Christian Media

Have We Started Demanding Christian Leaders Sign a Loyalty Oath?

For hundreds of years as missionaries took the gospel to the ends of the earth, depending on the culture they encountered, the Christian community allowed them enormous latitude into how they chose to present the message. For instance, when a missionary worked in a culture steeped in polygamy, he didn’t start by teaching what the Bible said about “one husband and one wife.” He knew the key to changing embedded cultural behavior wasn’t immediate confrontation; it was the sometimes long process of winning trust, developing relationships, and earning the right to be heard.

From Sati (widow burning) in some Asian cultures to slavery and tribal warfare in Africa, missionaries understood that it may take years before they were trusted enough to speak against values and customs that had been part of a society for generations. Legendary Baptist missionary Lottie Moon is credited with helping to end the practice of foot-binding in China. Changing this commonly accepted but crippling practice was a massive shift for influential Chinese leaders at the time. But it was only Lottie’s deep and long immersion into that society which earned her enough authority to speak into these kinds of practices.

Today we give the same type of latitude to missionaries confronting Muslim cultures where many who come to Christ desire to remain culturally Muslim.  In Buddhist areas, the challenge may be household gods, and in animist groups it’s syncretism. To preach against these practices from day one is to invite expulsion and sometimes physical harm. That’s why being strategic about when, where, and how to broach these delicate subjects is critical for impacting these regions with the gospel.

Today, “missions” isn’t just about a remote village in a Third World country.  While those outreaches are still critical, the emerging mission fields of the 21st century are the largest urban areas of the world – including the United States. From New York, Stockholm, Berlin, Cape Town and beyond, a new generation of pastors and leaders are planting churches in the most unchurched cities of the world. They face challenges traditional missionaries of the past faced and more, including an unbelieving and indifferent community, often hostile media, and aggressive government regulation that can limit new church buildings and locations.

But beyond these immediate obstacles these pioneers are facing a challenge a previous generation of missionaries and leaders never faced.  Today, these urban missionaries are being challenged in the media by other Christians.

Past generations of Christian missionaries changed the world, in part because we gave them the latitude necessary on when, where, and how they chose to present the gospel. In those days, news travelled slowly, and in many cases missionaries were able to spend years working with local groups relatively unhindered. But in the digital era, every decision, interview, and statement our new leaders make is tweeted, posted, updated, and blogged about. Suddenly Christian sites post opinion pieces from armchair theologians, and everyone feels the need to weigh in with little or no understanding of context or background. In the Internet age, Christians who’ve never even been to Mumbai feel perfectly comfortable calling a Christian leader working in that culture to task on a wide range of issues.

And when it comes to volatile issues like same sex marriage it gets downright ugly. We’ve gone from respecting a leader’s decision on when, where, and how to share the gospel to the people he or she’s called to reach to forcing leaders to sign a virtual loyalty oath. If they don’t all make public announcements that meet our approval, they’re labelled as compromisers, sell-outs, or heretics. We’re effectively forcing these 21st century missionaries to be rejected by the very cultures they are desperately trying to reach. To turn away people before they even have a chance to share the life-changing message of the gospel.

Theology matters. What we believe about God determines the God we believe in. But when it comes to engaging the fastest changing and most disrupted culture in the history of the world, I suggest that we give a little grace to our pioneers on the front lines.  They see the challenges first hand, which in most cases, determines how best to connect. Teachers in urban areas use different methods from those in rural areas to inspire students. Military generals use different strategies for engaging enemy forces in different regions of the world. So why can’t we do the same with the men and women on the front lines of the gospel?

I’m all for vigorous discussion and even debate. But next time we hear a soundbite, off-hand conversation, or media interview from a leader we may disagree with, let’s not be quite so quick to criticize on social media, blogs, or the op-ed pages of Christian websites or publications. Let’s consider the local situation, the context, and the lifelong track record of the person in question. Perhaps most important, let’s remember there is much we don’t know about going on behind the scenes.

In other words, let’s use the power of the Internet to impact, not implode.


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  1. YES, let’s IMPACT, not IMPLODE people outside the church and those in the church. We must, as a Church, LOVE others, not judge them, criticize or rebuke, when we haven’t looked at the log in our own eyes. And Phil, you preach it – soundbites are dangerous things to comment on. I have been misquoted many times and the most hurtful thing is not what the press writes, but when people I know believe the quote and not trust my heart! Thanks so much for this reminder!

  2. I think this applies to Christians working in Hollywood too. Rather than rolling into town and immediately confronting “evil Hollywood” instead work within the system, do excellent work and people will be much more open to your message and ideas.

  3. Thanks for being so honest, Phil. Too often Christians have thought their mission was to yell at outsiders from inside their own branded 4 walls. But that never changed anything or anybody. Even Jesus didn’t begin His ministry by campaigning against slavery or lecturing the “publicans” on their evils. The church has too often deteriorated into the only army on earth that shoots its wounded and pits its generals against each other. God help us!
    The “friend who ate bread with me has lifted up his hand against me” applies here, apparently. (Ps. 41:9)

  4. Too often when issues like the ones you cited are debated in public forums, we get ourselves embroiled with taking a particular side of a leader or organization on one side of the controversy. It is refreshing when Christian bloggers and/or leaders look to the wisdom of God’s book for wisdom in handling disputes or issues of disagreement within the Body of Christ. One of the passages cited for wisdom is Acts 15. This is one of many biblical passages providing insight, dealing with issues of the process of biblical conflict resolution. We often forget there was a lengthy time period in which the early leaders of the church considered all aspects of a thorny issue. I like the wisdom from this passage provided by Peacemaker Ministries as they provide assistance to conflicts within the church: “The elements of conflict response in this passage are: involvement of other mature believers (15:2b), unrelenting focus on the positive even in light of the conflict (15.3-4), clear identification of the issues in question (15:5-6), careful and thorough discussion (15:7), and the exercise of authoritative leadership, based on God’ s truth (15:7-11).
    ” – See more at: May the current and future disputable issues be resolved by careful biblical reflection & action (and I’m pointing fingers back at myself as I write!)

    1. Great points Mark. The problem is that in the Internet age, too much of the discussion and debate happens online in public FIRST – before the steps you’ve outlined can happen. Your post is a good reminder of the right order to resolve conflicts.
      Thanks for the comments!

  5. I love old movies because I keep finding things that I think are a new development with the new direction of our culture, then I find an old movie that raises the same frustration that I’m feeling at the present.

    The problem of improper criticism has been around for a long time. In the movie, An American In Paris, released in 1951, There is dialog that goes like this, “Do you like criticism?” “Who does? It’s tough enough from those that know.”

    Then in 1964 Bob Dylan wrote the song, “The Times They Are A Changein.” As teenagers we all sang these words at the top of our lungs:

    “Come mothers and fathers, throughout the land. And don’t criticize what you can’t understand.

    Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command. Your old road is rapidly agin’…”

    Hummm, somehow I have a slightly different idea about that particular point of view now, but that’s another article. Experiencing criticism when I was young, and now that I’m …somewhat …mature, I see the wisdom from another song writer’s idea…it’s all about, “A Question of Balance.”

    Obviously, thoughtful criticism is better than knee-jerk reactions to any topic, but maybe there is a step or two further we need to think about before we level our guns on anyone.

    Like, “Is this really in my lane of expertise? Or, am I just wanting to voice my perfect way of doing business; forgetting there are many other cultures in my neighborhood, and in this world that our Father is equally concerned about. He has got to use a large variety of tactics to show His love for everyone individually, just like He did for me?

    Of course, if we are going to stay in our lane we must first understand what a lane is and then figure out what lane we are truly in. Only then we can properly fight the urge to mess with someone else’s lane. Especially, when they are experiencing fruit in another area I’m not involved in.

    Also, asking ourselves honestly…what is my real motive deep down inside. If a person is really concerned about helping someone improve or to teach them something they might not understand, isn’t it better to get with them off-line? Or do we enjoy being taken to task in public?

    I have to be honest. There are many times everyday that I shake my head to myself and pray for someone that I think has gotten something wrong. I try to end my prayer with, “… or maybe I just don’t see what you are trying to do here, so bless all those that are laboring for your Kingdom…”

    If I’m not moved to personally confront the situation, face to face, I just move-on to try to concentrate on what God has called me to do. That, in-and-of-itself is more than enough to keep me busy.

    Finally, I’m often lovingly reminded by my wife (mostly while I’m driving), and she is 100% correct, well maybe …no 100% correct, to leave the correcting of everyone in the world to the Holy Spirit, because that is His lane. Amen?

  6. The Apostle Paul walks into Athens, had a discussion with the influencers of the culture about the unknown God. Paul simply preaches life in Jesus, the crowed is completely enthralled, he has them in the palm of his hand. The he starts in about the resurrection of the dead, they think he’s a nut job the immediately expell him from the discussion and he is literally removed from the area. But, but…a few came with him! Paul did not preach AT them. He was dismissed due to their own mental limitations, their understanding of how the natural world works. St. Paul’s forced exodus had nothing to due with throwing guilt and condemnation on the crowd about their life style choices. He clearly reserved his harshest criticisms for the believers in the churches he planted. The criticisms were well deserved…and directed to the groups with which he had built a relationship as to avoid his words being heard in a vacuum. When I read scripture it appearsharshest messages are reserved for the religious leaders and those who claim a believe on Jesus. For those first hearing or being unaware, there was an attitude of a soft or kind approach with out a compromise in truth. This seems to be the model we (the church) could implement.

    1. I like your phrase “a soft or kind approach without a compromise in truth.” We are to speak truth in love, which we can’t really do if we don’t know the person or situation. It is also difficult unless you are fave to face and truly feel God’s compassion for people. It must be truth, but not spoken with only truth in mind.

  7. Good article. I think there is a difference, though, between someone who is a foreign missionary versus a converted native whose home turf becomes his/her mission field. In other words, I agree that it would be arrogant to walk into Mumbai or a jungle village somewhere and demand that ancient cultural norms be dropped without earning trust. However, here, living in my own country, I owe no such leniency to native believers who are soft in the face of our own cultural decay.

    1. I might argue with that Nathan. Today America is remarkably non-Christian. I don’t say it’s “Post-Christian”, I prefer “Pre-Christian”. I think the regular citizen of America isn’t any more knowledgeable about the Bible than someone in China or North Korea.

  8. Why do believers find it so hard to give grace to other believers? If we could do this, give grace instead of retribution, I think the world would sit up and take notice because love would become our hallmark.

    Really liked the post, Phil. It brings up something that’s gotten my attention lately (in a situation where no grace was given and the church has begun to disintegrate).

    1. That’s a good question Katherine. Why do we so often default to making a judgment rather than assuming something more is going on? Thanks for bringing that up..

  9. I recently read an article that was a plea for believers “to fight for unity or don’t fight at all” when it comes to matters boiling up in our connected community of faith. These are wise words.

    Likewise, so are these: “Let’s consider the local situation, the context, and the lifelong track
    record of the person in question. Perhaps most important, let’s remember
    there is much we don’t know about going on behind the scenes.”

    The struggle for us is to recognize that just because our community of faith is more connected than ever, we aren’t necessarily any more related to one another. In most instances like those described by Phil, there isn’t enough ‘relationship’ to call the alleged offender out privately let alone publicly.

    Thanks, Phil!

  10. Phil, I love this! Thanks for taking the time to write about this perspective. We have experienced much of what you’re talking about since we planted a church a year ago (in one of the most “religious” cities in America), but I never thought about it that way.

  11. This was very different from your other posts. And I’m glad having got a chance to read it. With govt. regulations becoming more stringent on religious activities. And media taking liberty to put it how ever they would like it. The story going out is quite different than what it seems.
    I think writing letters to each other like Paul did was better 😉
    Looking forward to your next post.

  12. “Christian” trolls are alive and well on the web. Personally I disregard anything that is judgmental or a rant. If you are willing to say something “face to face”, don’t digitally say it.

  13. This article is a breath of fresh air. 🙂

    There are dozens of Internet Web Sites devoted solely to “Discernment” and “Being Watchmen” and “Exposing the Wolves.” I visited many of these sites at the behest of a friend. Oh my! I felt like I was in a vicious teenage gossip session. “He said this” … “she did that” … “if he had lunch with so and so they MUST have talked about this” ….

    My heart is broken. And as I pray over this, sometimes daily, I sense the heart of God is broken, too.

    One “Watchman” claims that MOST Christians are part of a particular movement to take over the world, ourselves, by force and hand it over to Jesus when He returns, EVEN IF WE DON’T REALIZE WE ARE PART OF IT.


    Assigning labels is a favored technique of “Discernment” Websites. “Oh, he’s just a _______” … “that’s just _____ism.”

    Aren’t labels a way to categorize or divide?

    We’re to mark those among us that CAUSE divisions and avoid those people. Yet, it seems the very ones who are forcing divisions with their labels and categories are telling us who to avoid. Something is not right here. This is upside down.

    Many of these Website “Watchmen” have dozens and dozens of “heretics” up for public skewing. The lists are long and comprehensive. They have missed practically no one who has a well-known ministry for their walls of shame and defame. When I clicked on various names to see what their “sins” or “heresies” were, I found it was usually one statement the person made, an association the person had (no matter how old or how brief) with a person or ministry that went astray, or an accusation of impropriety against the person that had never been proven and that had been denied.

    So now, brief associations and unproven accusations are grounds for a charge of heresy? And misunderstood or misconstrued words are, also? Then, who is not a “heretic” ? None of us is perfect. We are all going to make mistakes. And we have an enemy who accuses us before God and to each other day and night. The world of lost people around us often misunderstands and accuses us, as well. We already have formidable enemies. Are we now enemies to one another?

    These sites of which I speak are filled with gossip and slander. They feed off of each other; rushing in a frenzied pack after the same person or ministry with relentless fervor, teeth bared, and no grace.

    Christian Unity is mocked and jeered and the love of our Lord Jesus Christ is crushed on the ground.

    Yes, we are to earnestly defend the faith. However, the method some use is not the way God said we are to do it.

    Like the Ephesian church, these Internet “Watchmen” may have identified a few false brethren … but they have lost their love. They are in danger of losing their ability to shine for Jesus. We are to do all things with love; even exposing heresy or error. In fact, these difficult issues of the church are the tasks that especially require an abundance of God’s love in operation.

    Paul named very few names. These “Watchmen” name practically everyone who sets out to serve the Lord. If Paul had “defended the faith” in like manner, he would not only have rebuked Peter, he would have branded Peter a heretic and excommunicated him. Barnabas and John Mark may have made Paul’s list, and most likely, Apollos, too.

    The only people who seem to not be on these Internet “lists of doom” are the Heretic Hunters, themselves. No one can inspect their fruit, because they are practically anonymous.

    Although, there is one fruit we can examine. The current atmosphere of harsh criticism seems to be a direct result of these Websites. Some opened an unloving door of discord in the church. Surely, true shepherds or watchmen would not have done this. This seems to be rotten fruit.

    “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” 1 John 4:7-8 (NASB)

  14. This is quite interesting and it drives the point home. I like what you said about “armchair theologians”.
    We are living in times when people are being persecuted by their own people and being hated by those on the other side, in the end, the people don’t listen to the prophets and men of God, instead,they just talk about them. I hope the church will reform and come back to the fundamentals of love and be governed by principles that accentuate the love of God stressed by the wisdom of his awe!

    The key to impact is our wisdom, the application of what we already know.

    Thank you for this post. 🙂

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