February 20, 2018

Why are Christians so Mean?

Gary Thomas — 

 

Dallas Willard was once asked, “Why are Christians so mean?”

His answer was up to the task. He said that Christians are mean in proportion to when they value being “right” over being “like Christ.”

It’s not enough to simply believe correct doctrine; as God’s chosen people, we are asked to behave a certain way, particularly as it relates to others: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Col. 3:12-14).

The book of Romans also sets up a high standard for believers, telling us to “be devoted to one another in brotherly love” (12:10), “never be wise in your own sight” (12:16) and keep in mind that “love does no harm to its neighbor” (13:10).  No harm. To anyone. So, in our relations with anyone we are to be devoted to their overall welfare, to not be overly confident in our opinion, and to never do anyone any harm. There’s no room here for any “Bible believing” Christian to be mean.

What a different world this would be if, indeed, we were “devoted” to everyone’s welfare, if we were humble in our own opinions, and committed to not do anyone harm—no gossip, no mean-spirited denunciation, no slander. Doesn’t that sound like a nice world to live in?

The new life of believers envisioned by Paul in Colossians 3 basically prohibits three things: sexual immorality, greed, and being mean. Sexual immorality is denounced in many ways and greed with one word: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed…” (v. 5)

This denunciation of sexual misconduct is perhaps what the modern church is known for. But in Paul’s way of thinking, we should also be known for not being mean. Being mean is denounced as extensively and vigorously as sexual sin: “But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips” (v. 8).

Put all this together, and Christians aren’t to be involved in any form of sexual abuse, sexual harassment, or sexual immorality of any kind, but we are also to shun any aspect of being “mean”: domestic violence, emotional abuse, bosses mistreating subordinates, bullying or ridiculing gays, violent rioting, and social media trolling. Just as the #metoo movement is challenging the notion that “authority” gives someone the right to be predatory, so the Bible teaches us that “right theology” doesn’t give us the right to mistreat others even when we think we are in the “right” and they are in the wrong.

Consider the life Paul calls us to in 1 Corinthians 13, a life of love. Love is patient when others mess up. Love is kind. Love isn’t rude or easily angered and it keeps no record of wrongs. Love always protects. There’s no attack in love.

If you are arrogant, harsh, impatient, unkind, and judgmental instead of compassionate, patient and gentle, you are not acting as one of “God’s chosen people” regardless of how many graduate degrees you have, how many Bible verses you know, how many books you have published, how big your church, organization, or social media impact is or even how well you control yourself sexually. It doesn’t even matter if you are “right” on the issue if you are acting in a wrong manner. You’re adding to the overall problem rather than being part of the solution.

One of the greatest temptations to be mean, of course, is when we catch someone else in a sin. We’ve all read of the Pharisees who caught a woman in the act of adultery (obviously and discriminatorily letting the man go!) and demanded she be publicly shamed, which Jesus refused to do. The Pharisees were right in thinking adultery is wrong; they were wrong in that they were acting in a mean instead of a redemptive way. This mob mentality currently has the Internet on its side, so public shaming can now be national and even international.

Anger over a sin is appropriate. A group of believers saying “Enough is enough, this kind of behavior can’t be tolerated anymore” is doing the Lord’s work. That’s what societal change is all about! God hates sin, and so should we. There’s a time and place to repudiate evil acts. But the way we talk about individual sinners, especially when we don’t know the full story, is the portal to us being lured into sin by adopting a mean-spirited response to sin.

There’s a fascinating reality about the way Jesus touched lepers. People were astonished that he could touch them without becoming leprous himself. Can we touch hateful people without becoming hate-filled? Can we stand against abuse without becoming abusive? We never feel more justified doing evil than when we are self-righteously confronting evil. Remember, it’s not just about being “right.” It’s about responding like Christ.

There is a group of people I would love to work with, support, and publicize because I believe in their cause. But their bullying behavior makes it impossible for me to join them. They carry the right message—a minority message, unfortunately, that needs to be heard—but simply changing who you bully doesn’t mean you’re not a bully, and I can’t join that. Methods matter.

This aversion to the growing meanness I see all around me (from both liberals and conservatives) explains why, if you look through my Twitter and Facebook feed, I doubt you’ll find me denouncing a single person (I’m leaving a tiny door open in case I’ve forgotten something from years ago). For starters, I usually don’t know the people I’m called to denounce and I don’t know the facts. And secondly, the people I do know who are caught in a sin I will treat according to Galatians 6:1: “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.

Arrogance moves us to want to be heard rather than to be helpful. Pride makes us want to feel like we are on the “right side” while humility wants us to serve as God’s voice of healing to those who are on the wrong side. Self-righteousness gathers around common hatred and judgement of the fallen; grace gathers sinners together around the foot of the cross. Does what I say publically or privately help bring someone back, or does it push them further down? I’m grateful that God has and still does win me over with the kindness that leads me to repentance (Romans 2:4) and figure I should have the same attitude toward others.

What holds me back from commenting about individuals on Twitter, Facebook, and this blog is the awareness that I may be wrong. I may not have all the facts. When I don’t know the particular individual or situation or wasn’t there, I’m more likely to be wrong than right. And my uninformed opinion really shouldn’t matter to anyone, least of all myself.

This isn’t to challenge the courage of someone like Rachel Denhollander whose courageous speaking up finally brought an end to gross, evil abuse. Her testimony wasn’t mean—it was necessary and beautiful. I understand the concern some have that “silence is complicity” and if speaking up stops evil rather than just piles onto the evildoer, it’s a holy charge. The challenge today is that, with social media awareness, if I denounced every evil act in politics and the church, that’s all I’d be doing. And why some people get singled out and others don’t is a mystery to me.

John the Baptist righteously called out Herod. But he’s not writing this blog and you usually won’t find such a message here. You won’t find me addressing the “scandal of the week” as it pertains to Christian leaders or politicians. This blog will urge each of us to individually examine our own hearts. 

Remember: the same Bible that discounts sexual immorality also discounts meanness. Let’s be consistent. No hateful speech toward anyone, Christian or non-Christian, the “pure” or the fallen. Challenge misbehavior, but realize that God specializes in redeeming people who have misbehaved.

The people of God are to be different, in every way. Not just in our sexuality, but in our speech, in our temperament and manner, and in our love of grace and mercy. Let us be truly devoted to each other’s welfare, not overly wise in our own sight, and committed to doing no harm to anyone.

Let’s be different. Let’s not be mean.

[Note: I owe a big debt to a fellow writer/blogger who graciously gave much time to help me hone this message. I don’t want to mention her name because I’m not entirely sure she fully agrees with everything I say here and thus don’t want to embarrass her, but S., before God, thank you for being such a precious sister in Christ and courageous leader in God’s church.]

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33 responses to Why are Christians so Mean?

  1. Gary Thomas  — , thanks so much for the post.Really thank you! Great.

  2. Please accept this edit to the previous post that is awaiting review:

    Thank you, Pastor Gary. I concur with the sentiment, heart, content, and manner in which you spoke. This issue of “meanness” came up recently in a conversation of church members as it pertained to the difference between like and love. The question was asked “Could someone love someone and not like them and still be godly?” It came back to a question of what was mean. It ultimately was asked, “W.W.J.D.?”

    Many examples came to mind. The examples you gave were certainly at the forefront. As I left and prayed about it…in same way I am praying about the same issue…I thought of several examples that were not mentioned:

    1. Matthew 16:23 “But He turned and said TO Peter, ‘Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.’ ” NKJV
    2. Matthew 3:7, Matthew 12:34, Matthew 23:33 Examples when Jesus referred to people as “brood of vipers”
    3. Matthew 21:12 When Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers

    In the aforementioned examples, I honestly do not think He liked what those people were doing and possibly did not like the person in those moments while still loving them unconditionally to see their full potential. With certainty, I do not think He was being “nice” in those moments. Yet I also don’t think He was being mean. I think He knew Ephesians 6:12, because He was and is the Word. I do think He was righteously angry and know He could be entrusted with handling His anger…being perfect and without sin. Still…I don’t think He was “nice” to those He called out and at a minimum, He did not “like” their actions and possibly those people in those moments He called them out…once again knowing their full potential all the while.

    I wholeheartedly agree with what you wrote. My prayer is that people do not twist your words to discredit someone who is in the right mind and spirit to call out an injustice or a sin (of course after verifying, witnessing, etc); is righteously angry; and is appropriately firm and assertive about it. In the same way that I agree with you that those “proving a point” need to be accountable for their actions, I also think those listening to someone’s dispute might need to be accountable to listen and not mistake a person’s firmness for meanness if it is more assertive than they are used to hearing. Jesus got angry and not just with the Pharisees. He was sarcastic with many, and it was THICK sometimes. He was still loving, still kind, still gentle….still all of that.

    I still remember finding out about an injustice done to a student of mine in the country from which the student immigrated. That country and specific leaders were in the news spotlight over some similar injustices during the year I had the case. The child was debilitated from the injustice. One Sunday at church, I heard a sermon from the head pastor of my church. He called out the injustice and country leaders with tremendous anger. He was not “nice,” and I am fairly certain he did not “like” those who brought about the injustice, but he loved them enough to say something. Another pastor of a very large church spoke about tolerance that Sunday on different and similar matters without defining what injustice was. It sounded good. What was needed? W.W.J.D.? Really? W.W.J.D.? To this day, I still call “home” and worship at the church of the pastor who got “angry.”

    We have probably both met “vipers” and know the struggle. Jesus was slow to anger, which is what I pray we will all be if anger be needed to address a concern. You were referring to that well to encourage people to know facts of all sides on matters before making a “judgment call.” Ephesians 4:26 says to, “Be angry and sin not…” My concern is with people who might mistake appropriate, healthy, holy anger for “meanness.” Being angry at the appropriate time, if necessary, is not the same as being mean-spirited, which is what I pray people understand. Jesus never stopped Himself from being angry or told Himself not to be. He was slow at it. I am praying for God’s best knowing many days await without anger someday but wanting God’s work in me to accomplish His work with whatever emotion He needs me to convey His truth and love here and now. Divine intervention. Praying.

  3. I think, what hurts the most, is that some Christians make a career out of being as mean as they can, because at heart, they are mean and cruel.

    I don’t believe in a god anymore, but I’ve learned from experience it isn’t ‘god’s’ fault that Christians can be nasty. The religion doesn’t make you mean. I assume it attracts mean people, who desire to control other’s individuality, and are seeking the ‘easy way out’ of life. Most of the bad Christians I’ve had the pleasure to meet, are just hoping to slide by. They’re not really doing any sort of intelligent reading of the scriptures, or finding a healthy evolution in their beliefs with maturity and age. Mean Christians are often lazy Christians, too…lazy both intellectually and spiritually. And, far too many meanies in the faith are covering up for their own fear, fears of being ‘wrong’, fears of the unknown, fears of other people who are more moral and emphatic than them, who don’t believe (so to speak).

    And also, some vicious believers like berating non-believers, just to get a rise out of them so that they can go home and pat themselves on the back when people rightly get tired of being bothered. I’ve had the unfortunate experience of being the focal point of an online circle jerk after an aggressive street preacher was screaming at students on a university campus and secretly recording his worst encounters. If a believer finds validation in their faith by only attacking, and then basking in, emotional responses to negativity, that’s more satanic to me than Christlike. And it’s disturbing to find racism and sexism in these encounters as well, as it shows at heart that there is more to being and believing in Christ. There must be a deeper, fundamental commitment to self-responsibility and a willingness to share the world with others. I know that unfortunately, the church often advocates separation from the world, but to me, Christ’s light must be brought into it, not taken out. Otherwise, the word of god is just that…words. As long as god remains locked up inside of stone walls and preacher’s hearts, there can be no connection with the suffering of the world and no drive to love humans as humans.

    • Dear Sarah, I am so sorry for the hurt you have experienced and what you said resonates with me so much as I have had experience within my own family of someone using Christianity to ‘justify’ abuse and cruelty. Although really, their faith has nothing to do with it, they are just twisting God’s word to try to excuse their wrongdoing.

      In my family, there have been two responses. Some of us have turned to God, accepting that many who claim to act in his name are not doing what he wants. Others have rejected God because of the behaviour of those who claim to be Christian. Obviously, I’m biased because I’m one of those who has turned to God instead of away from him, but I would say that we have found more peace and joy and healing through this choice than those who have turned away – it breaks my heart to see how hurt they still are.

      Please, please don’t reject God because of the actions of those who pretend to be following him – some may be Christians who are just very disobedient while others may not even believe but are just using the name to further their own ends. Don’t miss out on the most wonderful thing it is possible to have because of the actions of other people. I have found that there is no hurt so deep that God can’t heal it.

  4. Thank you, Gary. What a blessing this post is. Thank you for taking the time to craft a thoughtful, spirit-filled piece that speaks to the heart of what is keeping many from coming to the Savior. As believers, we don’t want to be the reason that some move away from the opportunity to cross the line of faith. Our attitudes must point others to Jesus–not away from Him.

  5. I wish more Christians would read your post. Social media seems to have made Christians exceptionally cruel. I have lost the ability to maintain a connection with extreme “religious” friends and family members. They are not following Jesus’ teachings. Instead, many are embracing mean-spiritedness, righteousness, hypocrisy, and ignorance. Very few true Christians remain. The part that really bothers me is I know what some Christians in my circles have done in the past and am shocked that anyone in their position would somehow forget how much they hurt others, how many lies they told in the process, etc. For them to now be sitting on a false throne spewing hatred and judgment is shocking. I have never had a lower opinion of the faith. I used to see Christians as the moral authorities, but that is no longer true. I am at a loss to understand how we’ve come to this level of behavior. The ugliness and lack of compassion seem to be contagious. It angers me that so many are currently misrepresenting what Jesus is about. When I was a teenager, I could spot injustice and hypocrisy easily. I remember how men would get drunk and abuse their wives (or worse) and then stand in church every week as if they were one of the chosen few. Today’s young people are watching, and they will not forget. They will not embrace a faith that says it is based on love but displays itself in hate.

    • So you are rejecting the faith because of the way some Christians act? Or are you merely rejecting the actions that fail to be consistent with the faith, which is based on the grace and forgiveness of Christ? I am trying to figure out if you have decided that some other faith or belief system is better than Christianity because the people that compose it are better.

      I guess I would ask anyone who accuses Christians of being mean is this: Are other faiths better at making nice people? Or is it just that we simply expect more of Christians and when they fail, it is more hurtful because of what we expect. Our expectations of those with no faith or different faith are less, so we are not disappointed when they act badly.

  6. I loved every single word of this post and it was definitely needed! I am guilty of being mean in a sense when it comes to defending good in the world. And like you said, there are so many bad things going on, it would be a full time job to comment on every single thing. I absolutely believe if we “fight” the Christian way, people will witness that and see what God wants them to see.

  7. This verse right here…

    If you are arrogant, harsh, impatient, unkind, and judgmental instead of compassionate, patient and gentle, you are not acting as one of “God’s chosen people” regardless of how many graduate degrees you have, how many Bible verses you know, how many books you have published, how big your church, organization, or social media impact is or even how well you control yourself sexually. It doesn’t even matter if you are “right” on the issue if you are acting in a wrong manner. You’re adding to the overall problem rather than being part of the solution.

    Couldnt agree with you more Gary!!!

    Love conquers all and the more we give the more we get. Thank you for your insight on this!!!

  8. Gary, let me salute you first and foremost, well done. I myself don’t like commenting on social media each time I read an article or rather my comment is always to build whosoever that is reading it. But this blog caught my attention. My morning devotion today Feb 21 was taken from Psalm 1:1 could that be the reason? “Why are Christians Do Mean” I pray for God mercy. O, Lord. Have mercy on us according to Your loving kindness in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

  9. There is so much I want to say – I recall a time when I was at college and one of the other students had to give a 15 sermon during chapel time. I can’t recall exactly what he spoke about but at one point he said, “Christians are the only group of people he knows who will kick each other when they’re down…” That has always stood by me. Because its true; its not the “what” that Christians are saying, its the “how” that’s the problem. I know so many people (myself included) who won’t set foot in a church for this exact reason. And yet, by admitting that, I am also admitting that I am being judgmental and cynical and hurt.

    I also want to say that if we can live up to the idea of truly loving our fellow man for their own benefit and growth, what a wonderful world it would be. It wouldn’t matter of the gospel message was true (I do whole heartedly believe it to be true), but if we were just loving each other properly – just that on its own would change the world and it would be wonderful. Only good can come from truly loving and living the gospel message – in what we say, in what we do and in how we act and what it all comes down to is our attitude.

    And the idea of being right more than what we value love has truly hit home for me. I hope I can take that and let it mould me more into love and less into always needing to be right.

  10. This is excellent! Very convicting and uplifting at the same time – I love the way you are calling all Christians to be the light in this world, without calling out those who aren’t there yet. I feel like this is a very Christ-like message of truth and grace. Thank you for your ministry,and I pray that there are a lot of people with ears to hear this message!