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Christian Boldness Inferior to Christian Meekness
There is a class of people whom Jesus said would inherit the earth. Against
all odds, the meek and humble souls are destined to triumph. But for
some segments of Christendom, places where uncompromising zeal is deemed
the loftiest of graces, Christ's words on the mount should read,
"Blessed are the bold."
But nothing can alter the fact that Jesus exalted meekness as a crowning
virtue. That may not always be evident, however, when we listen to some
impassioned sermons. "What we need today among God's people,"
many a pulpit thunders, "is boldness. More flat-out zeal in
evangelism. More tell-it-like-it-is-without-apology testimony."
This is a distant echo of Spurgeon. He sometimes lamented the departure
of fire-breathing orators like John Knox, who roused men to a holy
violence. From the Metropolitan Tabernacle onward, preachers have
chastised us for not adopting boldness as our defining trait. For not
being consistently in-your-face about God. For failing to denounce sin
and hammer home the gospel with force.
And the verdict on this sentiment? I say, without hesitation, that such
emphasis is wrong and out of step with the New Testament record. It does
not represent the truth as it is in Jesus, nor is it consistent with his
But first, a disclaimer: I am not denying a place for boldness in the
Christian life. When the apostles were filled with the Spirit, they
"spoke the word of God boldly." There is a season for
everything. There is a time and place for prophetic passion. By
definition, this is a relatively infrequent and circumstance-specific
phenomenon. And there are appropriate objects against which the prophet
bears witness. In the Bible, these are most often power structures,
particularly religious. Jesus boldly dressed down the Scribes and
Pharisees as hypocrites. Paul condemned the Judaizing troublemakers
among the Galatians. Peter withstood the Sanhedrin and said that he must
obey God, not them.
Under the unction of heaven, people spoke with fire and conviction. They
preached to the masses and sometimes rebuked blatant evil. But surely
there is a vast difference between speaking boldly under a divine
anointing and having boldness as the defining quality of one's
The "boldness" temperament that preachers tell us to adopt is not
the imitation of Christ. Paul did not write of "faith, hope and
boldness – but the greatest of these is boldness." The reverse is
true: He told us that we can be singularly zealous, moving mountains
with faith and giving ourselves up for martyrdom. Despite all of that,
we can still lack agape and be nothing.
We can be "on fire" for God and remain non-entities in His
It is easy to contrast the boldness-oriented temperament with the
meekness-oriented. My daughter, a Roman Catholic, saw this firsthand
recently. She attends a Franciscan parish where the priests are clothed
in humility and sweetness, following the rule of St. Francis. One
Sunday, while traveling with a friend, she ended up attending a large
nondenominational church instead. There the preacher boomed out a sermon
entitled "Bulldogs for Jesus" (two of the most incompatible
nouns imaginable). At the end was an altar call for those willing to
commit to zealous witnessing. And so, my daughter spent one Sunday
morning listening to a gentle soul and another listening to a
"bulldog" — the starkest of contrasts.
The boldness-oriented temperament sees evangelism, no-holds-barred
evangelism, as a primary New Testament mandate. But such an idea is
biblically obscure. The canon contains few commands to evangelize. There
is the Great Commission, of course. This is an order given to the Twelve
specifically, and the church by extension. But each individual is not
called to be an evangelist. If each were, there would not be a
specific gift of evangelism (Eph. 4:11) given only to some.
Besides, the Great Commission is not just preaching or soliciting a
"decision for Christ." It entails teaching people "to
observe everything I (Jesus) have commanded you" (Matt. 28: 20). It
is showing people how to love God and neighbor, to turn the other cheek,
to reach out to the suffering, to forgive endlessly. This calls for a
gentle spirit, not bombast. "Bulldogs" need not apply for such
The boldness-oriented temperament appears often in young converts. Their
experience with God, in all its newness, kindles an inner blaze. This is
positive. But it must be shaped and directed. Like a spirited horse, a
young firebrand must learn to bring zeal under control. Too often,
well-meaning people congratulate him for being hard, overly frank,
insensitive. It's gospel boldness, they tell him. But this boldness is
like a rifle given to a boy who lives on a farm. It has a valid use and
helps the boy learn responsibility. But unless a wise father instructs
him on proper use, songbirds will begin dropping from the sky and stop
signs will end up riddled with holes.
The boldness-oriented temperament is often drawn to "apologetics,"
disputations with nonbelievers and doctrinal red-herrings. The
meekness-oriented temperament finds less flamboyant service. Such a
person knows that anyone who gives a child a cup of water in Jesus' name
will be recompensed.
The bold can come off sanctimonious and intimidating. The meek are
approachable. Sinners know that, like Jesus, these Christians will not
excoriate them for their faults. And so the gentle saint makes inroads
that the loud herald seldom travels.
Zeal, passion, boldness—unchecked by Christ-like agape—are the most overrated of virtues.
Paul fails to enumerate them among the fruits of the Spirit, which are
"love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,
gentleness, self-control" (Gal. 5:22-23).
Boldness can prompt foolish acts, like Peter's wild sword-swipe. It can
exalt machismo and aggressiveness. But love never fails. For every soul
drawn to Christ via the hot eloquence of an evangelist are scores drawn
by the character of a meek spirit. The sweetness of a grandmother,
Sunday school teacher, youth leader, friend, spouse, co-worker – these
virtues shape destinies. All too often, the thrust-out tract only
Isaiah said this of the coming Messiah: "He will not cry or lift up his
voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench" (Isa. 42:2-3). Of
himself, Jesus said, "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for
I am gentle and humble in heart" (Matt. 11:29). The meek
temperament is the temperament of our Lord.
Zeal has its role in the walk of faith. But
gentleness must pervade our essence if we wish to be like the Lamb of
God. "Let your gentleness," wrote Paul, "be evident to
everyone" (Phil. 4:5).
© 2003 American Unitarian Conference™