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Modern CensoRS

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9)

I am of the conviction that one of the qualities essential to true discipleship is humility. In this, I am not referring simply to a self-effected posture of lowliness, or the outward appearance of timidity and self-deprecation. Rather, I am talking about a genuine suspicion of our own sinful nature, and a realization that no matter how good and right we think we are, we are subject to the same temptations that face all human beings.

I remember the days not long ago when the most common stereotype of religious people, and the accusation made against them, is that they are too judgmental or “holier than thou.” I used to joke that the only Bible verse that every atheist had memorized was Matthew 7:1, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” This used to be the go-to verse, used against Christians by those who did not want to have to be called to account for their actions, or question whether what they were doing was wrong.

But the funny thing is, something I’ve noticed lately is that I don’t hear that phrase as much as I once did. People don’t seem to mind judgmentalism as much as they once did. Those who used to say “don’t judge me” seem to have become fewer in number, perhaps because they are often the ones who are now doing the judging.

It seems like judging and condemnation have become a popular sport in our society, especially online, across the internet. Criticizing the words and actions of others, and meting out punishment to those with whom they disagree, is how one comes to feel superior. Offering moral pronouncements and calling into question the character of those with whom they disagree, has become the preoccupation of many who would never think themselves religious. They have become the very people they used to try to avoid.

I remember a board game we had in our house when I was a child, where the goal was to figure out a person’s identity. The game board had pictures of many different people, each of different occupations and appearances (hair color, clothing, expressions, etc.). By asking only yes or no questions, players would try to determine the character who was “it” by a process of elimination.

I can still picture one character on the game board who was labelled “The Censor” (representing a person who judged and disapproved of everything). The Censor was depicted as an old woman in conservative clothing and severe hairstyle, with a stern scowl on her face. It was the stereotypical image of what might be described as a “church lady” – judgmental and self-righteous.

Ironically, in our day and age, if we were honest, “The Censor” would have to be depicted differently. To match our current culture, the Censor would need to be portrayed more like a young, liberal, college-student or “social justice warrior” angrily typing out condemnations on social media. It would be the sign-carrying activists, who like to think of themselves as revolutionary, but are funded and supported by establishment corporations and mainstream media.

The censors of our day are the kind of people who would never think of themselves as moral prudes, but are ever-willing to attack others for the evil of their perceived “-isms.” In an attempt to signal their own secular virtue, they are people oblivious to their own ideological arrogance. They are the purveyors of Cancel Culture — unable to imagine that they could ever be wrong, or that they are guilty of the very things for which they condemn in others.

Or perhaps, that is exactly why they do it. After all, everyone knows that in the new religion of our secular culture, there is no forgiveness and no mercy. The only way to avoid being accused and condemned is to join in the mob accusing and condemning others, displaying your own moral correctness so as to avoid being targeted by others. In this kind of climate, humility puts one in danger.

This is especially true of the most impressionable among us. Sadly, many young people today live in constant fear of being “called out” by the social media mob, requiring them to enforce a strict self-censorship on all their words and actions, terrified of deviating in the slightest from the norms of popular culture, knowing that the mob may crush them at any moment. This constant fear of judgment creates peer pressure on the highest level. Unfortunately, it is the new normal — one that has taken on a kind of “religious” fanaticism.

Which brings me back to where I started. There is something about being a disciple of Jesus Christ that requires humility. In the midst of a world that offers no forgiveness and no mercy, we must not be tempted to do the same. We must recognize the temptation to attack others before they attack us. We must fight the temptation to hurt and destroy the lives of others by indulging our own self-righteous offense. We must be humble enough to see in others the same vulnerabilities that all of us share, and to treat others with the same compassion that we would want to be treated.

To ask God to “lead us not into temptation” is not just an appeal that God would keep us from falling into stereotypical sin and vices. It is also a prayer in which we ask God to keep us from the ideological arrogance that assumes we can do no wrong. It is a prayer that God would not let us fall into the temptation of being overcome by fear and the intimidation of the secular mob. For we have a God who sees us as we are, and yet is still a God who shows us mercy and grace, and loves us as his own.

In a society where people vie to point the finger at others, perhaps the best we can do is follow the example of the One who was not ashamed to be “counted among the transgressors” – the same One that suffered at the accusation of the mob, yet could not be cancelled.

Like our Lord Jesus, may we have the same bravery and courage to not give in to the righteous forces of judgment and the temptation to justify ourselves, but rather to trust in our merciful God and live in the freedom of his grace.

— Pastor Steven E. King

Competitive Gospel

Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. (Philippians 1:15-18)

I have often wondered about the verses above. I wonder exactly what it was that Paul was referring to, and why he would apparently affirm those who preach the gospel with ulterior motives? Paul always did have detractors. He spoke often of those who contradicted the message of grace in Christ, seeking to reinstitute the law as the basis for Christian faith. There was a sort of rivalry between him and those who preached “a different gospel” (2 Corinthians 11:4), and Paul often warned of those who would “nullify the grace of God” (Galatians 2:21) by encouraging believers to trust in their own righteousness. Paul was an evangelist, first and foremost, and for him the gospel itself was at stake in these matters.

Throughout my ministry, I have had a particular interest in evangelism. Like Paul, it has been at the forefront of how I understand the calling God has placed on my life. I served as a mission developer in my own congregation, and over the years, I have helped to support a number of new church plants. I have come to recognize that God has given me a heart and passion for making known the gospel.

But I have to say, I never really questioned whether there was any hidden motive underlying my interest in evangelism — beyond wanting to serve as a faithful follower and ambassador for Christ.

So when I read what Paul writes about those who “preach Christ from envy and rivalry,” it gives me pause. I wonder if there is not a bit of my own competitive human nature that has driven this aspect of my ministry, and the desire I have to do evangelism. Knowing the way I am, I realize it is not simply that I want to preach the gospel, but that I want to do it “right.” That is to say, I want to proclaim Christ in a way that has biblical and theological integrity.

Unfortunately, I have too often been on the receiving end of badly done evangelism. Whether it be those who used a carrot or a stick, I have often experienced the “sales pitch” of people who have tried to sell me Jesus. I never wanted to do that to others. I never wanted to give in to the temptation of preaching a human-centered view of faith, as if trust in Christ were a human work by which human beings save themselves. I believe that the gospel is something that comes from outside of ourselves — something that we do not control — wherein the Holy Spirit uses God’s Word to lay hold of our hearts. “By grace you have been saved through faith,and this is not your own doing…” (Ephesians 2:8). That verse has always been at the center of how I understand the gospel.

But I must admit, there have been times that I have felt that those with a more synergistic view of salvation have a much easier job. There are many evangelists who unabashedly teach that salvation is in our human hands, and that “being saved” is the result of our own human work or decision. Apparently, that strategy “works.” All around me I see people who try to make the gospel more attractive in ways that appeal to human will and desire, who often seem to be much more “effective” in their evangelism.

I can’t help but think that some of my own evangelistic fervor has been to prove that evangelism could be done in a way that focuses on Christ alone, and his gracious act of salvation, rather than giving credit for our salvation to our human cooperation or acceptance. Does this mean that my preaching the gospel has been out of envy and rivalry, and not of good will — as Paul said of his opponents? Or does it mean that I simply want Christ proclaimed, as clearly and purely as I can?

Maybe, in the end, it doesn’t matter. As Paul said, the important thing is that “in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (Philippians 1:18). Maybe this is where the gospel speaks to us as the evangelists, as Christ releases us from our bondage to motives and rivalries, and works in us despite our weaknesses and failings. He gives us the opportunity to serve in his name, regardless of our covetous and competitive nature, and assures us that even what we may do for the wrong reasons, he is able to use for his glory. Knowing in the end that “it is not about me but all about him,” was the message of Christ from the beginning. Though we may be people who fall short in motive and intention, the promise is that Christ is at work in us nevertheless. And in that, I rejoice

– Pastor Steven E. King