August 10, 2011

The Danger of Defining Yourself by What You Are Against

by Byron Yawn

I spent a brief portion of my pastoral ministry under an “angry prophet.” You know… “that guy.” He’s the preacher-pastor who somehow finds his way to the kindling and accelerant in every sermon, or writing project. The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is on a loop in the background of his life. I loved the gentlemen and still do. He loved Jesus Christ and still does. He was well intended. I learned an awful lot from his ministry and am grateful for almost all of it. But, some things I have had to unlearn. One such lesson was the danger of incessantly defining your ministry by what you are against. My fundamentalist background made the warning emphasis of his ministry especially appealing. I watched this man unnecessarily alienate himself from everyone around him and eventually implode. I took copious notes. I looked inward.

Hear me. There is a need for warning and discernment. There are things we need to argue about. There are people we need to confront. There are unbiblical and dangerous positions that need to be obliterated with sound biblical argumentation. There is room to disagree. Bleeding heart idealists who suppose there’s a plane where this never happens need to get a grip. Unity does not equal unanimity, and it certainly does not come at the expense of truth. We should not hesitate to take the responsibility of defending and contending for the truth upon us. If we resist then we should step out of ministry.

Confession. I don’t like controversy. I understand that at times it’s necessary and unavoidable. But, the majority of times we find ourselves in the middle of a controversy it actually was unnecessary and avoidable. No true shepherd cares for it or will seek it out. They will certainly consider being the source of it – even when it is necessary – distasteful. Those who love to be in controversy usually can afford to be.

There was a time when I considered the label of “angry prophet” a virtue. “Harsh” is a spiritual gift in certain circles. I could “Ready! Shoot! Aim!” with the best of them. That is until God broke my arrogant heart (as he continues to do every day) against the Cross of Jesus Christ with its obvious connection to my sin. Ironically, God used the above season of ministry to hold a mirror up to my own pride. I did not like what I saw. I continue to battle against many of these same tendencies even today. (I praise God for his mercy towards me and for the Righteousness of Christ that covers me even as I self-righteously censure those covered by the same alien righteousness!)

Of the many things I’ve learned about pastoral ministry over these years one stands out among the most helpful: There is a real danger in consistently defining yourself and your ministry by what you are against. Take it from a recovering fundie. Here are some “warnings.” Pun intended.

1. You’ll forget to talk about what’s good… especially about Jesus. The majority of Jesus’ discourses did not include “woes.” Paul wrote Colossians and Ephesians 1:3-13 from the same prison cell. Pointing out error is only part of the job of disclosing truth. At some point, after we wrestle the opponents to the ground, we must get around to the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ and his person. It’s okay to come off positive about Jesus. It’s acceptable – from time to time – to have no agenda other than loving Jesus and drawing attention to him. We are stewards of a mystery just as much as we are defenders of it.

2. You’ll begin to take yourself too seriously. You can easily lose sight of the necessary difference between your opinions about the truth and the truth. The truth stands outside of us and will survive without us and our laser beam defenses. The primary unintended consequence of taking yourself too seriously is a noble sounding arrogance. “Hey man I was only speaking the truth.” The truth should foster humility not swagger. What do we have that was not given to us? Besides, as far as messengers go, we are completely dispensable and easily replaceable. Lighten up. You’ll live longer.

3. You’ll begin to preach the same sermon from every passage. You will become the angry prophet. The cadence of all your sermons will march out to set fire to the straw man of the week. We so often seem to end up preaching about preaching rather than actually preaching. This is my favorite manifestation of this attitude. We rail against the absence of expository preaching while butchering passages that have nothing to do with the need for expository preaching.

4. You’ll foster mean people. You will attract people with gnarled and rancorous dispositions. Brawlers. Sword drawn zealots ready to throw themselves on an edge over the smallest disagreement. Often, it’s not us but those who come behind us and take our opinions to the next level who do the most damage. Note: they will one day come calling for you. You will be the last victim of your own edge.

5. You’ll eventually assemble an audience of self-congratulatory clones. Ironically, despite the emphasis on discernment in your ministry, the people under your ministry will become undiscerning as they depend on your pontifications rather than thinking for themselves. Everything you say and write will be hailed as brave and brilliant. “Great point Byron. Let em have it!” Each of your sermons will be delivered directly to the choir. Their main (and your most preferred) compliment will be your capacity for “telling it like it is.” There will be no constructive conversation. Only monologue. Your theological entourage will be rubber stamps. Don’t be encouraged when you gather a following. There’s no shortage of the angry fringe element looking to get a sip of your Kool-Aid.

6. You’ll take all correction personally and as an unpardonable offense against “God’s man.” Any disagreement with your position will be received as an offense. Any critic will be labeled as unfaithful. Any critique of your view will only go to verify the obstinate blindness of your opponent. All your defenses will come down to a small-minded ad hominem. People will eventually stop trying to talk with you. You will consider this a victory. You will become a self-fulfilling prophecy of a self-inflicted martyrdom.

7. You’ll make a terrible shepherd. “Angry prophets” never make good pastors. They’re snipers not shepherds. Your impatience for inconsistency will eventually come out in those given to your care. It’s ministry according to Darth Vader. The distance between a confrontation of a brother’s sin and room for change will become increasingly short. You’ll lose all sense of grace. You’ll forget your own sin. You’ll lose sight of how much patience Christ has with your misrepresentation of his character. You’ll eventually begin to think love is weakness if it means walking beside people who struggle to change.

8. You’ll become the type of person you warn others about. You’ll eventually become the type of person you could easily preach against. A small-minded, self-taught, belligerent purveyor of doom trying to make a name for themselves. Discernment will be the least of your qualities.

9. You’ll thrive on controversy. If it isn’t negative, you won’t have much to say. You will end up having to out do yourself in the “shock value” department every week. You will be able to make a sermon on “God is love” sound like a funeral dirge. It will get old. You will get old. You’ll become petty, lacking substance in your observations as you spend your intellectual rounds time picking off easy targets. You’ll become a master of the obvious.

10. People will stop listening. The “flavor of the week” will begin to apply. They have heard it all before so why listen at all. It’s all the same message, “Pull Pin. Throw Grenade. Wait for Shrapnel.”

Byron Yawn

Posts Twitter

Byron is the senior pastor of Community Bible Church in Nashville. His newest book, What Every Man Wishes His Father Had Told Him, is a guide for parents and pastors who seek to raise men of God.
  • Pingback: pastorleadershipblog.com » The Danger of Defining Yourself by What You Are Against | The …

  • Riaanboer

    Thank you for the thoughts! I appreciated it a lot and learnt some very helpful things!

  • PastorFun

    Speaking as a recovering fundamentalist who used to define myself by what I was against, I appreciate the exhortation. We “fundamentalists” can so easily fit the caricature described by one great man of God who defined a fundamentalist as one who was “no fun, all damn, and little mental.” Also, when we remove love from how we shepherd, we turn off the power of the church discipline process.

  • Pingback: How Does the Community View Our Church? « Grace Dependent

  • Anonymous

    Byron,

    This was a super helpful post. For me, #2 is the closest to home. I don’t ever want to get to the place where I confuse my own opinions or the truth with the actual truth itself. Thanks for this.

  • Tim

    Great line: We are stewards of a mystery just as much as we are defenders of it.

    It reminds me that I am also being pursued by the very Author of that mystery.

    Cheers,
    Tim

    • Byron

      In the Bible Church context we get our fair share of the Sword Wielding zealots. They’re somewhat like the Japanese soldier Shoichi Yokoi found hiding in the Guam jungle 28years after the war ended. It’s hard to convince them to put down their weapons. Basically, most with this attitude don’t know how to exist in a local church context.And yet, the local church context is what they need most. People. Usually, they’ve been isolated with their own thought and suspicious of all opinions but there own. Consistent service at the ground level with fellow sinners saved by grace softens them and gives them a servants heart over time. If you ask “Who are they serving” rather than “Where are they serving” you can get a glimpse of this disconnect. Furthermore, these individuals need the same type of grace as we are asking them to apply to others.

      This is brief. Hope it helps.

  • 1Jn2:1

    Thank you for this! Do you have any suggestions for interacting with this type of person in a way that points them back to the gospel?

    • Byron

      See above reply to Tim. It was intended for you. Those “reply” buttons are elusive.

      • Tim

        I’m glad you clarified that response button thing, Byron. I thought I was going all obtuse again!

        • Anonymous

          haha Tim, I just had to “like” your comment! =)

  • Matthew

    Thank you.

    Very well written on a very important topic.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6AHPQ7Z7JHM47H6ABF5QWALNGM MK

    Sounds a lot like JMac these days.

    • truthstands

      That would only be the case if you pick and choose what you read/listen to. John doesn’t define himself by what he is against, rather, many people choose to only expose themselves to his more controversial statements–which in all reality is a tiny percentage of his “output”.

      • Mary Elizabeth Tyler

        Amen to that, truthstands. My toughts exactly. 40 years of preaching thru the four gospels would prove that to be true, not to mention all his bokks on various subjects.

      • Anonymous

        I was thinking exactly that while reading the article! It’s so true, if you only pick and choose you will get that impression about MacArthur. I think it’s the reason why a lot of people have the wrong idea about him and his ministry.

    • truthstands

      That would only be the case if you pick and choose what you read/listen to. John doesn’t define himself by what he is against, rather, many people choose to only expose themselves to his more controversial statements–which in all reality is a tiny percentage of his “output”.

    • Byron

      Ironically, most of my points are direct descendants of John’s counsel to me two decades ago as he walked me through my own context. John is a friend who’s also been a great example. Don’t think I’m “kissing the ring” here. I don’t agree with everything he says, but he does not expect me to, or require it of me. He does not take himself that seriously. The truth? Very.

      What’s interesting about John is that warning is not the primary attribute of his ministry. Exposition is. Case in point, I sat under his preaching ministry at GCC for almost four years. In that period of time not one of his sermons was a diatribe aimed at some personality or ministry. It was strictly biblical and contextual.

      • Gersham

        Like the conspiracy most English Bible translators are involved in, with the translation of the word doulos? I’ve been following him through books and sermons for years. I’m sorry but I disagree. From my experience John fits the above bill pretty well…

    • Byron

      Ironically, most of my points are direct descendants of John’s counsel to me two decades ago as he walked me through my own context. John is a friend who’s also been a great example. Don’t think I’m “kissing the ring” here. I don’t agree with everything he says, but he does not expect me to, or require it of me. He does not take himself that seriously. The truth? Very.

      What’s interesting about John is that warning is not the primary attribute of his ministry. Exposition is. Case in point, I sat under his preaching ministry at GCC for almost four years. In that period of time not one of his sermons was a diatribe aimed at some personality or ministry. It was strictly biblical and contextual.

    • Byron

      Ironically, most of my points are direct descendants of John’s counsel to me two decades ago as he walked me through my own context. John is a friend who’s also been a great example. Don’t think I’m “kissing the ring” here. I don’t agree with everything he says, but he does not expect me to, or require it of me. He does not take himself that seriously. The truth? Very.

      What’s interesting about John is that warning is not the primary attribute of his ministry. Exposition is. Case in point, I sat under his preaching ministry at GCC for almost four years. In that period of time not one of his sermons was a diatribe aimed at some personality or ministry. It was strictly biblical and contextual.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6AHPQ7Z7JHM47H6ABF5QWALNGM MK

    Sounds a lot like JMac these days.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    The Danger of [Only] Defining Yourself by What You Are Against

    That sure is a danger. No doubt, there are some who have fallen into that abyss.

    Out of curiousity, could you do a follow-up post/comment about the reverse situation:

    The Danger of [Only] Defining Yourself by What You Are For

    • Byron

      Great Idea. It’s in the works. Look for it in the coming weeks.

    • Byron

      Great Idea. It’s in the works. Look for it in the coming weeks.

    • Byron

      Great Idea. It’s in the works. Look for it in the coming weeks.

  • Rod

    “The truth should foster humility not swagger. ” Love it!

  • Guest

    Is this post an attack on John MacArthur? Because some people who don’t like him are taking it as such and spreading the word that Cripplegate is now taking on MacArthur.

    • Byron

      Not in the least. Seems the rumor you reference is a great application of the point of this post. John MacArthur is a friend of the blog and we his.

  • http://intellectualcurrency.wordpress.com/ OFelixCulpa

    These are some great points. I have to admit, though, that 2, 4, 5, 6, and 7 are very often just as true of reformed folks (especially those who surround the celebrity preachers) as they are of self-identified fundamentalists. Perhaps defining yourself by what you are against is only part of the problem.

  • Jakeandlillie

    great blog. Easy to fall into with all of the false gospels and teachers everywhere. Gotta check the heart all the time. Self crusade or contending for the faith once delivered to the saints…

  • Pingback: Treading Grain » Post Topic » Around the Horn – 08.11.11

  • Pingback: Treading Grain » Post Topic » Around the Horn – 08.11.11 – crisis pregnancy

  • Tim

    By the way, I loved your use of the Reign of Fire film poster. Any movie that has Matthew McConaughey leaping into a dragon’s fiery maw while the other guy gets to walk into the sunset with the girl at the end is a good movie.

  • Christopher

    As I read this list it occurred to me these things arre exactly what has happened to the two political parties in our country and why our government is so dysfunctional.

  • Pingback: Mondays are for the Links: 8/15/11 | Spencer Nix

  • Pingback: 10 Reasons to Stop Defining Yourself by What You’re Against – Justin Taylor

  • http://pjtibayan.wordpress.com Pj

    John Piper said in a sermon on Titus 3:!-8: “Only asking what people believe will not show you what they believe… you must ask them what they DO NOT believe then it comes clear what they believe when they say what they believe.”

    There is something to be said about the nature of affirmations AND denials (e.g. the T4G statement). But I agree that only defining yourself by denials, or even primarily by denials, isn’t wise or godly.

  • Evan

    I surely agree with your warning above, given how Christians, and called leaders by our Lord, are ambassadors of good news, not bad news. Our eschatology, by implication, ought to move us away from defining ourselves and our perspective in defensive, negative terms. I assume, too, that you are not eliminating some role, and the occasional need, to be a stormy prophet since, in an age of diversity and ambiguity, clarifying matters more thoroughly will inevitably require distancing yourself from skewed or opposing positions, i.e. defining (at least describing) ourselves by what we are not. As salvation comes through judgment throughout the Bible, there is ever a degree of shadow to the light we cast. But first what we must do is make sure we are first and foremost casting light as well as warmth! Thanks!

  • Pingback: The danger of defining yourself by what you are against « Savouring the Gospel

  • Pingback: The Danger of Defining Yourself by What You Are Against | Foundation Life

  • Pingback: The Church Has A Calling – It Is NOT Social Justice | United Christians Church of America