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How Should Christians Speak in Public?

November 10th, 2022 | 10 min read

By Tim Keller

Watching David Koch skewer evangelical pastor Guy Mason on Australia’s morning show Sunrise was an excruciating experience.[1] Andrew Thorburn had been dismissed for his association with the City on a Hill church just a couple of days after being appointed chief executive of a professional Australian football club. The reason given was that the church held to traditional Christian positions on abortion and homosexuality. These beliefs were now declared as beyond the pale for someone prominent in Australian public life. Thorburn would not discuss his beliefs with the media so Sunrise invited the pastor of Thorburn’s church, Guy Mason, to be interviewed instead.

I could not be more sympathetic to Mason because I have been through many media interviews and you always, always come home thinking of things you should have said. It is easy for the rest of us to watch the recording and imagine from the tranquility of our easy chairs better responses to the interviewer.

I am more interested in the lessons being drawn from the incident by writers such as Simon Kennedy[2], David Ould[3] and others who are following the lead of James R. Wood.[4] They all in one form or another assume the Lesslie Newbigin theme that the church must change as “Christendom” wanes in western societies. The good will, deference, and respect that the broader culture once had for the church has vanished, and in its place is increasing hostility. This has also happened in stages. Ten years ago Stefan Paas began writing of different levels of secularity and antipathy to Christianity — ‘Post-Christendom’, ‘Post-modernity’, and ‘Post-Christianity’ — recognizing that some places in Europe are more secular and more hostile to Christian faith than others.[5]

More recently Aaron Renn similarly has argued that U.S. culture moved from a Positive view of Christianity to a Neutral view and now to a Negative view of it. Newbigin stressed that churches were declining because they continued to speak and minister as if this was a Christendom culture — and it is not. He was certainly right that the church has still not adapted to a deepening post-Christendom. Kennedy, Ould, and Wood are likewise warning that to use public discourse appropriate to Christendom or even “Neutral” worlds is a mistake now that we are in the Negative world.

All three named writers say that the ‘conciliatory’, ‘nice’, ‘relevant’, ‘winsome’, and ‘compassionate’ tone and stance no longer works. Kennedy calls this the “seeker-sensitive” approach. It is one that agrees with opposing views wherever possible, that avoids confrontation, that keeps a non-abrasive tone, and that seeks to remain credible and attractive to secular people. But, Kennedy argues: “the world has shifted and therefore the age of conciliatory cultural engagement is over. No longer will being nice and relevant cut it.” Ould also faults Mason for trying to appear both “likable” and “reasonable.” We should, he says, just give that goal up, and just state the unvarnished truth. In place of the “seeker-sensitive” approach we have what could be called the “just tell the truth” approach.

A Theology of Public Engagement

Here’s a proposal for a way to do public engagement now which differs not only from the seeker-sensitive approach but also from the new (and admittedly under-developed) ‘just tell the truth’ approach.[6]

When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)

Many will say this passage refutes the very idea of ‘cultural engagement’. Surely here is Paul saying he doesn’t do ‘cultural analysis’ (“human wisdom”) and doesn’t even use arguments (“wise and persuasive words”). Instead he simply states the truth boldly and directly, not trying to make it seem convincing according to worldly thinking. He just says it and allows the Holy Spirit to convict whoever he will.

But while Paul says here he does not use ‘persuasive’ words, in 2 Cor 5:11 and 10:5 he says he does. He refutes arguments and Acts speaks of him ‘reasoning’ with non-believers (see Acts 17:2, 17), a Greek word that literally means “dialogue for the sake of argument.” So Paul cannot be saying in 1 Corinthians 2 that he deploys no strategies for changing people’s minds.

The fullest treatment of the meaning of the Greek words ‘eloquence,’ ‘human wisdom,’ and ‘wise and persuasive words’ is in Anthony Thiselton’s enormous commentary on 1 Corinthians. [7] In short, Thistleton claims that Paul is not rejecting argument or persuasion per se but rather is rejecting three things.

  1. Cutting sarcasm and super-confident demagoguery rather than exhibiting a spirit of humility and love. [8]
  2. Applause-generating rhetoric, playing to a crowd’s prejudices, pride, and fears rather than making sound, careful arguments.[9]
  3. Relying on verbal dexterity, wit, or erudition rather than just expounding what the biblical text actually says.[10]

Thiselton argues that Paul is rejecting the methods of the most popular orators of his day, who were highly effective in swaying an audience. They spoke confidently and pompously of themselves — never, ever, admitting wrongdoing or weakness — even as they caricatured, belittled, and mocked their opponents. They knew their audience’s fears and prejudices well and they played to them rather than challenging them. Finally they relied on their credentials, sophistication, appearance, shows of intelligence in order to gain a following rather than on substantial proposals and arguments.

Today’s public discourse, of course, is dominated by such voices. They are highly effective in getting donations, votes, and followers. 1 Corinthians 2 is a warning that, while Christians must stand for the truth in public, they must not “take the gloves off” and “enter the fray” by using the rhetoric of this world.

By contrast Paul calls Christian communicators to

  1. A spirit of humility and love (what I will call ‘Affection’). The fruit of the Spirit includes love, joy and peace, patience and kindness, and humility. These must be evident as we speak about the gospel publicly. Right now, the most popular public figures show confidence and fearlessness but not love and humility. We cannot follow in that train.
  2. Culturally compelling arguments (what I will call ‘Persuasion’). Acts and Paul’s epistles give us many examples of how Paul argued. He did not merely proclaim truth propositions—he showed the particular audience on their own terms why they should believe it. So we should not merely tell people the truth, but look for persuasive ways of reasoning with people’s minds and hearts.
  3. A quiet, courageous confidence in the truth of God’s Word (what I will call ‘Resolution’). It will not do if audiences see Christians being hesitant to affirm anything that the Bible teaches. Even if you disagree with a person’s beliefs, the strength and integrity of their belief can command admiration if they are visible.

These have always been crucial, whether the culture was positive, neutral, or negative toward us. But these qualities have never been more practically necessary than they are now. Let’s apply them hypothetically to this Australian interview and situation.

Affection

Despite it all, Pastor Mason remained kind, unruffled and calm, courteous and respectful during the entire interview. Because, in my view, he was less persuasive and resolute than he could have been (see below), I grant that his demeanor seemed to be just ‘niceness’. But I think we should give him credit here. His interviewer used many of the rhetorical devices that Paul forbids in 1 Corinthians 2 — mocking, belittling language, and demagoguery rather than real argument. Guy Mason did not respond in kind. “When reviled he did not revile in return.” (1 Peter 2:23) I believe the pastor showed some of the fruit of the Spirit.

Resolution

The interviewer immediately and repeatedly asked about the church’s views on abortion and homosexuality. Instead of articulating them unapologetically, Pastor Mason seemed to avoid them. I don’t know how much of this was driven by a “seeker sensitive” approach and how much was just the influence of contemporary media training. Pick up any book on media training for politicians and business leaders and it will tell you to choose your positive talking points ahead of time and then “stay on message.” I’ve seen politicians especially ignore the unpleasant questions and just repeat the talking points. Whether or not this is a fair analysis in this case, Pastor Mason did not appear to be calmly confident in the historic teaching of the Bible on these now controversial issues.

Persuasion

Under this heading much more could have been done in the interview.

Pastor Mason tacitly accepted the argument that the church must be accepting and inclusive of everyone and, in effect, he kept saying “We are! We are!” But rather than telling our cultural despisers “See how we are living up to your standards!” Christians in our western culture must question those very standards.

Koch’s main strategy in the interview was to paint the traditional Christian position as extreme and therefore as non-inclusive. So when Koch asked his first question about the “hard line views of the church on abortion and homosexuality?” — it would have been appropriate for Mason to ask a counter-question. “With all due respect David–your term ‘hardline’ — sounds like you are calling our views extreme. But just under 2 billion people, ¼ of the world’s population is Muslim, and they hold the same views — are you saying no Muslim could ever be the CEO of a public football club?”

Such a question uses secular persons’ own cultural narrative (that of diversity and the value of racial minorities) against them. If Koch had responded by saying, “Yes, I don’t think a Muslim could be a club CEO,” Mason could have responded that now he was being quite non-inclusive, and if the more than ¾ of the world population that doesn’t hold the secular view of sexuality is excluded, who now is being extreme? And if you say, “Well those people haven’t been enlightened yet”, how is that not just another example of western superiority and imperialism? Aren’t you doing the very marginalization and exclusion you are complaining about?

Somewhere this counter-message needed to come through. It could have been put like this:

The fact is, David, that everyone has a set of moral standards by which they include some and exclude others. No one is completely inclusive..…and yes, Christians like everyone else lay down moral principles for people. We believe they fit in with how God created us and so they will help us thrive. And some people disagree with those rules and principles—but we do not kick them out and tell them they are abominable. We include them in loving community and walk with them as long as they wish us to. We believe that fits in with how Jesus lived and died forgiving those who opposed him.

Summary

Let’s oversimplify a bit for the sake of clarity.

The “Seeker sensitive” approach stresses “Affection” over “Resolution”

The “Just tell the truth” approach stresses “Resolution” over “Affection”

But neither approach does much in or holds much hope for Persuasion.

The older “Christendom” approach to public discourse assumed most people were already favorably disposed or mostly convinced about the validity of Biblical teaching. The newer “seeker sensitive” approach also assumed most people would come toward Christianity if we just could show them that it was relevant to their needs. And now for very different reasons, the emerging “just tell the truth” approach seems also to assume that persuasion and argument is not appropriate, that no one will listen to anyone using reason. While the older approaches assumed persuasion was unnecessary, the newest one believes it will be ineffective. So, ironically, all the models for public discourse we have are in agreement.

I disagree. I know that we are very early in this conversation in the evangelical world, but I propose that, using Paul’s exhortation, we can find ways of combining the three elements of Affection, Resolution, and Persuasion in our public discourse in a way that many secular people will find moving and some secular people will find convincing. That will grow the church, slowly but steadily, in our society.

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Footnotes

  1. https://www.smh.com.au/national/kochie-clashes-with-city-on-a-hill-pastor-over-bible-s-relevance-20221007-p5bo5s.html
  2. https://mereorthodoxy.com/negative-world-australia/
  3. https://davidould.net/christians-kicked-into-touch-some-thoughts-on-the-essendon-thing/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=christians-kicked-into-touch-some-thoughts-on-the-essendon-thing
  4. https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2022/05/how-i-evolved-on-tim-keller
  5. Stefan Paas, “Post-Christian, Post-Christendom, and Post-modern Europe: Towards the Interaction of Missiology and Social Sciences,” in Mission Studies 28, no.1 (2011): 3-25 and “Challenges and Opportunities in Doing Evangelism” in Sharing Good News: Handbook on Evangelism in Europe, G.Noort, K.Avtzi, S.Pass, eds, WCC, 2017: 37-51 and “Religious Consciousness in a Post-Christian Culture” Journal of Reformed Theology 2012: 35-55. In the last named article Paas argues that in the most deeply secular parts of Europe (he gives East Germany as an example) overt or explicit religious consciousness is gone.
  6. The approach I am about to outline I have used ever since I got to Manhattan in 1989. (Much of it was outlined in my book Center Church.) When I came to the city I discovered a far more ‘Negative world’ for Christianity than I had known in Virginia or even in Philadelphia. It is certainly even more negative today than it was then, but in 1989 Manhattan culture had already had crossed the line.
  7. See Anthony C. Thiselton, The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Eerdmans, 2000, 204-223.
  8. What the NIV translates as (v.1) “eloquence” Thiselton translates as ‘high-sounding’ and stresses that it has to do with pride and self-inflation. Thiselton, 208.
  9. What the NIV translates as (v.4) “wise and persuasive words” Thiselton translates as “enticing words”. Thiselton, 218.
  10. What the NIV translates as (v.1) “human wisdom” Thiselton translates as ‘display of cleverness’. See Thiselton, 208-209.