Years ago, when I was serving as a preaching pastor in a church, I was approached by an eleven year-old in our congregation who wanted to introduce me to his friend, Jared. Jared was on his soccer team, and had never been to church before. After a few minutes of talking, Jared told me that he needed prayer, that his Dad had left, and he didn’t know what his family was going to do. He wondered if I might pray that God would “put my Mom and Dad back together.” I prayed with him, and he turned to go back to his seat. He was wearing a shirt celebrating the inauguration of a President who was unpopular with most of the people in my mostly white, blue-collar congregation. As I watched this young man walk down his first-ever church aisle, to hear the gospel perhaps for the first time, a middle-aged man walked past him and huffed, “We need to get you a better shirt.”
I was incredulous. I wanted to yell, “He’s lost. He’s wounded. He’s hurting. He doesn’t know Christ, and you’re worried about this shirt!” My church member was lacking the full context, and he didn’t ask. All he knew was that he didn’t like the President on the boy’s shirt. I wondered how often I’ve done the same thing. How often have I fought the fight I saw in front of me, instead of the one that was really there to be fought.
The Lord’s servant is not quarrelsome, Paul commands. This is part of a more comprehensive gospel reality: as we are conformed to Christ we seek to diminish ourselves, and, by the Spirit, to live more the life of Christ within us. That’s why Paul told Timothy he must “patiently endure evil” (2 Tim. 2:24). Quarrelsomeness, the desire to fight for the sake of fighting, is a sign of pride. How often are our most bitter, sarcastic clashes with those who disagree with us less about persuading them and more about vindicating ourselves? This is especially true when we fear that those who oppose us think we’re stupid or evil (or both). We want to prove to them, and to ourselves, that they are wrong about us. That’s quite a different spirit from the Spirit of Christ.
Our Christ does not “cry aloud or lift up his voice,” and neither does he “grow faint or be discouraged, till he has established justice in the earth” (Isa. 41:2, 4). Jesus doesn’t defend himself against personal offenses, and he doesn’t allow injustice to stand without shining light upon it. This is because Jesus has a broader vision of what’s going on. Jesus doesn’t blink before Pilate because he knows, ultimately, he is setting the agenda, not Pilate (Jn. 18:36-37). This is not because Jesus doesn’t’ see the fight before him, but because he sees a bigger, more seemingly intractable, fight in the distance. Kindness and gentleness grow, not when we downplay warfare, but when we emphasize it. For Paul, kindness is not politeness. It’s a weapon in spiritual warfare. We teach and rebuke with kindness and gentleness, so that “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the devil after being captured by him to his will” (2 Tim. 2:25-26).
The Scriptures, we know, present a picture of the universe as a war zone, with the present age a satanic empire being invaded by the rival kingdom of Jesus. Talk of such realities rise and fall in the history of the church, oscillating between preoccupation and embarrassment. The church around the world—especially in what sociologist Philip Jenkins calls the Global South—grasps the kind of demon-haunted universe presented in the Scriptures. But many North American and Western European Christians wince at the “spiritual warfare” novels of the previous generation, with invisible angels and demons duking it out over small town America. We cringe at the latest television faith healer describing the demons that were persecuting him right around the time he was caught with the cocaine and the prostitutes. Many liberal Protestant churches excised “Onward Christian Soldiers” and other such “martial” hymns years ago. They are not the only ones. When was the last time you heard an evangelical praise chorus speaking of the war against the satanic powers?
Listen to Christian media or attend a “faith and values” rally, and you’ll hear plenty of warfare speech. Unlike past “crusades,” however, such language is directed primarily at people perceived to be cultural and political enemies. If we are too afraid of seeming inordinately Pentecostal to talk about the Devil, we will find ourselves declaring war against mere concepts, like “evil” or “sin.” When we don’t oppose demons, we demonize opponents. And without a clear vision of the concrete forces we as the church are supposed to be aligned against, we find it very difficult to differentiate between enemy combatants and their hostages.
The Scriptures command us to be gentle and kind to unbelievers, not because we are not at war, but because we’re not at war with them (2 Tim. 2:26). When we see that we are warring against principalities and powers in the heavenly places, we can see that we’re not wrestling against flesh and blood (Eph. 6:12). The path to peace isn’t through bellicosity or surrender, but through fighting the right war (Rom. 16:20). We rage against the Reptile, not against his prey.
We hear many calls, from across the religious and political spectrum, for civility. But civility is not enough. Civility is a neutral ground, a sort of mutual non-aggression pact, where we agree to respect one another and not to belittle one another. That’s important, and a good start, but that’s not enough. Just as we are not for “toleration” of those who religiously disagree with us but for “liberty,” so we should not be for mere civility, but for, from our end, kindness. Civility is passive; kindness is active and strategic.
The gospel commands us to speak, and that speech is often forceful. But a prophetic witness in the new covenant era never stops with “You brood of vipers!” It always continues on to say “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” We make arguments, even as we understand that arguments are merely the equivalent of brush-clearing, to get to the main point: a personal connection with the voice that rings down through the ages from Nazareth. We want not simply to convey truth claims, but to do so with the northern Galilean accent that makes demons squeal and chains fall. Kindness isn’t surrender. Gentleness isn’t passivity. Kindness and gentleness, when rooted in gospel conviction, that’s war.
This article is adapted from my new book Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel.