There is a quirky phenomenon of issues and topics coming in batches from the gospel-themed blogs and websites. It may be driven by fads or hype, but my confidence in the sovereignty of God convinces me it happens by means of the Holy Spirit. Over the past few weeks, we've had several articles which are focused on division and dissension in the body of Christ. We've been counseled on what to do when people don't like us and what to do when we don't like people, from Desiring God to The Gospel Coalition with several other stops along the digital highway in between. And for the most part, they've all been helpful, biblical and balanced.
David Murray at HeadHeartHand added his voice this past week with a piece titled, "12 Church Enemies" (although there are thirteen listed in the post). He writes, "Every pastor will eventually have to face enemies within the church, people who are dedicated to damage and even destroy them."
Who or what are these enemies?
I’ve started re-reading The Pilgrim’s Progress, so I thought I’d get a pretty good grade on this list. Although it was written hundreds of years ago, Bunyan’s classic describes in timeless narratives and vivid dialogue the destructive forces that attempt to derail the mission of the church from within; arguably his imagery is only slightly caricatured. On their way to the Celestial City, Christian and his friends encounter Mr. Worldly-Wise Man, Mr. Legality, Formalist and Hypocrisy. Certainly these would be among the foes of the church Murray would list. Perhaps Giant Despair or Judge Hate-good will be mentioned as well -- all, of course, in a less allegorical vein, and more likely referred to “properly”, such as worldliness, legalism, formalism, emotionalism, or coldness.
Instead, when I read the article, I was disappointed to find a list of straw men. And of course, we all know how effective straw men are at rallying the troops against a foe. Hitler did it very well with the Jews. Progressives are excelling at it today with Christians. (Do you see what I did there?)
Over-the-top insinuations notwithstanding, unbiblical outcomes are typical when a debate or a charge is based on straw men arguments -- not the least of which is that they distract from the battle against real enemies of the church. The straw man argument is a logical fallacy wherein one party describes his opponent’s position in extreme and absurd terms, knowing the straw man is much easier to knock down and defeat than his opponent's actual points.
Most straw men arguments hold an element of truth to them or appear to be logical in their simplest form but count on emotion-laden language and euphemisms to stir up resentment and anger against the opponent -- and to stymie any effort to more closely investigate the claims. Invariably, those who count on them in debate use terms like “hateful” and “enemy” as emotional word bombs lobbed into the arena to prejudice the observers.
In venues and circles where the outcome has already been determined, any questions about or attempts to clarify any single part of the argument appear to validate the accusation as a whole. Essentially, unless all parties involved are willing to sit down and parse definitions and differentiate between fact and speculation, you simply can’t win a straw man argument.
Of course, this is in a world where truth is a commodity. This should not be so in the church, where we are called first and foremost to guard the flock, train up in righteousness, and root out hindrances to faith and unity. And yet, take a look at the categories of enemies that Murray lists in his post. I include his first, not because it’s an example of bad argumentation but because it’s evidence of a strategy to swing the emotions from get go. Can you spot the hasty generalizations, the subjective phrasing, the categorization without distinction, all intended to alienate the opposition and silence inquiries? (My thoughts are in italics.)
While it’s nice that Murray concludes with a Scriptural injunction that the proper response to these enemies is “love, bless, do good, pray”, the damage is already done. He’s identified members of the body of Christ as enemies and validated any readers who are looking for ways to alienate fellow congregants based on emotions or differences of opinion and not legitimate issues of sin and division. Too many people will read the list and think, "Oh, yeah, I know someone like that!" without reading the follow-up caveat.
Enemies do not simply oppose a position or a person. Merriam-Webster lists that as the third definition out of three. The first two involve hatred and intent to harm. While enemies (people who hate and intend to do harm) can be in the visible church, believing brothers and sisters in the body of Christ cannot be enemies (and not under discipline) and so their opposition shouldn't be designated as enmity. Christians may fail at properly opposing a position or a person -- they may appear sneaky, or dramatically highlight their wounds, or be overly concerned about money, or be inarticulate at expressing their preferences -- but that doesn't make them enemies. It proves they are human, in need of shepherding and help in learning how to voice concerns in a biblical manner. But they are not enemies, and designating them as such does greater harm than their inadequacies could ever do.
This alienation is only one disaster that befalls a church that operates with an enemies list. As mentioned earlier, it serves as a distraction from the warfare that must be waged against the true enemies of a church. Our true enemies are numerous and formidable.
How about this list:
Enemies all, but all can be -- already are! -- defeated by the death and resurrection of our Savior.
No good can come from calling fellow believers enemies. These are people we fellowship with at the table of the Lord, meet with in corporate worship, lay our burdens down together before the throne. To determine that they are enemies when God Himself has declared them His friends at the expense of the blood of His Son is to pronounce that relationships operate on your rules and terms, regardless of what God has done. And because it’s possible that those you suspect are behaving badly are not believers, it’s still not grounds for alienation if all they’ve done is give the appearances of enmity. They are without the spiritual tools needed to do conflict well. Witness to them of the greatest work of reconciliation done in all of history and rightly inform them they are enemies to God -- as you once were -- and that they can be bought and washed and made new -- as you are now.
Jen Wilkin’s February 2 post at TGC, “4 Ways to Battle Bitterness”, warns us that a diet of speculation, harboring wounds and offenses, devising rationalizations for revenge and retribution will not withstand the trials of life. Bitterness will take root. An unforgiving heart will thrive. We will be tempted to keep others at arms' length, but there is no peace for the soul, no satisfaction that the Gospel will triumph by taking that path. “The bitter thirst of injustice is only quenched with the living water of the gospel,” she says. Though we are made new creatures in Christ, sanctification is not immediate -- we are not instantly holy and perfect. So there will be mistakes, misjudgments, errors in our thinking, in our habits and ways. We are imperfect people. Christ's life-giving righteousness is the balm we need, poured over our heads, seeping deeply into our messy lives. What's broken and damaged and in need of repair in your life more than likely looks a lot different than what's in need of repair in my life. But Jesus redeems and fixes wasted and broken lives.
In one of his ubiquitous letters, John Newton wrote, "What will it profit a man if he silences his adversary and loses that humble spirit in which the Lord delights?" You probably can fill in the missing details about the situation he was responding to from circumstances within your own life. The time and energy spent on justifying whether and why another person is an enemy bears no fruit! It's like trying to wash a sow in a mudpit. It's like trying to replenish the ocean with an eyedropper. What could possibly be an eternally worthy return? Precious seconds have been given over to winning the debate on dubious tactics instead of dying to self, trusting that God knows what’s in the heart of the other person and is fully capable of completing whatever work needs to be done there, and finding joy and contentment in adversity and suffering that He brings into our lives to make us rely upon and desire Him more.
Words have meaning and convey power. Emotionally laden accusations and spurious efforts to single out and shame other travelers are alien ways to the Pilgrim, him whose eyes are trained on the path ahead, discerning truth, battling true enemies and soul-killing error, following the call of the King to his home, to the celestial city. There are enemies aplenty on this journey -- there’s no need to build more . . . out of straw.
Notes from L.M.:
1. Who is the "you" in my post? First of all, it's the same "you" intended in Murray's post. I'm asking "you" to consider these thoughts as you read his list. Secondly, it's anyone in leadership or any situation where conflict needs to be addressed.
2. I started writing this piece several weeks ago as I thought through the challenge of laboring through conflict instead of running away from it. It was informed primarily by participation in relationships that have developed in school settings, family gatherings, and church circles, and observation of political and cultural rhetoric. It has evolved thanks to ongoing reading, discussions, and opportunities to strive for peace within conflict. There is no one person or group for whom this message -- in part or the whole -- is intended. Except for me. I need to hear this all the time.
Laura Miller aka mrsdkmiller
Looking for a list of articles published around the web?
Looking for posts written in response to 5-Minute Friday prompts? Click here:
Her March Isn't Over
Across the River
When God Pries My Fingers Off My Children
Life's Defining Moments
To the Christian Wife Who Berated Her Husband in Front of My Daughter
Zeal and Grace in France
An Unconventional Love Story
Seeing What's in Front of Our Eyes
Remembering Why I Called You Hannah
Love Your Sister.
Because He Came Home
Go Valiantly! A Prayer for New Homeschooling Moms
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