerns about the contentious initiative during a staff meeting, with his employer later accusing him of “creating an unsafe work environment”. Lee Jones, a Christian who was general manager of a business at the time, had told his boss he would work on the project despite his views but was dismissed regardless. He was in a staff meeting when asked his opinion about Safe Schools. His response was that he would not want his own children to be taught some of the more controversial elements of the program…

In another case, a pub­lic servant in Victoria was given a warning for complaining about being pressured to take part in a gay pride march. The man, also a Christian, later asked to be taken off the email list of the department’s LGBTI network as he found emails “offensive by reason of his religious background”. He was issued a notice to show cause why he should not be disciplined…

An Alice Springs teacher was threatened with disciplinary action last year for expressing opposition to same-sex marriage on a Facebook forum. Despite the comments being made outside school hours, he was issued a notice to show cause. The Northern Territory Education Department has since dropped the action…

Finally, an Adelaide ­university student was suspended last year after offering to pray for a student who was stressed over her workload and later voicing his opinion about homosexuality. The student had said that he would treat a gay person kindly “but (didn’t) agree with their choice”. He was ordered to undergo “re-education” but sought legal advice and the university withdrew the allegations.

It seems that hostility toward Christian faith is increasing in our culture, and Christians would do well to be prepared to endure it. Perhaps more “progressive” Christians will not need to be so concerned, especially if they have found ways to affirm those things that progressive culture also affirms.

But what of those of us who are not so comfortable with aspects of the progressive social agenda, who perhaps even find them antithetical to Christian convictions? What are Christians to do when it is wrong to withdraw from public engagement, but threatening to so engage? What might appropriate response look like?

In this context, Jesus’ words from Matthew 10:16 provide guidance: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” (NASB).

Because Jesus has sent us out, our place is indeed, “in the world,” and even among the “wolves.” Christians must not withdraw from public space and public dialogue, but their presence is to be wise and innocent. Sometimes Christian engagement in the public sphere is less than wise; at other times it is far from innocent. Wise engagement is required lest we be ravaged; innocence is necessary lest we give ground for accusation or inflame existing tensions.

Jesus’ choice of animal imagery in this text indicates something further about this engagement: the wolf and the serpent are carnivorous, seeking prey, while the sheep and the dove are not and do not. Though they have no fangs, however, the sheep and the dove are not without some defence. Both may flee when danger presents, though the sheep will also certainly lose even if it flees. I once saw a small flock of sheep react when the sheepdog entered the paddock. They stood shoulder to shoulder facing the dog, turning as it walked by keeping it always in view, always presenting its united front to the intruder. Such a strategy would hardly work against a pack of hungry wolves, however; in that case the sheep can do little more than hope that their shepherd is close at hand. The sheep is inherently vulnerable and so needs both shepherd and flock; so too perhaps, the believer in the world.

Jesus applies the serpent image to the disciple, though this is not a commission for the church to grow fangs, to hunt, to seek prey. It is to be shrewd as a serpent and innocent as a dove, the two qualities mutually conditioning. “Without innocence the keenness of the snake is crafty, a devious menace; without keenness the innocence of the dove is naïve, helpless gullibility” (Wilkins, Mattthew [NIVAC], 392). It is “tempting” to recall the Genesis 3 passage where the serpent cunningly tempted Eve with deceptive argument, drawing her away from God and his word of command and promise. Perhaps the church can similarly learn to argue shrewdly but innocently, using truthful argument to draw interlocutors toward God and the word of his grace.

“Let your speech be always with grace,” says Paul, “seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person” (Colossians 4:6). This, too, is good counsel. “Salty grace” suggests a winsome, though steadfast presence, one which communicates both truly and truthfully. Too much salt, of course, destroys a dish; but some salt is necessary, especially when conversation is bland or clichéd. So, too, grace is essential, especially when conversation has become polarised or hostile. To “know how you are to respond” will require a thoughtful Christianity, which suggests that believers must have thought through their convictions to such a degree that they can articulate them in interesting, rational, non-defensive, and persuasive ways. Perhaps a good dose of humour and light-heartedness will lubricate the conversation, reminding us also that the battle is Lord’s.

Further to this, however, is the life of genuine innocence and virtue in community. Unless believers inhabit communities of grace their witness will surely fall flat. Both doves and sheep flock, and corporate witness of the church’s life adds substance to its arguments. The corporate life of the community is also necessary to sustain the believer in their witness within the world. The knowledge of Christian truth-claims and the nurture of Christian convictions, the courage to stand firm under trial, and the hope that undergirds it: all these are part of the formation that occurs in the Christian community as a community of grace, theological instruction, and moral deliberation.

Above all is the wisdom and innocence of the cross as the way of the true God and so also the true disciple in the world. This is the way of intentional vulnerability:

Jesus does not say that we are to “become” sheep, but, more fundamentally, that when we go into the world in his obedience we are in fact going out “as” sheep. . . . This “sheepishness” is due to the nonviolent nature of Jesus’ work, as we learned from the Sermon on the Mount. We are not primarily fighters, we are not allowed to be haters, and we cannot even use the arsenal of invective that revolutionary movements find necessary for motivation. . . . Jesus’ cross is not an exception to the rule of discipled life; it is the rule (Frederick Bruner, Matthew, Volume 1, 472).

22 thoughts on “Wise and Innocent

  1. While I fully appreciate the need to be innocent as doves and wise as serpents, there is yet another passage with which we need to wrestle to get a full picture of how we are to act in a world that would sooner see us gone, and that is Ephesians 6. Here we are to be suited up, as warriors, in the armor of God, to stand against the actions of the devil. This is the true enemy, one that we must be accoutered to not just resist but fight… ” For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” This does not sound like a flock of sheep or doves. Wrestling with both images gives the fullest picture of our assignment on this earth.

    1. Hello Katherine,
      Thank you for your comment. I probably need to hear a bunch more of your view for me to comment intelligently. However,
      (a) if you mean that our armour is indeed truth, righteousness, peace, faith, Scripture, and prayer, and
      (b) if we understand Ephesians 6 in accordance with the overcoming of a text like Revelation 12:11 (overcoming through the blood of the Lamb, the word of their testimony, and loving not their lives even unto death),
      then I think I would agree whole-heartedly with you! They are pretty serious qualifications, I know! And understood in this way, there is not a great difference between Matthew 10:16 and Ephesians 6. Perhaps we wrestle against principalities and powers BY being wise as serpents and innocent as doves…

  2. Mike

    This is a wonderful piece – very clear and wise. Thank you for writing this.

    Grace and peace

    Simon Bibby

  3. If you attempt to deny the equal rights of LGBT Australians, you should not be surprised that employers question your fitness to get along with all members of the workforce or doubt that you are the best candidate for treating students fairly. You’re free to hold whatever superstitions or prejudices you want to hold, but no one else is required to support or subsidize such beliefs.

    1. Hello Kathleen,
      Thank you for your comment, and sorry it has taken me a while to respond.

      I am not sure that anyone in the scenarios listed “attempted to deny equal rights of LGBT Australians,” though I do acknowledge that they expressed their personal opinions about the Safe Schools programme and Same-Sex Marriage. I am sure you would agree that it is quite okay to express an opinion, even if it is contrary to what others think? That it is quite okay to discuss, debate and even disagree with matters that are in the public forum for debate?

      I think it is very important, of course, that such debate is respectful of others, their opinions, and their experiences. And I know only too well that at times Christians have failed miserably in this regard. I have probably failed in this regard myself too many times in the past. Maybe/probably I still do, though I do try not to.

      How about you?

      1. Speaking of being as wise as a serpent, why do you think homosexuals and Leftists like Katherine believe you should be allowed to express your opinion when all the evidence is to the contrary? They are steadily outlawing your opinion and think you need re-education. There is no reason to assume good faith on their part when they’ve demonstrated nothing but bad faith.

        Further, there is no reason to apologize for what Christians might have done in the past when it is simply homosexual hearsay and neurosis. It is foolish to treat their arguments with respect as if they are simply misguided when they are in fact evil. The homosexual agenda is all about validating gays in their sin, using the State to crush, and perhaps using the law to legalize their more abominable practices like grooming boys.

        There is no warrant for being a nice guy.

        1. Walt I must disagree. True, I was appealing to Kathleen’s better lights in hope of productive conversation. I still hope for that. It may well be that some members of the gay lobby want to drive Christians out from the public square: I don’t doubt it. Maybe Kathleen too wants that – I don’t know. I am not naive to the fact that Kathleen’s language suggests she thinks little of my faith. But if my conversation with Katherine can disabuse her of the idea that Christians are all ignorant, superstitious, etc., and that perhaps I am willing to listen to her and engage intelligently and constructively, may even have something to say, then I consider that a worthwhile engagement.

          I fear your language will only inflame the discussion and polarise the positions, giving credence to those who would silence us. By all means let us argue our case, but let’s do so in such a way as to win a hearing, and to make a case. As it is, your post is inaccurate with respect to history, misguided with respect political existence in a modern liberal democratic state, unchristian in its attitude to other persons loved by God and for whom Christ died, and presumptuous with respect to your own righteousness and the nature of Christian ethics.

          What if Kathleen and others do not acknowledge my appeal? What if they continue to seek the silence and removal of those who disagree with their agenda from the public arena – what then? Does the unkind behaviour of another licence me as a Christian to “return evil for evil,” to forget who I am as a Christian, to put aside the Beatitudes, the fruit of the Spirit, good grace – to become “unchristian” in the name (and only in name!) of being “Christian”? What kind of Christianity is that? Certainly it is not biblical Christianity in any sense of the word. Read again the beatitudes; read again James 3, and especially the last verse.

          By all means be Christian – truly Christian, and if necessary, endure shame, persecution and suffering for being Christian. But we cannot claim to suffer for the sake of Christ if we depart from the way of Christ. I think there is every warrant for being, not a nice guy, but a genuine follower of Jesus.

          1. Baby Boomer ‘niceness’ is just cowardice and under Boomer leadership both Western liberal democratic society and the church have to their current states. We are to be salt and light and answer fools according to their folly.

            Since we’re leveraging our favorite passages against one-another, have you ever read what James said to the rich, or Jesus to the Pharisees or the unrepentant cities, or Paul to the Athenians on Mars Hill, or any of the Psalmists describing the wicked? How can the wicked repent and believe if you coddle their wickedness and assume some neutral ground with their presuppositions? Where is your law and gospel? Looks like we both have some Bible study to do.

          2. Michael, I think it would be a good start if you did not use the phrase “gay lobby” unless you are also willing to talk about the “Christian lobby”. One thing I’ve noticed about Christians (feel free to tell me if I’m wrong) is that there’s a gay lobby but no Christian lobby, only gay “activists” but no Christian activists, only the “gay agenda” but never the “Christian agenda.” It’s this amazingly loaded use of language that Christians themselves don’t even recognize, hence the irony in a well-intentioned, gentle post that nevertheless invokes stereotypes of a “gay lobby”, whatever that means.

            Or perhaps you can explain to me who exactly you mean to refer to by the “gay lobby”. Again, not a trick question. I am not gay myself and so perhaps I am missing something about the “gay lobby”

  4. When does strident disagreement cross over into “hostility”? As someone who is not a Christian, it seems more likely to me that Christians have enjoyed being the cultural majority for so long that they are having trouble adjusting to being a cultural minority. There’s no reason that Christian ideas about sex or sexuality should be given particular privilege. It’s fair that others with different beliefs contest them loudly, even aggressively, as long as the state itself does not shut down speech with threats of imprisonment or fines.

    For many decades, Christian leaders aggressively advocated against homosexuality. Christian pastors supported laws criminalizing consensual intimate relations between gay men. Christians regularly spoke of gay people as “unnatural” or “disordered” or “deviant” (actually, they used far more aggressive words than that). So, I’m genuinely curious, and this is not a trick question. Is the “hostility” experienced by contemporary Christians more or less than the hostility historically experienced by gay people?

    I think Christians have only received a fraction of the hostility they have demonstrated to gay people. Talk to any gay person over the age 30, particularly church-going ones.

    1. Lisa, thank you for such a considered comment – I like so much of what you have written, and even more, the spirit and honesty of your post.

      Your question is also a very good one. Strident disagreement is not what is wanted – I just looked up “strident” to check its range of meanings, and think we should avoid being strident even when we disagree strongly with another’s opinion. Strong disagreement may still be expressed courteously and respectfully; sadly this is not always the case – on both sides of passionately argued issues.

      I agree with you that many times in the past, Christians have been harsh, sometimes even murderous, in their treatment of those they disagree with. Although historical instances of such treatment need to be understood (a) within the general conditions that prevailed in different historical periods (i.e., the world was often a far more brutal place in times gone by), and (b) not only as examples of the behaviour of Christians – though they were that undoubtedly – but also as examples of attitudes that prevailed more generally in society, this does not ameliorate the behaviour of those Christians, and especially, those clerics and other Christian leaders, who engaged in harsh, hostile or murderous language or behaviour. The church has without question at times lost sight of the ethos of its founder, and not always followed its best lights.

      Where the church has done wrong, I beg forgiveness, or at least the chance to try to do better now, in my own time, place and sphere. And I acknowledge that wherever the church remains “strident,” forgiveness is unlikely to be granted, for such a church probably demonstrates that it remains unrepentant: critical of others without being self-critical.

      Your insight concerning the behaviour of the church when it was in cultural ascendancy penetrates to a core issue. The historical entanglement of church and state is a vexed issue which has almost always led to compromises (and abuses) in the church’s practice. This was one of the reasons the Anabaptists in the sixteenth century and Baptists in the seventeenth centuries pioneered the separation of church and state: to keep the state out of the church (and vice versa) so the church could be faithful to its unique identity, ethos, and mission. You are quite right that some in the church (not all!) find this loss of status, influence and power discomforting. Others see in this cultural decentring of the church a fresh opportunity to return to its true self.

      (I am aware that what I have written is too simplistic to deal adequately with the history of the church in its behaviour towards those it disagrees with, and with its shaping influence on Western society generally; I am not sure I could do justice to this kind of discussion in any case, let alone in this forum.)

      Again, thank you for taking the time to visit, read and comment. I hope my response makes some sense, and I apologise for its essay-like length!
      Michael.

  5. Michael, I see where you’re coming from, but I’m not convinced you’ve identified the heart of the problem. Christians behave as if “tone” and “delivery” were the problem in the debate and not the substance and the content of what is said.

    Imagine if I were to say this about your family to you in as kind and polite a way as possible: “Michael, I like you, but your Christian faith gives me cause for concern. Your belief that historical figures actually did walk on water, rise from the dead, or that a virgin woman could actually give birth makes me suspicious about whether you are ever going to be rational enough to be a good parent. After all, if you can believe that, how can anyone trust that you would have the discernment to decide what is best for your child? I hope we can agree to disagree politely, since I sincerely believe that religious people are more likely to be immoral parents.” Actually, to be honest, that is pretty much what I believe. But I’m not convinced that saying it more politely or winsomely makes much of a difference.

    You speak about Christian failure in the past tense, as if it were not still very much in the present. Just a few days ago, Margaret Court repeated comments that lesbians as a class were in the habit of intentionally seducing/misleading younger women for nefarious lesbian purposes. Where are the Christian leaders denouncing such homophobic comments? How do you expect people to take you at your word when you say you are not homophobic (I don’t think it’s necessarily homophobic to think marriage as a sacrament must be reserved to a man and a woman) when you don’t speak up when your colleagues actually say homophobic things?

    Was it really that far in the past where your Christian colleagues compared gays to pedophiles (do I really have to pull up the quotations for you?) Really that far in the past that your Christian colleagues maintained that gays were incapable of committed, loving relationships? And again, really that far in the past where your Christian colleagues refused to extend any type of civil recognition (not marriage – just the protection of the laws) to gay couples?

    The irony is that you seem to be living in a present that’s far more like a gay utopia than I am living in! Let me know if any of what I say counts as “hostillity” or “strident disagreement”.

    1. Hi again Lisa,
      Let me respond to both your latest comments here.

      First, “gay lobby”: I was using the term as I see it quite commonly used in the media – as a descriptive rather than polemic or pejorative term – to describe those individuals and groups engaged in political and social activism for their cause, in this case, gay rights. In this sense, it is no different from other lobby groups in the political arena, whether it be the banking or mining sector lobbies, or indeed, the Catholic schools’ lobby, or even a particular group such as the Australian Christian Lobby. Of course, not all gay people are involved in or even agree with the so-called “gay lobby” (which refers, of course, not to one specific group, but a range of like-minded individuals and groups), just as not all Christians participate in or agree with the Australian Christian Lobby. That, at least, is how I was using the term. I do not see it as a loaded term in the way you suggest – though I guess that kind of thing happens often, and it is useful to have you raise the question as an opportunity for reflection. As an aside, I find the term “homophobic” used as a slur and quite inappropriate in the way it gets used; but again, that’s language in usage.

      Two concerns are apparent: one is the use of language in a debate that one side or another finds unhelpful, if not offensive, and here I agree that respectful parties will try to adjust, or at least understand, each others’ terms. The other is the concern that the focus on what one is allowed to say becomes a tactic to close down discussion or criticism, where the questions or criticisms of one party are labelled and dismissed on account of the (supposed or real) infelicity of language without actually engaging in the substance of the arguments.

      Past or Present: yes, undoubtedly some Christian language and activity in the present is unwarranted and counter to the essence of the Christian ethos. You mention Margaret Court as an example. I did see Margaret’s recent letter to the editor about air-travel on Qantas. It was innocuous enough. However, subsequently I have become aware of comments made publicly about individuals in the tennis world which I do not support or condone, and which I feel are unworthy. I have also seen comment from others, including Christian leaders, who have expressed their non-acceptance of her statements. I cannot know if those in relationship with Margaret have spoken to her personally about these things. I imagine some in her circle will encourage her forthrightness; hopefully some will seek to moderate her methods.

      A focus on substance: yes, a focus on the rationality involved in the various claims and counter-claims would be very welcome, and I would not find your questions about my faith overly concerning: they have been being asked and asserted now for decades if not centuries. If Alasdair MacIntyre is correct – and I think he is – then there is no universal rationality that applies to all people everywhere, for rationality is conditioned by community and tradition. But there is a real and ultimate truth towards which we press and after which we seek. Rationalities, therefore, can be more or less “truthful” or perhaps better, more or less in accord with that which is ultimately true concerning our existence. Further, if ultimately our worldviews are grounded on primary presuppositions and convictions which are not demonstrable (aka “faith”), then examining and evaluating those primary presuppositions becomes necessary if we are to ever find a way of navigating and adjudicating competing truth claims. You believe I am unqualified to parent; I insist I am not: in this case the question can only be resolved by discussing the issue at this level. It will certainly never be addressed at the level of claim and counter-claim, assertion and counter-assertion.

      For myself, everything stands or falls on the reality and historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. If Jesus was actually raised from the dead it has all kinds of implications. E.g. it says something about him and who he was, and what he represented, taught and did – and what he might mean to us. It says something about the world in which we live – that it is not a “closed” naturalistic system, but there is more going on here than we are aware of. It says something about us and our lives: our existence is not a cosmic accident, but purposeful – and here the matter touches our present discussion – we are also accountable for the way in which order our lives and communities. If Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, everything is changed. I spent several years wandering in a personal and philosophical fog trying to untangle and understand the issues involved here. I had to search and study the history surrounding the supposed resurrection. If it didn’t happen, then Christianity is nonsense. If it did, then everything changes. I cannot make sense of the history as it stands, if the resurrection did not occur: it doesn’t make sense. Thus, I believe.

      Nothing you have expressed to me has been either strident or hostile. I have appreciated your candour and directness, and enjoyed the discussion. If you want to continue the discussion further, I will be happy to do so. Perhaps, though, it may be better done by email, though if you would prefer this forum, I will be happy to continue.

  6. On the term “homophobic”: I disagree that using the word “homophobic” is simply designed as a rhetorical weapon as opposed to a truthful label of particular positions. For example, when Christian politicians compare gay relationships to bestiality or pedophilia, that’s homophobia. When Christian pastors like Margaret Court imply that there’s a worldwide conspiracy of gay people to indoctrinate and convert innocent children to homosexuality, that’s homophobia, is it not? Or for generations, when Christian churches politically agitated for the retention of sodomy laws – and to be clear, that meant that consensual, loving sexual relations between men could result in jail sentences or corporeal punishment – was that not homophobic? What unites all these notions are that they are positions buttressed solely by anti-gay animus, and otherwise utterly lacking in any empirical evidence.

    I strongly disagree with this intellectually lazy notion floating around in some Christian circles that the term “homophobia” is a term thrown around by the politically left in order to silence dissent. It almost seems to me that Christians don’t seem to find ANYTHING homophobic these days. Let me invert the question so that perhaps I can better understand your position: Can you give me an example of an idea or action that IS homophobic? Or is NOTHING homophobic?

    On Christianity’s past: I think you’re vastly understating the connection between Christianity and the systematic persecution of gay people. Prior to the introduction of Christianity into world history, many of the world’s Western and non-Western traditions embraced homosexual relations. Love between men (and much more rarely, between women) were celebrated. You might read Louis Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilization as a primer. The good thing about this book is that it is full of primary sources. You can go back to the primary sources to assess if he is giving a truthful portrayal of how the ancient and medieval world approached homosexuality.

    What we have with the advent of Christianity was a regime that was at times lax and at times brutal towards gay people. There have been some very detailed studies, for example, of Florence’s Office of the Night and their brutal enforcement of sodomy laws at the behest of church authorities. We are talking about mandatory castration, dis-emboweling, burning at the stake, etc. Let’s not whitewash this history. Christians were responsible for the largest systematic persecution of gay people in history. This was not a generalized brutality, as you wrongly suggested. Gay people were singled out for persecution. That is, thankfully, in the past. But it is part of your Christian heritage. And you should own it, if only to remember who the true aggressors in history were, and to put in context recent attempts by the Christian community to claim the rhetorical space of the persecuted. Now, you can keep repeating that many people in Christian history have not followed the principles of their spiritual leader, but at some point, for an unbeliever like me, one has got to ask: If the Church keeps getting things wrong, why shouldn’t we ask if there’s something fundamental about its precepts that leads its believers to such heinous acts?

    On primary suppositions: Again, I disagree. We do not have to agree on first principles to agree to extend one another the freedom to define our one lives in a pluralistic democracy. No one is trying to get Christians to acccept our first principles; all we are saying is we absolutely do not want to live in a society that privileges Christian beliefs and definitions. I don’t care if churches don’t want to marry gay people. That is certainly their right. If some voodoo priest ingested a healthy does of hallucinogenic mushrooms and decided that his church would only marry couples whose ages added up to a multiple of seven, that would also be his right. But in civil society, outside the confines of a church, we are all citizens, and Christians absolutely do not have the right to define what civil marriage means for everyone. Nothing about this implicates first principles. Perhaps this will be disappointing to you, but I’m not particularly interested in your first principles. I don’t respect your beliefs, and truth be told, I find them immensely silly, but I respect your right to define them as you will and I will defend your right to hold them.

    On a less intellectual note: I have never been particularly for or against Christianity as a creed until the topic of same-sex marriage came up. And now I confess I find Christianity highly distasteful. Why? You guys have huge problems policing your own institutions with regard to child sexual abuse, with regard to Christian men and pornography, with regard to the high rates of divorce (the Bible Belt has higher rates of divorce than elsewhere, actually!), with regard to adultery (32 MILLION straight men signed up for a cheating site called Ashley Madison), and instead of talking about all these things, you, Michael, are worried about loving committed gay relationships and the prospect that these gay couples or their allies will shut you up in the public space? Some of my gay friends have stronger and more moral relationships than I have seen in my own life or in that of my straight friends. And that’s that!

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