As you might know by now, the tone coming out of Moscow has gained a little bit of notoriety. For good or ill, this reputation shows no signs of going away, and because you are likely to be fielding questions about it, I thought that it would be good to use our annual “state of the church” message to help you sort through the relevant issues.
“And sent messengers before his face: and they went, and entered into a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him. And they did not receive him, because his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did? But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them. And they went to another village” (Luke 9:52–56).
SUMMARY OF THE TEXTS
The basic lesson we should take from our text is this. Just because it is biblical . . . doesn’t make it biblical. As I learned from my father, there is always a deeper right than being right. James and John were nicknamed “sons of thunder” by the Lord (Mark 3:17), meaning that they were almost certainly hot-blooded. When a Samaritan village denied lodging because they were Jews on the way to Jerusalem, the two brothers appealed to the example of Elijah. When he had sent a message to King Ahaziah that he was not going to recover from a fall, the king sent an armed guard of fifty men to arrest Elijah, and Elijah called down fire from heaven and consumed them all (2 Kings 1:10). The king dispatched a second troop, and the same thing happened (2 Kings 1:12). The third captain was a great deal more polite—having seen what happened to the first two bands. This is the same Elijah who had summoned fire from heaven to consume the sacrificial altar on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:38), followed up by executing all the priests of Baal. So the prophet Elijah was no buttercup, and James and John had a biblical example to point to. But Jesus said that they had wildly misjudged the two circumstances—and they had particularly misjudged the nature of the mission that Christ was on. Christ had come to save, not destroy. It is not enough to “have a verse.”
THIS KNIFE CUTS BOTH WAYS
If there is always a deeper right than being right, then this must apply to every kind of “right.” Not just the right that has hard lines and straight edges. This also applies to the right of being kind, or generous, or sacrificial. C.S. Lewis once commented on a woman who was the sort of woman who lived for others, and you could tell the others by their hunted expression. Maybe he was afflicted by this sort of thing himself because he even wrote a poem in the form of an epitaph about it:
Erected by her sorrowing brothers
In memory of Martha Clay.
Here lies one who lived for others;
Now she has peace. And so have they.
Is it possible to bestow all your worldly goods to feed the poor, and have no love, no charity (1 Cor. 13:3)? It certainly is, and that profits nothing. Was Judas concerned about the poor when Mary anointed the Lord’s feet with spikenard? Judas was the treasurer, and was concerned about the extravagance (John 13:29). And he said that it was for the poor (John 12:5), but his motives were clearly mixed (John 12:6). It is the White Witch who is concerned about conspicuous consumption, remember. “What is the meaning of all this gluttony, this waste, this self-indulgence? Where did you get all these things?”
And there have eras when the saints were prone to miss the deeper right through a zeal to be hard line. That really is true. But to assume that this is the error of our age is to waver on the threshold of a serious delusion.
BUT WE MUST RESIST OUR OWN TEMPTATIONS, NOT THOSE OF OTHERS
Godly satire should come from within a worshiping community of orthodox and faithful Christians, only some of whom are called to it (Eph. 5:21). The satire should arise from the language and categories of Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Those exercising these gifts should warm and affectionate relationships with family. No close member of his family should flinch when he walks into the room (Col. 3:19, 21). The practice should continue a long and worthy tradition, and there should be broad acquaintance with that literature. There needs to be an instinctive knowledge of the quantitative difference between satire and scurrility. There may not seem to be a logical difference between 37 lashes and 42 lashes, but Scriptures say there is (Dt. 25:1-3).
There is a qualitative difference between the two also. This is a matter of timbre and tone. No mechanical rules can be set down for it, but it is a very important distinction to make (Heb. 5:14). These weapons should not be entrusted to anyone too young (1 Tim. 3:6). The whole point is to target lack of proportion, not to exhibit lack of proportion (Matt. 23:24). What effect is all of this having on those who aspire to fighting Amalekites with a chain saw (2 Cor. 11:1)? Is the satire coming from a community that has long experience in letting love cover a multitude of sins (1 Pet. 4:8).
This requires a courageous disposition, not a bullying one. Lawful satire is leveled at targets that know how to defend themselves, and that will defend themselves. As King Lune of Archenland put it, “Never taunt a man save when he is stronger than you: then, as you please.” And if a man is too proud to humble himself when he has sinned (Jas. 5:16), then he is too proud for this calling. Man’s anger does not advance God’s righteousness (Jas. 1:20). Anger, even when it is righteous (Eph. 4:26), is like manna and goes bad overnight (Eph. 4:27). This should never proceed from “little man syndrome,” where a man has something deep inside to prove, usually to his father. We must be free, completely free, of envy (Jas. 4:1-6). Envious satire is brittle satire, and not very effective.
The target should always be arrogance, not weakness, and, as far as possible, reserve his arrows for the former. There must be a general knowledge of church history, which will dislodge the very provincial notion that the current rules of academic etiquette are somehow binding on all generations of the Church. Scripture is the norm, not our current traditions. We must love to sing all the psalms that God has given us (Eph. 5:19). Nothing serves like the psalms if the goal is to nurture and restore a vertebrate church. We must never get stuck on one speed (Ecc. 3:1-8). All satire, all the time, would be tolerable for about forty-five minutes. We must learn as a community to really hate what is evil. The fear of God is not only the beginning of knowledge, but it is also defined as the hatred of evil. “The fear of the LORD is to hate evil: pride, and arrogancy, and the evil way, and the froward mouth, do I hate” (Prov. 8:14). And last, we must all grow in our love for what is good (Tit. 2:14), motivated by a love that yearns to defend what is noble and right, or weak and defenseless, and never be motivated by a bitterness that seeks to bite and tear (Gal. 5:13-15).
A BODY LIFE THING
Some people assume that if you move to Moscow, you are committing yourself to making fun of everybody, all the time. Not a bit of it. We are the body of Christ, and here, as with everything, each part of the body does what it was fashioned to do. So the eye doesn’t have to do what the ear does. But the eye needs to be committed to the ear, and should expect the ear to have a completely different outlook. But the whole body is Christ.