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Can We be Heard in a Hostile World?

I hold no brief for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI). Indeed, as you might expect, I find myself at odds with the denomination into which I was born, and in which I was raised, on many significant matters. But it would be churlish to dismiss everything that emanates from a body just because we disagree with much of what it says or does. The General Assembly of the PCI, meeting in June, provided a case in point. Against the backdrop of a changing moral landscape, and a plethora of unwelcome developments, the Convener of the church’s ‘Council for Church in Society’ issued a pertinent call: “This church must think hard, and rigorously, about how to present our convictions to a society which is less inclined to accept core Biblical teaching, and how those convictions are to be worked out compassionately and graciously in a myriad of different circumstances.” The observation is well-made. We ignore its challenge at our peril.

The Church of Christ has a voice, a voice that needs to be heard – but how can we ensure a hearing for its message? Paul’s enquiry relates specifically to the Gospel: “How shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?” (Romans 10:14) Men need to hear the Gospel – and the Church’s voice when it attempts to enunciate and elucidate Christian teaching on the issues of the day. So how can we present our message so that ears will not be closed to it?

“And even things without life giving sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped? For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” (1 Corinthians 14:7-8) The apostle’s analogy is set in the context of Corinthian confusion over ‘tongues’, but his key point is that the message communicated must be clear, “words easy to be understood” as the next verse puts it, otherwise we “speak into the air”. Paul himself eschewed the “enticing words of man’s wisdom” (see 1 Corinthians 2:1-5), in the interest of clarity, majoring on “Jesus Christ, and Him crucified”, and using “great plainness of speech” (2 Corinthians 3:12). While we have no mandate to ‘dumb down’ complex issues, neither must we be so careless and convoluted in our pronouncements as to make what is clear unnecessarily complicated!

Thus, in the interest of clarity, we must avoid the introduction of secondary or side issues that will only blur the matter at hand. Many an opportunity to speak clearly to an issue has been lost because we have opened the way to a consideration of something that is irrelevant or controversial, our own version of ‘foolish questions and contentions’ (Titus 3:9 cf 2 Timothy 2:23). In this way, we have, potentially, closed a door that might well have been edging open.

Again, if we are to be clear, we must remember that our audience may not be conversant with Biblical or theological terms. What does modern man know of ‘redemption’, ‘justification’ et al? What, indeed, does he know of ‘sin’? We will have to explain our terminology. To do so effectively may mean that we begin where those before us actually are, engaging with the modern mind-set. Consider Paul’s approach in Athens (Acts 17), an approach quite different from how he ministered in the synagogue, for example. He did not approve of the idolatry before his eyes or the empty religion (v16, 22), but he took the Athenian desire for a ‘God’ as a starting point (v23), presenting the message of one true God (v24f), a God who reaches out to men, and who calls them to repent (v30). This call is urgent in view of coming judgement, a judgement effected through Christ (v31). Paul’s message cuts across the various philosophies popular among the Greeks, but he uses elements of those philosophies to find a way for the Gospel, and his presentation is logical, substantial and Biblical.

The clearest message may be undermined by a life inconsistent with our words. Many of our neighbours have no inclination to listen to what we say, but they are ever ready to look upon our lives. What do they see? We must live to commend Christ. Before He directed His followers to ‘go and preach’, He commanded them to ‘season’ and “shine”, so that their “good works” would bring glory to the Father in heaven (Matthew 5:13-16).

A wise counsellor once reminded me that we can win an argument but lose the one with whom we contend. Not only the matter we present, but the manner of our presentation, must be guarded. Peter urges us to “be courteous: not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing” (1 Peter 3:9). We must be like Christ (1 Peter 2:21-23). Our speech is to be characterised by grace (Ecclesiastes 10:12, Ephesians 4:29, Colossians 4:6 cf Proverbs 4:24). We must treat enquirers with meekness (Proverbs 15:1, 1 Peter 3:15). Above all, we must be patient (1 Thessalonians 5:14), remembering that those before us may be altogether ignorant of Gospel realities and Biblical teaching generally. Even as we “reprove” and “rebuke” – and this will be a significant part of our work in an ever more godless age – we must discharge the task with patience (2 Timothy 4:2). How significant that Paul’s mini-portrait of the “servant of the Lord” makes so much of the qualities of gentleness, patience and meekness! These are to be exercised for the best of reasons (See 2 Timothy 2:24-26). We may learn much from these verses – and we must, if our words, be they ever so reasoned and eloquent, are not to fall to the ground. An arrogant, insensitive and ungracious manner will never win the day!

Meekness does not mean weakness. Remember that we are not representing ourselves, but Christ; we are His ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20). Thus, we must not be ashamed of the cause we espouse. Ours must be the resolve of the Psalmist: “I will speak of thy testimonies also before kings, and will not be ashamed” (119:46). It is the true witness that delivers souls (Proverbs 14:25), and such a witness must be no more than a voice for Him who is the Truth. And so we will speak with conviction, with confidence – not in ourselves, but in the Author of the message – with a certainty born of the assurance that our words are but contemporary expression of that which is forever “settled in heaven” (Psalm 119:89).

No-one pretends that it is easy to stand up and speak out for the Lord. If the prophet mourned that he ministered in a land where “truth is fallen in the streets, and equity cannot enter” (Isaiah 59:14), then we join in his lamentation. It is hard to get a hearing today – it is not impossible. With God, all things are possible! But we must be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16), seeking to find “acceptable words” (Ecclesiastes 12:10), remembering that “a word spoken in due season, how good is it!” (Proverbs 15:23)

Ultimately we cannot guarantee a fair hearing. We must leave that with the Lord. Meanwhile, let all our speaking be with the object “that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:11). That really is our ‘chief end’!

Rev Timothy Nelson