Winning arguments is not the same as winning souls. Very few, if any, have lost a quarrel and found themselves converted. But we all know the impulse deep down, when engaging with unbelief, to lash out in an effort to show ourselves right rather than win the unbeliever.
If we genuinely are willing to take our cues from the New Testament, rather than instinct, we might be surprised to find the way the apostles would have us to engage with our society. Paul points to kindness, patience, and gentle correction (2 Timothy 2:24–26), and Peter lays out the way of “gentleness and respect” and compelling hope.
In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect. (1 Peter 3:15)
Will they ask about our hope if our rhetoric is full of fear and at fever pitch?
Church Meets World
Don Carson has seen a lot come and go in the church and in the world.
Not just a world-class scholar of the New Testament, he’s been a keen observer of cultural upheaval and societal change for some five decades now. He laid bare the philosophical foundations in his impressive volume The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism and authored Christ and Culture Revisited as a steady guide for orienting Christians in a swiftly changing milieu.
Being cosmopolitan, in the best sense, has helped. He was born to British parents, raised in French Canada, has taught at the graduate and doctoral level for more than thirty years, and has traveled extensively, observing trends worldwide like few have.
“Winning arguments is not the same as winning souls.”
Recently I had the privilege of sitting down with Carson to ask about his sense on the state of the church in America today, and going forward.
You might wonder whether someone with his ecclesiological pedigree and breadth would dream nostalgically about the 1950s and join the fight to reclaim the golden era that seemed so much more conducive to Christianity. Carson, however, is much less worried about the broadening gap between church and society — and much more eager for Christians to learn to engage with humility and kindness.
We are all products of our age, in some degree, admits Carson, and in the days ahead, evangelicals desperately need to take their cues from Scripture, rather than engaging with society on its own terms, in its own tenor.
“What is first of all required is to take our cues on conduct and civility and tongue — what we say, what we think, where we’re going, what our values are, living in the light of eternity, living under the shadow of the cross — take all of that from Scripture, from the gospel, from Christ and subconsciously work toward being a counter culture, a different culture, one with an allegiance tied to the kingdom of God.”
Carson’s concern is that far too often we have let the surrounding culture define the rules and assumptions of our engagement. When shouted at, we are prone to respond with the natural human instinct to shout in return. We return shrillness with shrillness. But in our increasingly post-Christian society, we are in increasing need of being the kind of people who respond to a slap on one cheek by turning to the other and who respond to vitriol and venom with gentleness, perceptive questions, careful listening, and loving kindness.
We need to learn, in the words of the apostle Paul, “to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:2).
Growing Up in Opposition
This isn’t the first time Carson has experienced firsthand growing opposition to the church. His patient vision for engagement today has its roots not only in the biblical text, but also in his upbringing in French Canada, where evangelicals were openly opposed, even persecuted, in the 1950s. Carson’s childhood in Quebec was not your mother’s upbringing in the southern United States.
“Because of the background in which I grew up, I never held a view that Christians are entitled or Christian ministers ought to be revered by the culture. Baptist ministers alone between 1950 and 1952 in French Canada spent about eight years in jail. I’ve never been tempted by the view that Christians ought to be honored by the culture.”
Carson says he understands why people raised in deeply Christian contexts would develop a different reflex than his, and he is not eager to minimize the losses that come with an increasingly secular society. We should be honest about the real pains and losses of growing opposition, he admits, but he’s eager to highlight the gains as well.
“I probably feel a little less that we’re losing something massive. We’re losing some things, but we’re also gaining some things now.”
Among those gains, he includes the purifying of the church from “nominal Christianity” — from those who are Christian in name only, not truly born again from the heart.
“We have let the surrounding culture define the rules and assumptions of our engagement.”
“The rising antipathy against the church means that there’s less and less Christian nominalism around. . . . If what’s going down is the nominalism, so that proportionally there’s more authentic Christianity that’s biblically based, this becomes a way of purifying the church, too.”
“Some of the apparently Christian ethos inherited from Judeo-Christian roots was fake, it was hypocritical,” and Carson appreciates the fresh desire in our day to be honest — “authentic” in its best conception — rather than put up a façade. This is a gain.
He also finds among the gains his sense of less rebellion against Christianity among young adults — and even new curiosity about the faith.
“As the culture moves further and further away from Christian roots, what you’re finding nowadays, for example on university campuses, is that there is less rebellion against Christianity than there was fifteen years ago because they don’t know enough about it to hate it. There’s at least a sort of open curiosity.”
In the days ahead, Titus 3:1–3 is one of many passages that will help us take our cues from Scripture, as Carson charges, rather than from society’s manner and assumptions in public speech. There Paul writes to his protégé Titus, ministering in the moral chaos of Crete, a society hostile to the gospel,
Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. (Titus 3:1–3)
Whether in private conversation with friends, family, and coworkers, or in the public speech that an increasing number engage in through the Web and social media, we are prone to forget the depravity into which we were born, and the sin that still courses in our veins. But we are called to remember from where we’ve come — and the sinful proclivities we’re still fighting within.
The Christian’s charge is not to respond to fools with folly, but to cultivate the empathy that is fitting when we’re aware that we ourselves were once foolish — but for God’s grace — and still war against our foolishness in many respects.
“We must not project ourselves as screaming angry people but as broken people living under the cross.”
It is striking in our day of soundbites and the growing polarization of perspectives to “speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle.” It rings of Paul’s charge to another protégé, Timothy, in the caldron of Ephesus.
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 perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (2 Timothy 2:24–26)
It is remarkable that the apostle would say, related to our engagement with outsiders, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:5–6). Always gracious — always. And that graciousness, he says, is vital to knowing how we ought to answer. As Christians, only by the grace of God, we have no excuse to let any words fly — in speech, tweets, or Facebook comments — that are ungracious.
Called to Engage with Kindness
At the end of the day, our gracious speech may open the door to some, but it doesn’t mean we will avoid being misunderstood, mistreated, and maligned.
“A great deal of public opinion,” says Carson, “is shaped by dogmatic heated antitheses. It’s really hard to find people to engage civilly on many topics. . . . It really is increasingly difficult to hold a civil conversation in the broader discourse because when you put your head up above the parapet, you’re labelled and shut down.”
It is inevitable that in such an age our kindness will be rejected, but that doesn’t mean we devolve into the meanness and shrillness that surrounds us. In Christ, we have a higher calling and capacity.
“One of the things that Christians have to learn in this frame of reference is, even if the whole society becomes uncivil in all discourse, we must not descend to that level, we must not project ourselves as screaming angry people but as broken people living under the cross, submitting to the lordship of Christ, wanting to think fairly and accurately and faithfully and truly and hopefully and edifyingly in a Christ-honoring, church-building-up sort of way.
“If that earns us a certain amount of opprobrium, pay the price. That’s what we do. But we don’t want to descend to the screaming level.”