I am writing up reflections on my devotions every day for six weeks. This is one of those posts.
As Matthew comes to the close of his narrative, things start to heat up. Coming to chapter 23, Jesus engages with the Pharisees and scribes in terms we would be hard-pressed to describe as gentle or forbearing. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” he belts out over and over again, calling them on the floor for their folly.
This passage is challenging on a number of levels, but I think it most profoundly runs up against our culture of hyper-tolerance. It is hard for most of us nice Christian types to imagine ever speaking this way—to ever be so harsh or judgmental as to call anyone out like this, to be so blunt and so bold and so mean. To be sure, there are some unique circumstances in play here, circumstances in which we do not exactly find ourselves. We are never the son of God confronting those who have rejected his messianic ministry, never in perfect knowledge of the hearts of those with whom we interact, never completely sinless in our anger. It is right for our response to be tempered toward grace and charity in our interactions with others.
Even so, I wonder if perhaps we have not taken on something of the character of the milquetoast. It is an easy direction to slide, given the timbre of our public discourse these days. With few exceptions, and the rancorous quality of much political debate notwithstanding, it is increasingly rare for anyone (but especially Christians) to be bold in confronting sin without being immediately accused of being judgmental jerks.
I am all for grace, and seeking to understand one another’s positions well before we offer critique, and representing one another’s positions well when we do offer critique. I am sensitive to my own tendency to assign motive where I ought not, to my own inability to judge clearly and rightly, and to the ease with which I fall into pushiness. But I worry that if building a culture where this kind of stern rebuke is unacceptable (again, with those very few exceptions), we are doing great harm to ourselves. Without diminishing the call to grace, or making any less of precisely the qualifications I outlined above, I think the church needs to grow in boldness in confronting in our own midst both blatant hypocrisy and doctrines that keep people from coming to Christ.
One of these is easy: if there is a single exception to our unflagging devotion to tolerance, it is in our hatred of hypocrisy. The other, however, too often gets a free pass. People who hinder others from coming to Christ because of their additions to or subtractions from the gospel are dangerous and, after being confronted graciously and gently, should be confronted harshly and shown up to be the false teachers that they are. The aim is not to win; it is to preserve the people of God from being deceived. To do this well is hard; the “watchblogger” cohort—the “heresy hunters” who appoint themselves this task—are almost by definition not up to the challenge of discerning what response is appropriate in any situation.
When the people of God are at risk, however, we must learn to be bold. Jesus was. Paul was. Peter was. James was. Perhaps it is time we follow their example instead of bowing to the whims of culture.