Monday, May 23, 2005

With Gentleness and Respect

Back in my college days there was a street preacher who made his appearance each Spring at the busiest pedestrian intersection on campus. I'll call him Preacher Man. He'd make the front page of the college newspaper every time he showed up. It was like Preacher Man's arrival was another sign of Spring, although sometimes it was more like the beginning of Summer weather.

Preacher Man would stand up on a concrete bench along the sidewalk and preach at the people. Not to the people -- at the people. But what really got the small crowd going was when a young woman walked by with anything less than modest clothing. That's when Preacher Man would call after her, "You're a whore! You're dressed like a common whore and you act like a common whore and you're going to hell!" Tact wasn't Preacher Man's strong suit. Of course the guys who walked with the girls were called "whoremongers" which caused many of these college students to dig out a Funk & Wagnall's to see what that meant. When they located the definition, most were too confused to pursue the matter any further.

The most common argument around Preacher Man was the old, "Judge not, lest ye be judged" tirade. That is the most quoted verse of Scripture among non-Christians, after all. To the best of my knowledge, Preacher Man wasn't running around with anyone dressed like a whore and he was always wearing that same black suit. Maybe someone objected to him taking off his jacket to reveal his long-sleeved white dress shirt, I don't know. I'm sure ol' P. M. was a sinner, but I doubt that he was a "whoremonger" to use his term. Yet the overarching complaint was that anyone could condemn behavior as wrong in public to the offender's face. Or at least to the side of her face as she walked by.

Now Preacher Man may have been right on all counts. Everyone of those women could have really been whores, or at least dressed like it. Everyone of those guys could have been whoremongers or aspired to be one. But it was the delivery which really honked people off. Here was a man in a bad, sweaty suit, standing on a bench so he was two feet above them, telling them rudely that they were wrong and would burn in hell. Did the message get through to anyone? Perhaps. But it's likely that the delivery turned off many more people than it attracted.

Recently at I'm Not Crunchy!, Alice and kate shared stories of some self-professed evangelical Christians whose actions were pretty pathetic. It is stuff like this which turns people away from Christ, not attracts them. And it happens way too often. I know that when I leave the Indy 500 this Sunday, there will be the guys outside the track "preaching" with bullhorns again, illustrating all the tact of the Rev. Preacher Man. I admire their courage. I deplore their actions.

Folks have tried to defend such behavior by using Isaiah 55:11,
So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty,but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
Yet in context, this passage talks about God keeping His promises. It does not say that if you shout a Bible verse at someone they'll come to believe it. Still well-meaning Christians go around shouting of their beliefs while showing little regard, let alone love, for the people they are shouting at.

I've run across this quote from Francis Schaeffer a couple of times in the past month:
Biblical orthodoxy without compassion is surely the ugliest thing in the world.
To me, this is the natural extension of 1 Peter 3:15-16:
But in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.
Peter, Paul and Jesus Christ each gave us the example of sharing with gentleness and respect. Sure Jesus took a whip to the merchants in the Temple and shouted at the Pharisees, but with those who hadn't tried to take over His religion Jesus was gentle and respectful. The woman at the well, the rich young ruler, Zaccheus, Mary and Martha, countless lepers and disabled folks -- Jesus did not come at them with guns ablazing. He didn't water down the truth, but He didn't shove it down people's throats either. He preached to people, not at them.

Paul went to argue philosophy with the brainiacs on Mars Hill, but not by shouting them down. He made elegant defenses of the faith while on trial for his life using the etiquette required before an earthly judge and leader. Paul and Jesus both presented the Gospel by the method expressed by Peter: with gentleness and respect.

There are times for righteous anger. But dealing with people who simply disagree is not one of those times. I honestly believe that if you do not treat someone with gentleness and respect, you are doing more harm for the Kingdom than any good you could be doing. I don't know of anyone Preacher Man led to Christ, but I know a few people who set themselves promptly in the opposite direction after hearing him. My prayer is that I can effectively share the Good News of Jesus Christ without dragging His name through the mud of my own disrespectful behavior.

Update (5/24): Upon learning that the aforementioned street evangelist is still active in ministry, I've decided to delete his real name. In the post and the comments, I've replaced his name with the pseudonym Preacher Man. I do this because my purpose in this piece is not to "get" Preacher Man, but to illustrate how many Christians treat others without the proper respect called for in Scripture. I'd like to give Preacher Man the respect he deserves.

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