We see a pattern in scripture and church history: when God raises up prophets, they meet fierce opposition from religious establishment and those devoted to the idols they critique; but true prophets stand firm and soon many begin to follow.
On the Perils of a Winsome Ministry
Pastors have a very difficult job. Besides the common burdens of preaching and soul-care, the cultural pressures of our day through which they are guiding others are confusing and seem to be shifting at breakneck speed. And many, both inside and outside of the church, place conflicting demands on them as to what their job entails.
I care so much about pastors, first of all, because I have been one for most of my adult life and, second, because I now teach undergraduate students in religion, many of whom consider entering vocational ministry.
Over the past few years, many pastors and Christian ministry leaders let a lot of people down. It is my contention that the winsome model was a major contributor to what led them astray.
For instance, as I mentioned in my previous American Reformer piece, I think this over-orientation to how Christians are perceived by the broader culture led many pastors to being a bit too accommodating of the media and public health officials surrounding COVID. Not only were they unduly trusting of these figures, but they also castigated reasonable voices of critique. But even worse than this, many of these Christian leaders mediated the messaging that any dissent from the COVID regime was a failure to love one’s neighbor, thus binding the consciences of Christians and stoking division in the church.
Fearing how Christians might appear to the outside world, many Christian leaders failed their congregations. Similar things could be discussed about race issues or LGBT issues (and the whole idea of “pronoun hospitality” or the Revoice affair). How does this winsome framework lead ministers astray? What concepts should we be more attuned to?
The Perils of Winsomeness
Before we get there, let me recap the critique. What I describe with this catchall label of “winsomeness” is the package approach of cultural engagement that seeks above all to minimize offense so as to maximize openness to the gospel. There are biblical imperatives related to winsomeness that we can never abandon.
However, there are other aspects of the biblical vision that seem to get muted or downplayed by the winsome advocates. Too often winsomeness translates into “niceness.” This, I believe, is a sentimentalized reduction of the biblical vision.
Also, it sets up leaders and those they lead for naïveté in a world more hostile to Christian moral norms. In our increasingly post-Christian culture, truthful love will be met with hostility and be called unloving, “unwinsome.” If we are overly concerned with how we are received by others, then it will be tempting to think, no matter how nice we have been, that we are in the wrong, and thus doubt our convictions. Many will be ill-prepared to say no to things they need to be rejected and opposed.
One more concept I would like to add for consideration is how the winsome framework inclines toward what I would like to call “prodigal politics.” This is obviously a play on Tim Keller’s “prodigal God” thesis, in which he provided a very helpful exposition of the gospel through a creative but faithful reading of the parable of the prodigal son. Keller rightly explains that we must avoid two ditches that lead away from the gospel, each represented by one of the sons in the story: relativistic immorality, represented by the younger son; moralistic religiosity, represented by the elder brother. Winsome-thirdway-ists tend to suggest that our harshest treatment should be directed at the older brothers. This often gets applied by the acolytes of winsomeness to the realm of politics and the culture wars as necessitating harshest criticism of those on the right. So, winsome-thirdway-ists, as is commonly known, “punch right, coddle left.” This plays out among pastors and other Christian leaders who regularly comment on contemporary issues, whether in the pulpit, newsletters, or on social media.
This, I argue, in our day, is a bit misguided—primarily because it fails to accurately recognize which group is disproportionately judgmental and authoritarian in our day. Nate Hochman, in a recent piece in the New York Times, explains that in a previous era Republicans were aggressively pushing a moral order, whereas the progressives were the rebels against the hegemonic pressures. Today, says Hochman, the reverse is true. It is the left which is the “schoolmarm of American public life, and the right is associated with the gleeful violation of convention.” Hochman goes on: “Contemporary social pieties are distinctly left wing, and progressives enforce them with at least as much moral ardor as the most zealous members of the religious right.” Having secured certain “rights,” forces on the left demand widespread, public affirmation and seek to punish those who hold traditional views—views that are now out of step with the new status quo.
The “sides” of the political spectrum don’t break neatly along “elder brother” and “younger brother” lines, at least as commonly understood. The group forcefully imposing an ideological orthodoxy on the populace is no longer the old “Moral Majority;” it is the secular progressive social justice movement.
Therefore, I think this approach of punch right, coddle left, is severely mistaken. This approach fails to respond proportionately to the particular discipleship needs of the day and misses unique evangelistic opportunities which are right in front of us.
What Is to Be Done?
This leads me to my positive proposals. If winsomeness has limits and peculiar temptations, what is needed to counterbalance those? I have repeated across various platforms three key terms particularly required for ministry and public witness today: clarity, courage, and resilience.
I think these are essential for Christian leaders and pastors to focus on in our time. We need prophets who perceive the issues clearly and speak to them plainly. We need courageous shepherds who can help form resilient communities. These categories are behind and underneath the remainder of this essay, which focuses on three key terms: sheep, wolves, and fools.
Throughout scripture, God’s people are referred to as sheep. This includes those who are already in the covenant community, but also those elected but not yet in the visible fold—the lost. I do not intend to develop a comprehensive theology of these categories, but rather to explicate how they help us understand what is needed in ministry today—what opportunities are before us if we pay attention.
In our time of postmodernism, social breakdown, ever-shifting mores, and an increasingly authoritarian left, many feel beat up and confused. We could call these the refugees of the sexual and woke revolutions. They are especially confused by the moral insanity and widespread nonsense that is wreaking havoc on the social order and they are wondering why no one is saying the sane thing, why too few are speaking out in order to make sense amidst of the chaos, to say “no” to insanity and clearly explain the good order to which we can and should conform.
Many Christians and Christian leaders refuse to do this. Often they nuance away clear biblical teachings about moral issues because they don’t want to rock the boat or to look narrow-minded. They assume that addressing these hot-button issues will hinder openness to the gospel message. But this nuance often appears to be overly generous to ideas and developments on the left.
A lot of the refugees are turned off by this. So I think we are missing opportunities here. There are tons of people in the middle of the cultural storms who are crying out for someone to speak clearly, to be a courageous voice of reason.
A recent piece at The Gospel Coalition was quite moving. It included snippets of a conversation between a pastor and an elderly man who had pursued transitioning. The latter was born male and eventually had multiple surgeries to help him present as a woman. His transition did not take away his depression, and he later regretted his decisions. The pastor asked him: “When you were in your 20s, what could I have said to you to get you on the right path?” The man said, “Nothing. But what I did need someone like you to continue telling me what was wrong and what was true. Keep telling people the truth.”
There are evangelistic opportunities here that we should not miss. And on top of this, avoiding clear teachings on the hot-button issues of our days is also foolish. If you mute hard teachings to get persons in the door, you set up a likelihood that you will mute them indefinitely. As A.W. Tozer said: “You win them to what you win them with.” People don’t like to feel that they have been had—that you pulled something on them, tricked them to get them in the door and then later bring up the offensive things in your pastoral shepherding.
This brings us to the second type of sheep: Christian disciples. Faithful Christians are also getting tossed in the cultural waves. They are disoriented, confused, and discouraged. They need encouragement to press on. They need to hear from leaders that they aren’t crazy, and that holding to biblical truths does not make them bigots. The embattled faithful need clear and courageous leadership.
And there are also unfaithful Christians. Those who claim the name of Christ and have accommodated the logic of the world, not just in doctrinal matters, but also moral matters about fundamental issues of nature, sex, etc. There are certain moral matters, not just theological ones, that are out of bounds for Christians.
We need ministers to boldly practice church discipline, as instructed in Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5. Blatant, unrepentant, public sin demands strong rebuke, and if the one who claims the name of Christ persists in such sin, he should be excommunicated. In the Reformed tradition, this usually involves barring such unrepentant sinners from the Lord’s table.
One group that deserves special attention today are members in the church who are involved in government and push radical agendas on sex, gender, and abortion. As I said, there are certain moral positions that are out of bounds for Christians. Members who are living in blatant unrepentant public sin, and political figures who are promoting evil policies, need public discipline.
We can take inspiration from a famous instance in church history of courageous church discipline. In AD 390, emperor Theodosius, in a rage, slaughtered around 7000 people. Bishop Ambrose called him to repent, which Theodosius refused, in response to which Ambrose denied communion to the emperor. Eventually Theodosius did repent, accepting Ambrose’s terms for reconciliation, which included the promotion of a law which required a delay of 30 days before any death sentence passed could be enforced. In front of a crowded congregation, Theodosius took off his imperial robes and asked for forgiveness of his sins. Finally, at a church service on Christmas day, Ambrose administered the sacrament to Theodosius.
This was extremely dangerous for Ambrose. But he was faithful to the vocation, and bravely brought harsh love to the powerful church member. We need ministers to lead with this type of clarity, conviction, and courage.
A recent, high-profile example of what I am advocating is when Archbishop Cordileone instructed Nancy Pelosi to abstain from Holy Communion due to her continued advocacy for abortion. We need to remember, in the words of C.S. Lewis, that “the hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men.” Such actions are directed to bring these figures to repentance and bring about justice in our polities.
I don’t want to name names on this, but a current candidate for Congress is public about being shepherded by one of the famous winsome-thirdway pastors. It recently became known that this candidate has a 100% approval rating from Planned Parenthood. There could be many complicating factors to this story, but with these bare details, this looks like a profound failure of pastoral leadership.
So, pastors and Christian leaders need to be clear and bold to both comfort the faithful and to correct unfaithful disciples. And they need to protect the sheep from wolves.
Throughout scripture, false teachers are identified as wolves, and harsh words are reserved for them. As Kevin DeYoung explains, a wolf is a false teacher who snatches up sheep (John 10:12), draws disciples away from the gospel (Acts 2:28), opposes the truth (2 Tim. 3:8), and leads people to make a shipwreck of the faith and to embrace ungodliness (1 Tim. 1:19-20; 2 Tim. 2:16-17).