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Is it ok to be a blunt instrument?

Why CMI advocates a gracious tone

Published: 12 October 2019 (GMT+10)
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Gary’s article A blunt instrument for God? received the following comment from a friend of the ministry, Grahame G. from Australia. Response from Gary Bates and Lita Sanders follows.

Grahame G., Australia, writes:

I know that CMI has had a long-held position to be always gentle and ultra-careful never to be "nasty". (I don't know if that's how it's expressed internally but it's my clear impression from "outside".)

I wonder if you could comment on the very nasty language used by Jesus, Paul, and others.

How does that accord with "gentleness and respect"? (I think there is a question to be raised about how gentleness should be defined and sometimes Christians seem to use a worldly definition that doesn't line up with the epitome of gentleness, Jesus Christ. Compare Matthew 23)

It seems to me that the context of the I Peter passage says "those who ask a reason for the hope that is in you". Not everyone. And not even everyone who asks a question. It seems to me that scoffers are excluded, especially if you check the broader context of scripture.

I'm not asking you to change your approach. I think you have an excellent approach. But I'm not sure it's the right approach for everyone and I'm not sure this article (and others) is as comprehensive or biblical as you seem to portray of the situation. You appear to have overlooked some aspects of scripture that I have mentioned.

I would love to hear your feedback on this. It is a vexed topic with many competing views and one I've ruminated on at length and I hope to continue doing so. It is very important that I not violate scripture, and that I fulfill His purpose for my life, and represent Jesus accurately.

Dear Grahame,

Thanks for writing in with this question, because it helps us explain something that’s at the very heart of our ministry. You may have seen recently that Gary Bates had the opportunity to minister to over 10,000 university students. One of the hosts explained what he liked about CMI. He said, “You guys have great information, but you don’t use it as a bat to beat people over the head with like I’ve seen some others do.” In other words, we present convincing information in a way that helps to win people over if possible. If some are being viewed as combative then obviously seekers would not be willing to engage with them, particularly if they are not even too sure about what they believe themselves.

Let me give another example from when I (Lita) had just joined the ministry. A fellow wrote in with a nasty, skeptical email, but the way he began his email gave me the perfect setup for a Gospel message, and that meant that my tone was evangelistic all the way through, because you can’t beat someone to a pulp and then expect to present a good Gospel message! He wrote again with another nasty email, which I answered in the same way. He came back a third time and said, essentially, “I never expected to get any answers, and you’ve sent me two, and you’ve been a lot nicer to me than I was to you. Now I have to go away and think about what you said.” My tone gave me credibility which meant he considered my information a lot more than if I had just said, “Haven’t you ever heard about the bacterial flagellum, dummy?”

Both of these demonstrate the effectiveness of a winsome tone, but is it biblical? You say that both Jesus and Paul used ‘nasty’ language. You cite Matthew 23 as an example for Jesus, and while you didn’t give an example for Paul, his comments about the Judaizers in Galatians seem applicable. Both of these used harsh language, beyond what we would normally use, and it’s important to note the context. Both of these are addressed to false religious leaders who are teaching dangerous error meant to keep people away from God. You may notice that we aren’t particularly gentle with BioLogos, Hugh Ross, or with high-profile pastors like Andy Stanley who teach people to doubt the historical nature of the Bible. We follow Jesus and Paul in being very clear about criticizing leaders and teachers who are leading people away from believing the Bible.

But most people don’t fall into that category. They may be hostile, they might be ignorant, but we don’t treat them the same way that we’d treat someone who is in a position of leadership and influence. We follow the example of Jesus and Paul in being very patient and gracious with people, and we see it bear fruit in convincing people of our message.

It's also important to note that we can misjudge people’s motives, especially if we get emotionally involved as well. Jesus was God and knew what was in men’s hearts, as the Gospels tell us many times. Also, Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit. So, we should be careful about using a harsh tone because we don’t know people’s hearts.

Another reason to answer with a gracious tone is to be able to present facts when often the person writing in has only emoted. We can be direct in saying “You’ve asserted many things but haven’t given any evidence,” or point out where they have misrepresented our arguments without getting emotional about it.

Really, the only time when we use strong tone is 1) when we’re writing about false teachers like Hugh Ross and BioLogos and 2) when someone is making public dishonest statements about our ministry which, if believed, might inhibit our ability to spread the message. Jesus often pointed out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. But this was not how He always talked to everyone.

You say some people are excluded by the 1 Peter passage. I say perhaps, but not as many as you might expect. And I’ve never regretted being too gracious to someone, but there are times I regret being so hard on someone. If someone is looking for a reason to ‘sucker-punch’ someone with creation, I would suggest that person needs to examine their heart. If you’re more interested in scoring intellectual knock-outs for Jesus than you are in leading the skeptic to Christ, I would suggest you need to stay away from apologetics (using ‘you’ in a general sense, not you specifically).

I would say that apologetics is an extension of the Great Commission. To be able to share our faith and lead people to Christ, we also need to be familiar with and ready to answer common objections to faith. In the Roman world, it was questions like, “Why can’t you be a Christian and come to the temple of Diana like any good Ephesian?” Today, it’s questions like, “Who created God? And isn’t the universe billions of years old?” But our answer should keep in mind that our goal isn’t just to give an intellectually credible answer. It’s to give that answer in such a way that our questioner sees that Jesus is Lord and knows that he needs to repent and believe the Gospel. And hopefully, our answer will make it clear that if the skeptic wants to know more, we would welcome further conversation on the topic.

So in conclusion, we try to be Christlike in our tone, including using strong language in cases that mirror times when He did. And we always strongly defend the truth. But we avoid offense where possible by using as gracious a tone as possible, and often win the skeptic or at least some who read the exchange, as illustrated by my two examples.

Helpful Resources

Christianity for Skeptics
by Drs Steve Kumar, Jonathan D Sarfati
US $17.00
Soft Cover