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When the Cowboys Beat the Saints

The Dallas Cowboys beat the New Orleans Saints last night here in our fair city, and it brings up an unpleasant topic: it’s become very fashionable and acceptable in our culture to “beat the saints” verbally. Criticism of Christians’ bad behavior seldom takes a holiday. Whether it’s the latest moral failure of a pastor, past centuries’ bloody persecutions perpetrated in the name of Christ, or just the garden-variety failures of believers who say one thing and live another, pundits within and without the church engage in this spectator sport with gusto.

Popular bloggers seek to outdo one another in keenly exposing the foibles of failed believers. The intelligentsia revel in lurid tales of hypocrisy in the latest deconversion story. Sapient professors are always unveiling yet another well-researched book about bad chapters in Christian history. The slightly nerdy or seriously sleazy religious guy is a stock character in many films. Mark Twain made part of his career out of such mockery.

This is nothing new. Early Christians were falsely reviled as cannibals, atheists, incestuous villains, and “haters of mankind” by the intellectuals of the Roman Empire. But how should a sincere believer respond to such criticism? Some of it is all-too-well deserved.

First, we may take legitimate criticism as an occasion to repent. Perhaps we feel justified in ignoring critiques from non-believers since, after all, what do they know? But if Jonah needed a prayer reminder by a Phoenician skipper and rebuke by the sailors (Jon. 1:6, 10), if Abraham needed Abimelech to expose his deception (Gen. 20:8-10), and if Balaam needed his beast of burden to save him from his folly (Num. 22:28-33), then any one of us can certainly heed rebuke from an unlikely, even ungodly source.

Sadly, not only of the Jewish people can it be said, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Rom. 2:24). When Nathan rebukes David over his sin with Bathsheba, among David’s offenses is this: “By this deed you have given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme” (2 Sam. 12:14). And so it is today! The world has too many occasions to mock, criticize, and disbelieve because of believers’ sin. Like David, our repentance, our change of life ought to become as notorious as our failing. When believers blow it, candid and humble confession is the order of the day rather than denying, diminishing, or defending the wrong. God may use the world to show the church her need to repent, and the chastening that follows is a mark of His love (Rev. 3:19). “But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world.” (1 Cor. 11:32).

Second, Jesus Himself endured much unfair slander and cautioned His followers to expect the same. “It is enough for a disciple that he be like his teacher, and a servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more will they call those of his household!" (Matt. 10:25). Sometimes the mockery and criticism are not deserved, but we’re in good company and even in line for God’s blessing when we do well and suffer for it (1 Pet. 3:17). “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad ….” (Matt. 5:11-12).

Third, as we hear negative reactions to who we are and what we do as followers of Christ, we may take the occasion to gauge our conduct—not by the attacks of our critics but by the standards of the Word of God. Let God’s Word have the final verdict on the validity of the criticisms or lack thereof.

Being known as a Christian (“little Christ”) is a high calling! “I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love” (Eph. 4:1-2). And Paul’s just getting started—he takes two more chapters to explain what that worthy walk looks like. “But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints” (5:3). And the list goes on. Bear in mind, the first three chapters of Ephesians lay out the glory and grandeur of all God has done to make a way for us to walk worthy. But then the call comes to us—“Therefore … [in light of all God’s done for us in Jesus Christ], walk worthy.”

Tim Keller has pointed out an interesting feature of such criticism: the world criticizes Christians, not for being Christians, but for not being Christian enough! When we lie, break faith, fail to love, fail to show compassion, fail to lead by moral example, they rightly fault us for such things, and thus reveal their own inner conviction that such standards are the right ones! So if the saints are getting beaten again, rather than seeking to excuse bad behavior, let’s repent when the punches land. When the charges are false, let us rejoice. And when the indictments stir us up, let’s be stirred to meditate on what God’s Word reveals as the true standard.

Let us “always strive to have a conscience without offense toward God and men” (Acts 24:16), so that we may say with Paul, “I know of nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord. Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come from God” (1 Cor. 4:4-5).

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