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Christian Boldness Inferior to Christian Meekness

 

Steve Jones

Atlanta, Georgia

 

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 own example.

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 spiritual temperament.

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 Kingdom.

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 work.

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 annoys.

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