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When to smile and nod

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!

Yikes.

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?!

Yup.

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!