Sinners in the Hands of Angry Christians

If a Christian sees people in the world behaving badly, if he or she sees politicians misbehaving, celebrities doing bad things, pundits saying mean things, corporations acting irresponsibly, and other individuals who are morally reprehensible, what should he or she do?  What should he or she say?  How does the Christian confront depravity in the public square?  If a Christian witnesses moral bankruptcy and he or she doesn’t speak up for what he or she believes is right, is he or she really a Christian?  I’ve heard both Christians and critics of Christians ask exactly this.

So what would Jesus do?  Is that the question that might lead us to clarity?

Jesus’ harsh criticism of sinners is exactly why the scribes and Pharisees so loved Jesus.

Right? Um…

And that’s why we’re so fond of the vegans who lambast us for our choice in lunch.  It’s why we enjoy hearing from our neighbors who prattle on about how irresponsible we are for not recycling.  It’s why we are so happy when a coworker natters about “ethically-sourced” coffee as we try to hide our Folgers. We love to listen when our friend regales us with how he ran another marathon–and “you should run with me this weekend.”


No, that’s not quite right, either.

And that’s why I wonder about Christians who regularly argue that we need to preach against whatever sin the crowd has taken notice of this week, or how we need to take a stand against the latest outrage.  I’m uncomfortable with the notion that we need to sign another petition to demand redress of some systemic wrong.  Silence is violence, and if we don’t say something then there will be no one left to speak up.  If that sin-monger were about to be hit by a bus, wouldn’t we warn them?  How can we be so unloving that we won’t condemn their degenerate lifestyle?

After all, look at how the prophets condemned the ancient Israelites. Isaiah and Jeremiah thundered against the evildoers!  Pay attention to how harshly Jesus’ denounced the scribes and Pharisees, those “white-washed tombs!”

How are we being loving, how are we obedient to the mandate of scripture if we don’t get in their face and let the sinners know? How can we deny the words of Matthew 18:

 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’  If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.  (Matthew 18:15-17)

But I still find myself uncomfortable with the whole concept of “hellfire and brimstone” activism.

How come?

While Jesus was harsh with the religious establishment, while he was not slow to denounce them for their hypocrisy and worse, I can’t help but notice that he spent quality time with those that all the right-thinking members of that religious establishment condemned so harshly.  In fact, the righteous condemned Jesus as a “drunk and friend to tax collectors.”  Sort of like being called a junk food junkie and friend to tobacco lobbyists.

Those who were outside the house of faith liked Jesus and wanted to spend time with him; meanwhile, the religious do-gooders denounced him more than the sinners Jesus was friends with.

The condemnation of the prophets was directed at the priests and leaders of Israel.  Isaiah and Jeremiah thundered against the priests and self-proclaimed prophets.

Matthew 18 is written for those who are part of the household of faith.  Paul’s condemnation of the man sleeping with his father’s wife in 1 Corinthians was directed at a church member.  Ananias and Sapphira were wealthy members of the first church in Jerusalem when Peter called them out. 

But when Paul visited Athens, we learn that Paul was “deeply disturbed” by the idolatry he saw there.  Yet, when he spoke at the Areopagus, rather than yell that they were idolaters doomed to Hell, he used the idol to the “unknown god” as the basis for his sermon, and quoted from a hymn to the Greek god Zeus.  (see Acts 17:16-33)

John’s gospel tells us that the Holy Spirit convicts the world of sin, judgment, and righteousness (John 16:8-11).  Human beings are without excuse, Paul pointed out, and they already know they are sinners (Romans 1:18-20; 2:14-15). 

How effective is criticism?  Does it help you lose weight if your friends make comments about how you keep going back for thirds?  Do you find yourself attracted to vegetarianism or veganism by the antics of PETA?  Why the jokes about Cross-Fit cultists? 

Being a jerk to people is hardly loving, and it is, more importantly, hardly effective.  If we are attempting to bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ, then we need to ask ourselves how effective are we?  As Doctor Phil might say, “how is that working out for you?”

Jesus told his disciples that people would recognize they were his disciples by their love (John 13:35).

Is that how the world usually thinks of Christianity and Christians?

Consider that God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they repent and live (Ezekiel 18:23 and 33:11, Lamentations 3:33, Jeremiah 18:7-8, Micah 7:18, 1 Timothy 2:4).  Consider the point of the book of Jonah: Jonah wanted to see Nineveh get what it had coming to it so badly he was willing to run away from God and die just so they wouldn’t get a chance to hear his message and repent. He was mad when God forgave them.  There is a perverse pleasure that some take in judging sinners and making them suffer.  It is a pleasure that God does not share.

Which again, demonstrates the importance of the One Verse, Matthew 7:12 for both interpretation and practice.  “Do to others as you’d have them do to you.”  If you’d not enjoy a punch in the gut from an arrogant self-righteous jerk, then perhaps you should try to avoid being a self-righteous jerk who enjoys punching people.

More fundamentally than “what would Jesus do?” we might better ask instead, “would I like this done to me?”   If I wouldn’t, then maybe that’s our answer—and why giving people hellfire and brimstone may not be all that useful, even if it is emotionally satisfying.

And so how should Christians respond to the moral degeneracy around them?  “The fields are ripe for harvest,” as Jesus told his disciples (John 4:35).  Give them the Good News.  “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8)

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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