In the last two days, if you signed on to Twitter or Facebook—assuming some of the people in your network are Christians—you undoubtedly read a lot about the comments of Duck Dynasty’s No. 1 beard, Phil Robertson.
For those who somehow missed the story, here are the basics: The star of cable’s top show created a firestorm of controversy after making inflammatory statements about homosexuality and race in a major magazine. In the wake of the blowback, the cable network A&E placed the family patriarch on indefinite suspension from the show, distancing themselves from his comments, but also enraging many fans who saw the move as an attack on their values. Particularly pertaining to homosexuality.
Immediately, there were Christians everywhere that gave their two cents on the matter. Robertson was the victim. Robertson was the villain. His words don’t/do represent my faith. His ideas on the matter are Biblical correct/off-base.
Many of the opinionated, social networking-savvy Christians may have held different opinions, but they shared one thing in common: A need to express them. Even though very few of us were directly asked, “Can you please write out and publicly post your unwavering personal opinion about homosexuality, the dude from Duck Dynasty’s thoughts about race and the limits of free speech in modern America?”, many of us felt a compulsion to sound off.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Situations like these can be an opportunity for dialogue, and much of what was discussed was constructive and thought-provoking. Homosexuality and race are important social issues that the Church needs to engage with. But the only reason many of us cared to discuss them yesterday was because a 67-year-old hunter from Louisiana (who just happens to be a reality TV star), said things that got people talking. And it’s not just the Phil Robertson comments. Whenever a hot-button political issue, polarizing viral news story or controversial idea from a Christian leader makes the rounds online, many of us feel compelled to interject ourselves into the debate.
Unfortunately, sometimes the line between a thoughtful dialogue and a mean-spirited argument is a thin one. Especially when it takes place on a Facebook comment thread.
Just because technology enables us to easily express our opinions, it doesn’t mean we always should. Since the rise of the culture wars—when segments of the Church saw differences in values as an attack on faith—the idea that we are called to defend our beliefs has seeped into our understanding of what Christianity is all about. Technology, and the ability to fire off a six-sentence rant with the click of a button, has only emboldened that impulse.
The Great Commission asks us to go into the world and make disciples of all people—not to debate all people. The Great Commission was never supposed to be an us vs. them proposition. It was supposed to be an us for them calling.
Instead of choosing our battles for when they really matter, we too often just start looking for fights. But making disciples isn’t about defending our faith (something we were never asked to do); it’s about embodying it.
In the Gospels, we can see that Jesus was a really opinionated guy. But, He also knew when it was right to express His opinions and when to keep them to Himself. In Matthew 22, Jesus is confronted by a group of Pharisees looking for their own debate. These men were also engaged in a culture war—but one with much higher stakes than whether or not Phil would still be Uncle Si’s wingman on new episodes of Duck Dynasty. They were devout Hebrews who lived under the authoritarian regime of the Romans. Jesus, with His radical ideas about the religious system, represented a real threat to their consolidarity as a people. Their goal was to discredit Him, and in order to do it, they were going to attempt to get Him to express an opinion about a controversial social issue.
“The Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words … Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”
It was a lose-lose question. If Jesus said it is right to pay the tax, He would be seen as a willing subject to Roman oppression. If He said it is wrong, He would be in violation of Roman law.
“But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, ‘You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax. Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’ ‘Caesar’s,’ they replied. Then He said to them, ‘So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
In this case, Jesus answered with a non-answer. He may have had an opinion, but He had no desire to get caught up in a petty squabble. By stating that the money was Caesar’s (and not God’s), and leaving the conclusion ambiguous (if you’re paying money to Caesar, than how do you give God what is God’s?), Jesus essentially side-stepped the controversial heart of the issue, because to Him, it wasn’t worth getting in an argument over.
The status quo was OK, because in this case, Jesus had bigger ducks to fry.
But in the Facebook era of Christianity, when it comes to hot-button current issues, the words “I don’t know” or “It doesn’t really matter” aren’t always in our vocabulary. Arguments are too often sought out, not avoided. But that’s not how Jesus operated. He was out to change hearts before He changed minds. Not the other way around.
Before He challenged the mind and lifestyle of the woman caught in adultery in John 8, He offered her forgiveness. Before He commanded her to go and sin no more, He issued her unconditional grace. Because for Jesus, grace precedes principle.
The other thing that is worth noting in the story of Caesar’s tax, is that the reason that the Pharisees were asking Him the question in the first place is because Jesus had been silent on this issue. There were some issues—even important, polarizing, current ones—that Jesus didn’t really have an interest in expressing an opinion about. Because Jesus wasn’t overly concerned with every single controversial issue, offense to his people, political disagreement or insult to his faith. No, Jesus had much bigger battles to fight. Jesus was out to make disciples. Jesus was busy building a Kingdom.
There’s nothing wrong with being well informed and developing strong opinions. The temptation is when we feel the need to express them, even when it may not be our place to do so. Sometimes it’s worth engaging, but some battles can’t be won—especially not in a 100-word Facebook post. But that’s OK. Our job isn’t to spend our time trying to win online debates, current event battles or fight in culture wars. We’ve got a different calling. We’ve got a Kingdom to build.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.