I should read more books, I know it! But most of the time I have for reading goes to social media – mostly blog-posts and online articles. Several of those I read regularly are in the millennial camp. Oh, come on, let’s call them what they are – young whippersnappers! Many of the millennials show encouraging signs – a commitment to biblical truth and a love for reaching younger generations with the gospel of Jesus Christ. But many younger (self-described) evangelicals operate with an assumption that Christianity must mold itself to please our culture. If we offend, we must adjust. If our moral standards are offensive, must alter them to fit that which has become popular and accepted in culture. How can we be relevant in the modern day with medieval morality? If our evangelistic methods turn off the good people of young America, then we must by all means seek new methods – those which do not bring offense.
It seems that for many in the progressive evangelical camp (oxymoron, anyone?) the standard is cultural relevance and acceptability more than it is biblical truth. Those in the emergent and progressive camps are all too willing to compromise that which is biblically defined and revealed on the altar of cultural acceptance. In an ironic turn, they heap harsh condemnation and angry words on conservatives for our biblical views on homosexuality and gender issues, but mostly for our anger! I think of one writer who never misses an opportunity to condemn conservatives in the harshest tones for our lack of grace.
The point is that this segment of evangelicalism seems to value cultural relevance and acceptance more than adherence to biblical truth. It assumes that if the church is viewed poorly by the world, we must be doing something wrong. If we are unpopular, we must be un-Christlike. If we are not reaching people we must be erring in our approach.
Here’s the necessary caveat to what I’m about to say. Christian conservatives have, in fact, often been obnoxious and offensive – unnecessarily so. We’ve sometimes acted like our condemnation and derogation will win the world to Christ. Loud, declamatory Facebook proclamations, condemnatory picket signs and such are not effective evangelistic tools.
But what the emergents, the so-called progressive evangelicals and many in the millennial camp forget is the biblical attitude toward the world. Jesus could not have been more clear in his Farewell Discourse. If the world hated him (it did!) it would hate those who followed him. In this world, he promised, we would have hardship, difficulty and persecution. Jesus never said that if we did it right the world would celebrate us. He told us the world would hate us. In fact, he warned us in Luke 6:26 that we should be upset if everyone speaks well of us. The approval of the sinful world ought to be a bigger concern to us than its condemnation.
Woe to the church when we gauge our effectiveness and fidelity by the approval and positive opinion of the world. Jesus made it clear that faithfulness to his kingdom would invoke the ire of the sinful world that is blinded by the lies of the Evil One, enslaved by sin and living in opposition to the ways of God. A defective theology, especially anthropology and cosmology, leads to a defective ecclesiology and an faulty approach to ministry in a sinful world.
I have been teaching through the Old Testament on Wednesday night for most of the 10 years I’ve been in Sioux City. I’m teaching the prophets chronologically and am in Ezekiel. I was floored by what God said to Ezekiel in his call to ministry and I think it is instructive to us. In Ezekiel 3, God assigns his prophetic ministry to Ezekiel. Living in exile in Babylon, between the second exile and the final destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC, he is to deliver a message of God’s judgment on Judah. God warns Ezekiel that the message will not be well received.
But the house of Israel will not be willing to listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to me: because all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart. Ezekiel 3:7
Israel (Judah) is a sinful people – hardheaded and stubborn. Prophet after prophet has pronounced God’s judgment and called Israel to repent, and time after time Israel has ignored them. I can just hear the Emergent Israelites saying, “Don’t you know that insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result?” They would tell Jeremiah and Ezekiel, “The prophets been trying it your way for 250 years and no one is listening. Maybe its time for a new approach, a softer and friendlier approach. Drop the anger and be more accommodating!”
In Jeremiah 11-20, the prophet complains about the hardships of his role and the fact that no one likes him and no one listens to him. Each time he complains, God just gives him another message of judgment to pronounce on the sinful people. The fact that Israel refuses to hear and respond never prompts a change in tactics from God. He just sends Jeremiah back into the fray again and again.
God has a different plan for Ezekiel. Jeremiah was the weeping prophet, but Ezekiel was going a different direction. In verses 8 and 9, God describes his intent for Ezekiel’s ministry.
Behold, I have made your face as hard as their faces, and your forehead as hard as their foreheads. Like emery harder than flint have I made your forehead. Fear them not, nor be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house.”
God just doesn’t get it, evidently. You catch more flies with honey and vinegar. All he had to do was tell Ezekiel to tone it down, be nicer! He should have built some bridges, looked for ways to come across as less harsh and superior. But that’s not what God did. He said to Ezekiel, “My people are hard-headed, I’m going to make you even more hard-headed. They are stubborn, I’ll make you even more stubborn!” And he told them not to be dismayed by the disapproval of the Israelites.
A Watchman for Israel
God made Ezekiel’s “philosophy of ministry” clear and plain in Ezekiel 3:17.
Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me.
His role was to serve as a watchman, to faithfully deliver the message of God to sinful Israel. It was not his job to convince Israel to repent. It was not his job to induce or seduce Israel. He did not have to close the deal or make the sale. All he had to do was faithfully proclaim God’s truth. God defined three possible outcomes to Ezekiel’s ministry.
- Perhaps Israel would repent as a result of his faithful proclamation and he would receive a blessing for his faithful proclamation. (God made it pretty clear that this outcome was unlikely).
- If he faithfully proclaimed truth and Israel continued in sin, Israel would suffer the consequences of its own wickedness, but Ezekiel would stand guiltless before God as a faithful watchman.
- If Ezekiel failed to faithfully proclaim the truth of God, Israel would die for its sin but Ezekiel would stand guilty before God because of his failure to proclaim the truth.
He was not a showman to impress the people or a salesman to convince them. He was a watchman. His duty was to speak the message of God faithfully. His duty was to God. Whether Israel liked him or not, whether they responded to his message was inconsequential. His duty was to announce God’s word not convince the sinful people. They were hardheaded and rebellious. His duty was simply to make sure that they heard the truth and were left without excuse.
The goal is defined in Ezekiel 2:5.
And whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that a prophet has been among them.
The people needed to hear from God. Whether they liked the messenger or not was irrelevant, as long as they heard the message.
Watchmen for a Modern World
All truth is held in balance, and we must be careful of extremes in applying this principle. But the fact is that the church is in danger of being seduced by salesmanship, but the idea that the standard of fidelity is the response of the people. If people like us, if our q rating is high, we must be doing well. If the world hates us, we need to change our views, alter our beliefs and come up with a new strategy.
But perhaps it is not insanity to stick with a very old gospel even if it is not popular in our sinful world. We serve a mighty God and the Spirit is alive and well. The gospel is still the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. Our duty is not to make that gospel palatable or to sugarcoat it so that it is less offensive to sinners. Our duty is to proclaim it. Faithfully.
- If they receive it, glory be.
- If they reject it, we grieve but we must remain faithful.
- If we fail to to pronounce the truth, that is the real tragedy!
If we soften the gospel to satisfy the sinful world, then we remove its power to save. If we prefer cultural popularity to gospel fidelity, we have much more than falling numbers to worry about. We have offended God and failed in the task he assigned us.
He told us to go and preach the gospel. He told us to make disciples. Popularity and cultural acceptance were never part of that. No, we need to be belligerent, personally offensive, tactless – there is no benefit in being a gospel jerk. But neither can we seek the applause of man if we hope for the approval of God.
In a sinful and rebellious world, the message of repentance will always offend sinners, but it is still the only message that saves. Anything less than that message offends God and fails to save sinners.
May God make us as hard-headed and stubborn as we need to be to be faithful watchmen in a sinful world!