I often clash with the gatekeepers of Christian orthodoxy. I’m sure that I get under their skin too. To me, they look like the Pharisees Jesus talks about in Matthew 23:13: “Woe to you [who]… shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying.” I wonder what Bible verse they would apply to the caricature of me that they see on their laptop screen. In any case, I thought I would try to express where I’m coming from, to the degree that I’m coming from somewhere and not just being a sinfully impulsive loose cannon. Everything that I’m trying to do (as opposed to the things I do impulsively) is shaped by my understanding of Christian evangelism as Paul lays it out in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.
Here’s what he says:
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
That is who I desperately want to be. I ache with the need for people that I love to know and love Jesus. I long for God to give me beautiful things to say about Him that will be a source of healing for people who have been confused and hurt by the church. So when I run into any issue or teaching that discredits Jesus’ name for somebody, my brain kicks into overtime trying to come up with an explanation that can kick away the stumbling block. And it seems like the gatekeepers that I argue with are completely aloof to the stumbling blocks that I confront in my evangelism on a daily basis (it almost seems like they take pleasure in the existence of stumbling blocks).
“Becoming all things to all people” captures the way that evangelism is not simply getting into peoples’ faces and trying to browbeat them into saying a sinner’s prayer and confessing Jesus as their savior. Evangelism means that I take seriously where other people are coming from and respect the truth that they have to share with me rather than reassuring myself with canned explanations for whatever issues they have with Christianity (well, of course people are going to hate Jesus because they love their sin, etc). My hunger for evangelism prods me to attack ferociously anything about Christian doctrine that makes the gospel look ugly. It’s like trying to pluck weeds out of a very densely planted garden; I realize that sometimes I yank out things other than weeds.
Think about what Paul was willing to do to win people. He had strong opinions that he wrote about in his letters, which are the basis for most of the arguments that Christians get into. We don’t really argue about what Jesus said (we just ignore it if we don’t like it, e.g. turning the other cheek, loving your enemy, etc). But my gosh, Christians who are on the hunt for heretics to condemn eat Paul up like candy. And yet here Paul is saying that he’s willing to compromise his ideology for the sake of winning others to the kingdom. We don’t know the details of what he said to the people under the law and the people outside of the law, but it’s clear that he spoke and acted differently to each of them, which would be a big no-no for our gatekeepers today. For Paul, ideological consistency did not trump the goal of winning others for Christ. He was a pragmatist.
How much was he willing to compromise? We know that he had Timothy circumcised in Acts 16:3 because he was sending him to Jewish territory, even though he wrote a scathing letter to the Galatians about how requiring circumcision was a betrayal of his gospel. That seems like a pretty huge apostasy if you’re evaluating it from an ideological gatekeeper perspective. I would imagine that Paul was willing to compromise to the degree that what he was teaching and doing would not prevent someone from being “won” to the gospel. Certainly, there is a point at which translating how we talk about Jesus in order to speak the language of the person we’re talking to crosses over a line so that we’re no longer really talking about Jesus. But I don’t think we should expect for the gospel that we share to be one-size-fits-all; Paul has clearly repudiated that notion here.
In any case, I really think that there is a Kantian tendency among many evangelical Christians to litmus-test the gospel according to its discomfort. If the gospel is too beautiful, the Kantian logic goes, then that means I must be projecting it; if it’s ugly enough, then I can feel secure that my beliefs are not self-accommodating. I’m not ashamed of the fact that the beauty of the gospel matters to me. I am going to lash out against metaphors and illustrations that make God look like a banker bureaucrat or a stereotypically mean middle school gym teacher. If it looks ugly to non-believers, that bothers me; it doesn’t give me the satisfaction of feeling like I must be better than them because I can swallow something that’s bitter.
So that’s where I’m coming from anyway. No, gatekeepers, I’m not trying to weasel my way out of obeying God or trying to fit in with worldly people or any of your other go-to explanations. I just think that a very beautiful King whom I love is being misrepresented and my heart is white hot with wrath that I honestly think is coming from Him. I know that the way I express myself often undermines my purpose. I need to be more patient and charitable. I need to presume better intentions. But this is not just a polite conversation for me. Because there are hearts that need Jesus, and Jesus’ people (including myself) are getting in the way.