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Fight Valiantly! Contending Like Jesus

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Posted by Lee Gatiss, 12 Mar 2019

Lee Gatiss wonders how far we can imitate Jesus in the way we contend for the faith within the church. This Lent series is also available as a video podcast on our YouTube channel.

Jesus alerted his disciples that false doctrine and false teachers would arise within the church. He spoke of thieves, robbers, strangers, hired hands, and wolves in John 10, for example. So it ought to come as no surprise to us when this happens. As the Anglican Reformers also warned, alluding to Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 13:24-30 and 37-43, “Satan, who is the chief enemy of the Christian name, infuses such pestilential heresy (like weeds and tares) into the saving seed of the divine Scriptures, which is scattered about in the church of God, that the total number of these fireballs by which the church is inflamed and continues to burn miserably can hardly be counted, as the devil daily piles up even more firewood in the shape of false opinions.” (Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum)

The New Testament therefore also addresses what our response should be in the face of such heretical guerrillas and their fiery grenades of gangrenous poison. This is part of what people usually mean when they talk about “contending.” Often what we refer to in this regard is controversy, not contending as such, though they can be related. Not every controversy is worth contending about, and many are simply empty quarrels about words, that we are explicitly told not to engage in.

Jesus had to face a great deal of opposition: from slanderous rumours (e.g. Matthew 11:18-19); from legalists (e.g. Matthew 12:1-14); from traditionalists (e.g. Matthew 15:1-9); from people demanding signs (e.g. Matthew 16:1-4); and from those who doubted even the idea of resurrection (Matthew 22:23-33). People tried to trick him and “entangle him in his talk” (Matthew 22:15); and he faced Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, Herodians, and many other opponents, not to even mention the Romans.

He warned his disciples to beware of false teaching (Matthew 16:5-12) and pronounced multiple “Woes” on the behaviour of the hypocritical religious leaders of his day with their humanly devised standards of righteousness and their desire for greatness and honour (Matthew 23). He told his disciples that they too would be persecuted and opposed. In contending for the faith we are joining in something that Jesus himself endured. We walk in his footsteps.

Jesus exemplified both zeal for the truth and a deep love for people. Christ is often held up as an example to follow in this regard, however, by people who seem to enjoy giving offence and wish to tear others down with their salty rhetoric and pejorative epithets. Paul’s perplexed exasperation with false teachers in Galatia is also sometimes presented as a model for emulation, especially when he says, “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” (Galatians 5:12). This is taken, along with the example of Christ or the prophets pronouncing woes upon people, as carte blanche for us to insult and excoriate our ecclesiastical enemies likewise.

Jesus certainly did not give a deservedly harsh answer to every ridiculous thing said against him. Even as he was unjustly crucified it could be said of him, “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). In our own polemics, we would do well to meditate more on this aspect of his example. We are neither divine, all-knowing and sinless saviours, or apostles of Jesus Christ with prophetic insight and revelation. So I think we ought to be more wary of too quickly claiming to imitate Jesus and the godly authors of Scripture before we have heard their strictures on harshness, discourtesy, and disproportionate argumentativeness. Let’s attempt to do as they say, before we boldly permit ourselves to do as they did.

I don’t think this is an easy attitude to get right. Tone is not easy to define. There is also a contextual and a cultural aspect to our polemics, of course. Furthermore, sometimes one approach seems best, which on another occasion with a different audience might be the height of stupidity. We need to meditate on both aspects of this rather provocative pairing of Proverbs:

“Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes” (Proverbs 26:4-5).

What works on Twitter is not necessarily appropriate in a sermon, and we might say it differently on the BBC News or one-to-one with a friend. Our language can vary according to our intended audience. What’s more, the normal rules of public debate in the 21st century are very different from how people played that game twenty centuries or even five centuries ago.

At the same time, I think William Perkins was absolutely right to question whether we may curse people as Jesus or Paul did, and to answer “No, for we have not the like spirit to discern the persons of people what they are, and our zeal of God’s glory is mixed with many corrupt affections and therefore to be suspected.” It is hard as sinful human beings to engage in polemics and also “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Yet Jesus did, even to the end: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

Questions for Reflection

1. Why are there wolves and heresies in the church?
2. In what ways do we face the same kinds of opposition as Jesus did?
3. Should we do as Jesus did, or do as Jesus says?

Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society and the editor of Gospel Flourishing in a Time of Confusion, the latest book from Church Society.

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