November 10, 2014

When to smile and nod

by Clint Archer

A ministry mentor of mine once told me that when you dress to run a marathon, you tie your laces as tight as you can, knowing that they will loosen over time.

lacesHe likened graduating seminary to launching out of the blocks in a footrace. It is understandable that my theological views and ministry strategies would be in particularly crisp focus and decisions would seem starkly black and white with no cumbersome gradation of grey to complicate matters. But as my ministry marathon progressed and the hills and troughs of pastoral work undulated beneath my stride, I would eventually get used to enduring short term discomfort in my theological positions for the long term prize of a mature flock.

This is a difficult lesson for rearing young bucks to learn. We know the truth, we love the truth, and we went into ministry because we want to share that truth with those who don’t know it yet. The question is whether there is God-honoring wisdom in waiting to prove the truth.

When is the time to smile and nod in a theological or ministerial discussion, and when is it time to stand your ground and fight for truth?

Disclaimer: I’m not talking about compromising God’s word and violating God’s laws. I’m not talking about sin, as if the end justifies the means. May it never be. I just mean what if me being right about a topic of discussion and winning the argument is less important in the short term than winning the person over to the truth in the long term?

I struggled to see this mindset as anything less than compromise…until I saw Paul’s example of navigating a prickly subject in a delicate way in this fascinating little vignette from his ministry.

Question: What was Paul’s view of circumcision? Was he for it, against it, or indifferent? Let’s see if we can discern his opinion camouflaged by subtlety…

Galatians 5:2-3, 11-12 Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. …But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!


6:12 It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.

Ok, so Paul was NOT in favor of Christians getting circumcised in order to pander to the Jewish understanding that circumcision was still necessary.

And Paul had sanction for this view from the Jerusalem council itself. In Acts 15, when Paul reported his success in preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, the Jerusalem council of Jewish believers discussed whether the Gentile converts needed to be circumcised. They opted for NO. They then commissioned Paul to go to the Gentiles and relay this news.

But the very next chapter begins with these astounding words…

Acts 16:1-3 Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek. He was well spoken of by the brothers at Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.

Wait, what? Paul is coming from a decision by the Jewish believers not to* have Gentile believers circumcised, en route to announce that fact, and on the way he collars a half Greek, half Jewish believer to join him, and has him circumcised?!


Why would he do that? He is the Apostle of Grace, the champion of the uncircumcised Gentile. But he is also on a mission to convince some pretty pertinacious people of that truth. This was a long haul. And that lengthy convincing would certainly be cut short (sorry) if there was an uncircumcised Greek nibbling on baklava in the background.

longtermPaul “compromised” his view in the short-term with these Jewish people so that in the long run he could win them to the truth that circumcision was unnecessary.

Paul didn’t sin in doing this, nor was he being hypocritical; he was exercising wisdom. He was pacing himself. He was showing the maturity of one who had been in ministry long enough for his laces to slacken just enough to allow effective racing, but not so much as to lose a shoe!

It depends on where the finish line is. If the goal is to win an argument for what the Bible says on an issue, then the seminoid has the odds in his favor. He will make short shrift of any ignorant counter arguments that get clumsily tossed his way.

But if the goal is to win a soul, turn an opponent into an adherent, safeguard the relationship, and ensure the application of that truth to the lives and families involved…then what turns a seminoid into a pastor is the willingness to lay down his light saber in order to keep a friend he can then win over in time. There is a time to smile and nod, rather than draw your sword. smile and nod

Again…I’m not saying let’s avoid offending people so that they keep coming to church. But when there is an actual goal in place to intentionally shepherd people toward the truth, and a strategy for doing so, then cultivating a pastoral relationship with those people is a helpful part of the fight for truth.

Your thoughts? Remember if you disagree with me I’ll likely just smile and nod… in the short term anyway!

Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • Brian Morgan

    Good stuff brother. Reminds me of 2 Tim 2:24 ….must not strive…..apt to teach and PATIENT. We preach we pray we preach we pray we teach we pray, waiting for the Spirit’s work.

  • LFB

    Acts 16 reads a lot differently if you look at it through the lens of 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. Timothy was half-Greek, half-Jew and would be considered a Greek by the Jews, and therefore excluded from entering the temple and speaking in the synagogue if he were not circumcised. That was not a circumcision to be saved – which was the question in the preceding chapter, Luke even says he was already a believer – but instead a real life example of the ethic expressed in 1 Corinthians 9.

    So from that perspective I don’t see Acts 16 as a question of contending for the truth or example of compromise at all – it’s demonstrating a follower of Christ forgoing their rights / denying self for the purpose of sharing the gospel.

    As for contending for the truth, ditto what Mr. Morgan said 🙂

    • Thanks for the comment.

    • Jason

      1 Corinthians 9 is exactly what I thought of when I read this article too.

      Paul fought the good fight about circumcision when it was a matter of people confusing the gospel, but he wasn’t going to start his evangelism by fighting with those he hoped to speak with about if their traditions were meaningful.

  • All true. There is a time for nonsinful compromise for the sake of the gospel. On the other hand, there is also a time for refusing to make those same compromises, also for the sake of the gospel. Paul refused to have Titus circumcised. John Piper explained the difference between the Timothy and Titus situations, and I think he got it right.

    • Thanks for this link David.

  • Greg Pickle

    I am so encouraged by this. Sometimes I wonder whether I am compromising by not addressing every unbiblical, incorrect assertion on the spot (or, as my wife and I call it, “playing spiritual Whac-a-Mole”).

    Thanks for the helpful and thoughtful post.

    • You’re welcome Greg. Glad to be of service.

  • Lyndon Unger

    Good thoughts Clint.

    Its certainly difficult to balance winning hearts with winning theological battles, and knowing when you’re facing a challenge of one or the other.

    It also doesn’t help when the web has too many simple-minded folks who see every theological hill as a potential grave site and are rabid to attack anyone who doesn’t share their penchant for theological genocide.

    Sometimes you must make a strategic retreat in order to win a dozen future battles.

    • Well said Menoknight.

  • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

    I have a question I hope you can answer for me. I have had to attend Catholic funerals of my husband’s relatives and they always have communion. I am torn on partaking or not and do not want to miss out on future opportunities of witnessing to my relatives. I was wondering if 2 Kings 5:18 can apply if I ask for forgiveness?

    • I wouldn’t use that verse as a guideline for New Testament believers’ ethics, but personally I’d go to pretty much any funeral as long as I didn’t have to participate in the rituals etc. People understand that you are paying respects, not subscribing to their religion. That’s just my take though.

    • Karl Heitman

      Great question, Jane. I had a similar experience when I was invited to stand up in a Catholic wedding. I assume that most of my C-gate brethren wouldn’t take a dogmatic position on this issue (neither do I really), but as a former Catholic, I would lean towards not partaking because of what they believe is going on during communion. I think by abstaining it would actually create more opportunities for conversation about the Gospel. It did with my dad. Plus, at a funeral especially, I would be surprised if people really got upset by you abstaining. In my experience as a Catholic, I remember people abstaining regualry, for one reason or another, and no one batted an eye. If interested, Pastor John has an excellent series on the “mass” that’s really eye-opening. Grace and peace to you!

      • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

        Thank you so much for the advice, Karl. Very helpful. I feel much better now about abstaining and will pray that God gives me opportunities to share why!

        • Hi Jane, I misread your question. I thought you were asking about attending the funeral. So my comment above applies to that. As far as communion, I would certainly not partake because their understanding of communion is the opposite of the Protestant/Evangelical view. In fact, Catholics won’t (shouldn’t) offer communion to anyone except Catholics who have gone through the rite of First Holy Communion. So they don’t expect you to partake. When the priest asks “The body of Christ?” before you take the wafer, he is confirming that you believe in transubstantiation (the teaching that the wafer is literally Christ’s body and necessarily sacrificed for your sins again). So, no, do not take communion at a catholic church.

    • It sounds like there are two questions: (1) Can I physically attend the funeral? (2) Should I “participate” in the mass (i.e., receive “communion”)?

      I think the answer to #1 is yes, but the answer to #2 is no. The passage I think of immediately is 1 Corinthians 10:16-21:

      Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread. Look at the nation Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices sharers in the altar? What do I mean then? That a thing sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.

      It seems Paul conceives of demons being the source of all false religion, and surely the Roman Catholic mass falls into the category of false religion. Maybe I’m off base here, but I would actually say that if you do participate in “communion,” you’ve sinned, inasmuch as you are not to partake of the table of the Lord (true communion in a true church) and the table of demons.

      • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

        Mike, I completely agree. I asked the question because I have sat alone in the pew while other Christians take the elements, justifying it by saying that they just view it as a normal communion and not a Catholic ritual. In all honesty, my conscience is so troubled after just being at a Catholic funeral that I feel the need to take a bath and watch the Bill Gaither Homecoming.

        So again, thank you for the good counsel, as well as your loyalty and zeal for God’s Word! It is so refreshing.

      • Right. What Mike said. See my amended comment above.

  • george canady

    It seems to me the most difficult grace a pastor would have to give is that that is at the expense of another, or what some might see as a violation of James chapter 2

  • Johnny

    I’ve left circumcision up to my sons to decide when they get older. If that’s a bit of works-righteousness they’d like to painfully pursue, more power to them and they can decide, since personally I don’t want to be in the “foolished bewitched Galatian” crowd.

    • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

      Johnny, some good verses to share with your boys regarding what circumcision prefigured are Deut. 30:6, Romans 2:29 and Jeremiah 9:25. This is the kind of circumcision you want to make sure they do decide upon. 🙂

      • Johnny

        Yes indeed!

  • tovlogos

    Amen! Clint.
    “Paul didn’t sin in doing this, nor was he being hypocritical; he was exercising wisdom. He was pacing himself (as Jesus did). He was showing the maturity of one who had been in ministry long enough for his laces to slacken just enough to allow effective racing, but not so much as to lose a shoe!” Precisely.

    Let’s take circumcision — Circumcision, in and of itself, is not a problem, theologically. Furthermore modern science has given reason to believe it is biologically beneficial (I happen to agree). Paul was not compromising himself. He was dealing with fairly stubborn legally hardened, often arrogant, leaders. Even, Jesus didn’t tell the ‘full’ truth all of the time, to everyone. In fact He deliberately concealed the truth from people (Luke:9:45), based on what they could bear.
    Circumcision was not the point; allowing time and the Holy Spirit to fill the hearts of men was…
    The ‘argument’ is not the point; reasonable exegesis is…with love.
    I believe one of the most critical passages in the Bible that every disciple must understand before engaging people is in John 21:15-17, where our Lord was teaching Peter something vital for his success, as the Lord prepared to go Home.
    During this conversation, as you know, Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Him. Every time Jesus used the word, “Love,” He used to word, “agape.” Peter responded using the different word for love, “Philio,” friendship/love. The interesting thing is that Peter was offended by the Lord’s repetition, and not even answering the Lord appropriately, making him feel unworthy again. Peter had to grasp this message.

    This underlying message was there all along throughout the ministries of the disciples — that’s always been the point, without which no ministry was valid. Paul didn’t compromise himself; he, the ultimate legalist, was also learning how to measure people and be discrete. Otherwise, what’s the point of talking, if you are stampeded by your first sentence? Ultimately our witnesses may lead to crucifixion, but in God’s timing.
    Well, that’s how I see it — Thanks, Clint, great post.


    • Thanks for chiming in Mark.

  • Jay Noble

    Thanks for this article! This is something that I often struggle with. I want to be a champion for the faith and it can be difficult to not correct someone if I feel that they are wrong. I am a seminary student preparing for pastoral ministry and I want to make sure that I don’t compromise on what we need to know. I also don’t want to let my flesh lead me into being pragmatic for the sake of comfort for myself or others. Any thoughts?

    • I think the key is longet-term versus short-term. If I know I am going to have a long relationship with a person, e.g. in my church, I would take a more relationship-based, patient approach to correcting them (unless it is a sin issue, Matt 18). If I get into a discussion with someone who I might never see again, I’d also feel responsible to bring the Scripture to bear as clearly as I could right then and there.

  • Dan Freeman

    Thanks for writing this Clint. As a young man headed for seminary, this is a message I need to hear repeatedly.

    • Good. Just remember it when you graduate!

  • Karl Heitman

    The only time I can’t smile and nod is when I’m in the pulpit, but a really good seminary taught me that I’d be doing a TON of nodding if I want to keep my job…. 😉

  • Thanks Clint! This is a great point. Made me think of something someone (I think it was Jerry Wragg) said in the Grace Advance Academy this past summer. “Men, never put your fellow elders in a position where they have to defend you, rather than what they’re convinced God’s Word teaches.” In other words, if there’s disagreement on your elder board, be patient, and work through the issue with them so when you preach that subject some day and others in the congregation disagree, your elders will be able to, in full conscience, defend what you taught because they’re also convinced it’s what Scripture teaches. That being said, we can’t assume that we’re the one whose going to be right on every issue, so we need to have the same humility and teachability we expect from our elders and congregation.

    • Very well said. Thanks Matt.

  • I enjoyed the advice.

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