There is a segment of young evangelicals, regardless of their left-right political and cultural positioning, that recoils from combative rhetoric in public debate. They see the record of consistent defeat in the last 40 years of the culture wars, and they despair of the battle. More importantly, they see many people who want nothing to do with our Jesus because they perceive His followers as mean and rancorous. In response, some retreat from the cultural battlefield, effectively conceding it, to focus on presenting the Savior. Others want to continue the cultural engagement, but more sweetly, as Jesus would.
But what would Jesus do? Better yet, what did Jesus do?
Jesus was gentle with sinners, but firm and strategically direct. He confronted the woman at the well with her specific sins and called her to repent (John 4). He challenged the rich young man with a task consistent with his boast but beyond his spiritual capacity (Mark 10). He counseled his people to love not only their neighbors, as the Good Samaritan did, but even their enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). “Bless those who persecute you.” (Romans 12:14)
But how do you love your persecuting enemy? Paul cites the Book of Proverbs: “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.” (Romans 12:20) Clearly, that’s the enemy right under your nose. When it came to people in power, however, our Lord’s words were what some would call harsh. He calls the Pharisees a brood of vipers and whitewashed tombs (Matthew 23:27-33). King Herod was “that fox.” (Luke 13:32) Nonetheless, he was speaking charitably. We know this because it was Jesus speaking.
Of course, Jesus speaks in all of Scripture. The prophets and apostles direct most of their denunciations at God’s covenant people in their infidelity. Jonah confronted pagan Nineveh with its “evil” (Jonah 1:2), though God corrected his prophet for speaking without love and hope. Christ’s apostle John looks outside the church to condemn the world’s acceptance of murders, sorceries, sexual immorality, and theft (Revelation 9:21). He uses strong language—“beast” and “whore”—to describe the systems of power, civil and religious, that the rulers of the earth have set in opposition to the Lord and his Christ (Revelation 13). You cannot separate ideologies and systems from the individuals who believe them and perpetuate them. Someone in the Roman administration might consider John’s words offensive.
In calling people to repentance and to Christ, it is important to call evil what it is, and its many forms by their many names. Statism. Secularism. Consumerism. Personal autonomy. Just to name a few. Christians are to deal charitably with everyone. But as a grateful Nineveh learned, love can require being blunt about evil. Love may also warn others against being drawn into evil or withstand its hideous strength. From love of neighbor, some fight human trafficking abroad and others abortion at home. Faithfulness to Christ in an anti-Christian world means not only preaching salvation, but also confronting the evil that crushes the vulnerable and from which we are being saved.