by Dan Darling
You don’t have to be a sociologist to understand that orthodox Christianity is in a stressful time in the West. Statisticians and pollsters argue whether or not it is mainline Christianity or evangelical Christianity or both that is declining. However, nobody will argue that the basic social compact that at least tentatively agreed with the ethical and moral framework of Christianity has been broken. To espouse a Christian sexual ethic, for example, is increasingly seen as backward and bigoted.
In other words, in a society that at least tacitly affirmed Christianity, Christianity has become weird again. Some lament this reality, longing for halcyon days that never actually existed. Others offer pragmatic reasons why we should reexamine the more controversial implications of the gospel.
I’d argue that there’s a third way, a better way that draws from the experience of the early church who lived as a strange and marginalized movement in society. Our context isn’t an exact one-for-one comparison to first several centuries of the Church, but there are important lessons we can draw from them. I’ve particularly found great guidance from the short epistle of 1 Peter. Peter invites Christians to joyfully embrace their status as exiles and sojourners. Perhaps the pivotal verse I this book is the oft-quoted 1 Peter 3:14-15:
But even if you should suffer for righteousness, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear or be disturbed, but honor the Messiah as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.
Peter offers three clear concepts for Christian leadership: courage, clarity, and civility.
I’m not so sure modern American Christians are prepared to live out their faith courage. We’ve lived so long in a protective bubble where, outside of some patronizing by a liberal-leaning press or academic elites, we’ve largely been affirmed for being Christian. There are still pockets of this in places around the country, but the Bible-belt, civil religious culture is fracturing.
What this means for Christian leaders is that we must prepare ourselves and those we lead for the reality people may not like us if we are faithful to Christ. This is ok. There are some elements of the church growth movement that see any negative reaction to Christianity as a sign that we’re doing something wrong and we must shift. Sometimes this is true. Sometimes we’re disliked because we are jerks (more on that below), but sometimes we are disliked because we adhere to a counter-cultural gospel. Jesus himself said that if the world hated him, they would hate us (John 15:18).
Peter, in addressing the first century church, had no illusions that Christianity would be well-received by the larger culture, especially a Roman one whose very foundations would be rocked by the implications of Christ as Lord.
Frankly, today’s leaders need to get over the fact that they will not be liked. There are parts of the gospel message that everyone loves but there are parts that go down hard. Will we only declare what we know will get cultural amens? Or will we, as Peter says, endure suffering in order to have a gospel “answer for every man”?
The second thing Peter urges for counter-cultural leaders is clarity. “Have an answer for every man” doesn’t just mean “speak up whenever you feel like it.” Instead it implies a seriousness, a soberness, a thorough grasp of theology and an ability to speak well into whatever culture you are serving.
Sometimes well-meaning, but uninformed speech actually hurts the cause. I think we saw this clearly in the latest firestorm over religious liberty. Some of the politicians called on to defend good legislation were overmatched by the questions they faced. They were not adequately prepared to give answers and defend the rights of conscience. This resulted not only in defeat, but actually retreat on the issue of religious liberty.
This is sadly the case in many areas of gospel proclamation and cultural engagement. It’s not enough for us to have the courage to stand up for what we believe. We also must work hard, study, and understand what it is we are trying to communicate. What’s more, we should continually work on honing our message in such a way that it is communicated in a way that people can understand. Frankly, we shouldn’t speak into areas where we are poorly informed. It doesn’t help the cause if we don’t know what we are talking about. Clarity matters, even more so in an increasingly hostile culture.
Consider that Paul asked the Church at Ephesus to pray for him to have clarity in his gospel presentations. If Paul was concerned about clarity, shouldn’t we care about it and pray for it? I think this should be a primary focus for the Church in the 21st century: praying that God would raise up courageous leaders with courage and clarity. This is what we need in an age of confusion.
I find it interesting that Peter includes the instruction “yet do it with gentleness and grace.” Most of us are well aware of the first important trait of leadership: courage. But permeating this letter to the exiles is Peter’s message of civility.
We have this myth that courage and civility can’t coexist. We think the loudest voices are the most courageous. But I’ve found this to be exactly the opposite. Usually leaders who use their public platform to demonize and dehumanize are the ones who are the most fearful. But defensiveness is not the hallmark of victors. If we have this “lively hope” of Christ’s conquest over sin and death, if we believe He is renewing the world, we, of all people, possess the most joy.
Peter’s instructions here remind us that it doesn’t just matter what we say, but how we say it. The gospel doesn’t only inform our ethics, it informs our tactics. Kindness is not optional in public discourse, its essential. Kindness matters not only because it’s an effective weapon that often disarms hostility, it reflects our uniquely Christian belief that all people, even those who vociferously disagree with us, are created in the image of God.
Bottom Line: We need leaders who are courageous, clear, and civil. Courage without civility is cheap rhetoric that convinces nobody and reflects poorly on the gospel. Courage without clarity quickly crumbles under any serious questioning. And clarity and civility without courage becomes capitulation. Godly, wise, humble leaders need all three.