On Being Negative

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There it is in Titus 1:10. It’s one of those crucial Bible words: “For.” The apostle Paul has made much of the church finding devout leadership in verses 5–9. He’s listed the required character qualities, behavior, knowledge, and gifts of potential candidates. The “for” of verse 10 means that the next bit (vv. 10–16, NASB) explains why devout leadership is so important. “You must have godly, informed leaders because….”

The apostle goes negative. The reason why finding qualified elders is crucial is because there are lots of bad people out there. They are rebellious, empty talkers, deceivers. Their influence is corrosive; they are upsetting whole families, teaching bad things, and so they must be silenced. He even attacks their ethnicity and lands of origin; some are of the circumcision (Jews) and some are Cretans, and so, of course, are liars, evil beasts, and lazy gluttons. Those apostles of ours were willing to speak the undiluted truth.

“There are enough people who will call a spade a shovel,” one of my mentors once said, chastising me for using a unicorn when a thumbtack would do. He had a point, one might say. Too many loud, angry Christian voices lack nuance. Too often we are asked to “take a stand” on complex issues that we barely understand. How many times have conservative Christians been made to look foolish because they have firmly planted their feet, not on the solid ground of biblical truth, but in the thin air of political or social opinions and preferences?

Nevertheless, truth may be distinguished from error. The church, indeed, must distinguish truth from error. The church is called to both “exhort,” that is, present its positive teaching, and “refute,” which means to expose and dismantle error (v. 9). I prefer the former to the latter. I like to think that one can preach the truth and error will fall of its own accord. I like to say that there is no need to criticize those with whom I differ. Ignore them. Stick to the positive. No need to go negative. This seems a particularly wise strategy today when so many of our contemporaries find criticism of another person’s religion to be so distasteful. Why do we have to criticize other people’s beliefs? Live and let live. Be content with commending your own convictions and stay away from others.

Rebellious, empty talkers, and deceivers. Liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons. Detestable, disobedient, and worthless. It’s not “just” Paul, as the liberals like to say, who goes negative. Jesus called the Pharisees vipers, fools, hypocrites, blind guides, and white-washed tombs. Apparently, the practice of Jesus and the early Christians — “going negative” — doesn’t fit the modern paradigm. But Jesus and Paul felt the need to use strong, descriptive language and issue strong warnings. What is their paradigm, and why doesn’t ours match theirs?

Christians sometimes go negative because we are guarding eternal souls. Most people will only perceive the razor’s edge that separates truth from error when presented with both affirmations (“this is what the Bible teaches and the church understands”) and denials (“we do not mean this, or this, or this”). People are also helped when we say, “Here are the names of some sound teachers, and here are some of whom you ought to beware.” Due diligence requires that the church both proclaim the truth and attack error.

As forms of ministry have evolved in recent decades, some of us have thought it necessary both to affirm historic worship practices as well as criticize contemporary innovations and trends. This has caused some frowns. Traditionalists have not always connected the dots as we ought, but behind our arguments is the understanding that worship is ministry. We’ve watched the biblical content of services shrink beyond visibility. But doesn’t faith come by hearing the word of Christ (Rom. 10:17)? Are the spiritually dead not born again by the living and abiding Word of God (1 Peter 1:23)? Do the people of God not grow by the pure milk of God’s Word (2:2)? Then does it not matter what we read, preach, and sing in our services, and in what quantities? Should we not be alarmed when we see self-centered sermons replace biblical exposition, repetitious choruses replace biblically rich hymnody and psalmody, token prayers replace a full-diet of biblical prayer (for example, praise, confession, thanksgiving, intercessions), and Scripture reading disappear altogether? Of course, we should not be unnecessarily belligerent or rude or offensive.

Jesus believed in the value of human souls. He believed in heaven and hell. He urged that extreme measures be taken in order to save souls (cutting off hands, plucking out eyes). Thus, He and His disciples may find it necessary to use extreme language in order to protect His people.

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.