John Calvin once famously said that the human heart is a factory for the manufacture of idols. And one of the more popular idols among contemporary evangelical leaders today is the idol of respectability, the idol that demands that we always continue to not do what’s not ever done. We should also remember that the reason John tells his beloved correspondents to keep themselves from idols is that he knew that they might not (1 Jn. 5:21).
One evening at Sabbath dinner a few years ago, my father said something like, “No sense dying with a good reputation.” One of my daughters said to him, “You have a good reputation, Grandpa?” And his reply was “Better than it ought to be.”
One of the things we must learn how to do is this. We must aspire to the great honor of the right kind of bad reputation. And of course, the dangers in any such project present themselves immediately, all of them plucking at your elbow, and hissing at you not to be silly. But you do recognize that voice, do you not?
An Obstacle to Real Faith
Not only is this lust for respectability a barrier to a man’s qualification for ministry, it can also keep him away from saving faith entirely. To follow Christ genuinely is to follow Him outside the camp (Heb. 13:13), joining Him there. John records Jesus teaching us that receiving honor from one another is actually something that prevents faith in Christ. It makes true faith in Him impossible. So while it is true that many men have been kept from true faith in Christ by means of hookers and cocaine, Satan’s paratroopers, it is also true that others are kept back through Satan’s spies, through well-received lectures at ETS.
“How can ye believe, which receive honour one of another, and seek not the honour that cometh from God only?”
John 5:44 (KJV)
An Autobiographical Note
I’ll be frank with you. The early years of our ministry here in Moscow were really pretty placid. The church was happy and growing, and while there were various pastoral situations from time to time, there was nothing radical, nothing serious. And I would worry about it. I knew the verse, right?
“Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.”
2 Timothy 3:12 (KJV)
I wanted to live godly in Christ Jesus, or at least I thought I did. I knew what the verse said, and yet, everywhere I looked, there was sunshine, there were fluffy clouds, and there were unicorn colts gamboling in green meadows. It was indeed troublesome. And then, one day, as though some hidden personage gave a prearranged signal, the dead cats started to fly. I haven’t had that old particular worry for some time now. God has been extraordinarily kind to us.
An Understated Chuckle
Augustine once said that when our enemies abuse us, they are unwillingly adding to our honors. There are two sides to this particular coin. Jesus taught us to rejoice when we are vilified.
“Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.”
Matt. 5:11-12 (KJV)
When men lie about you, when women slander you, when they snatch at your words, when they call you a racist, or a misogynist, or a bigot, or a heretic, what are you commanded to do? Jesus says that we are to walk around the corner, just out of sight, chuckle a little chuckle, shrug our shoulders in the presence of the Holy One of Israel, and dance a little jig. Rejoice, He said. Be exceeding glad, He said.
And He also cautioned us in the other direction. Not only are we to rejoice when the abuse starts to fly, so also are we to worry about it when the accolades do.
“Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets.”
Luke 6:26 (KJV)
We may rank the sayings of Jesus in the following way. There are those things He taught which everybody already knows and agrees with, like the importance of honoring your father and your mother. Then there are the things He taught that are ranked as the “hard sayings,” like those about loving your enemies and feeding the poor and the outcast. Tough, but more than a few believers have earnestly made the attempt. And then there are these sayings, which are clearly impossible, highly dangerous, and not even to be considered.
And if you even attempt to live by such sayings, then we will mark you down as a conceited prig, in addition to the racism.
The reason the evangelical church in North America today is languishing is to be found right here. We are led by men who crumple under criticism. We are led by men who wither under any level of abusive commentary. But this is actually just another way of saying that we are not being led by men at all.
There will be no recovery, there will be no reformation, there will be no revival, until God raises up a generation of men who are scorn proof.
No sign of them yet, but God is the one who works marvels.