On Christians Speaking Wisely in Public

There’s a common assumption among evangelical Christians that all public Christian speech or all public speech that involves the Bible is an unmixed good.  In fact, there’s something powerful about Christian talk that borders on magical.

This is based on a number of Bible passages, but most specifically Isaiah 55:11 in which the God of Israel says, through Isaiah,

As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it (Isa. 55:10-11).

Many Christians take this passage to indicate that any Christian speech or talk about the Bible or the realities of salvation in Christ will do something.  It is speech that goes out there and has some kind of powerful effect.

Therefore, even when a gospel presentation feels awkward, or perhaps a reference to the Bible isn’t warranted, Christians ought to inject Christian speech without hesitation.  When they do so, Christians are making a bold stand for Christ.  After all, “God’s word will not return empty, but will accomplish its purpose.”

It seems to me that this approach to Christian behavior in public misunderstands both the Scriptures and our culture.

The Isaiah passage is not referring to any and all talk about God or Scripture.  God is making direct reference to his specific word in Isa.55:1-7.  The God of Israel is unlike anyone else and any other god.  If Israel turns from its wickedness, he will forgive and restore his people.  The one true God will stand by that specific promise.  It will not return empty; he means it.

It’s a statement about God’s faithfulness to his promise.

Further, there are loads of examples in Scripture about God’s words in general having no effect.  Because of the mystery of iniquity and the madness of sin, Israel ignored pretty much all of the warnings contained in the prophets.

In fact, God says to Ezekiel that his people actually love coming to hear his preaching, but it has no effect at all on their lives.

As for you, son of man, your people are talking together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, saying to each other, “Come and hear the message that has come from the LORD.” My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to hear your words, but they do not put them into practice. Their mouths speak of love, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice (Ezek. 33:30-32).

Israel was like modern Christians who purchase all the materials of their favorite ministries but have no plans to let any of it shape their lives.

Beyond this, however, evangelicals would do well to consider their cultural context.  In America, anyway, the broader culture has evangelical Christians pretty well figured out.  We’ve made quite an impression and it’s not all that good.

I’ve made reference to these before, but books like unChristian and films such as “Lord, Save Us From Your Followers” portray a culture in which Christians come off as insincere, flippant, superficial, judgmental, and hypocritical.

I wonder if we’re in a day, in many American contexts, anyway, in which less is more.  We might consider the virtues of deference, the activity of listening, and the power of a timely and well-chosen word.

We might do well to consider our public witness from texts like Col. 4:5: “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders.”

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10 responses to “On Christians Speaking Wisely in Public

  • Dan Jr.

    I with you on this one. Its borderline pagan to think all attention is good attention. Honestly in our culture of noise I think the quietest person in the room sticks out like a sore thumb.

    What really interests me is this politic of “taking a stand for Christ.” When did just saying christinease in public become the primary way we take a stand for Christ. When did pushing our christian lingo on outsiders (for the glory of God, I want to think my personal Savior, God has called me etc.) become the way we live this out. What happened to taking a stand by embodying the Beatitudes? Now that would get some attention.

    • timgombis

      Exactly, Dan. In the 1st century, ‘taking a stand’ meant remaining true to one’s Christian confession in the face of pressure to abandon it–remaining faithful to the point of death.

      In our culture, that’s been corrupted by American ‘liberty’-talk whereby we fight for our rights. In such situations, we’re actually contending for American liberal democratic ideals rather than Christian ones.

  • Haddon Anderson

    Great reading this and the post on Tebow. Well-said. I’m wrestling with how a guy like Tebow should best use his “platform.” As you said, maybe the most intriguing way for him to do this is by being a good teammate, having fun, and by wisely considering WHEN to talk about faith. Kurt Warner said some interesting stuff a few weeks back, basically advising Tebow to “tone it down.” Unfortunately, it seems that any advice like this is opposed by Christians and regarded as unbiblical and lacking boldness. But as you’ve made clear, it could in reality be more intriguing, fruitful, and truthfully in line with Scripture.

    • timgombis

      That’s a good question of how to best use a ‘platform’, or whether it’s right to regard oneself as having a ‘platform’ at all! May have to chew on that and write up a separate post . . .

  • jonathan mcgill

    Amanda and I consistently feel out of place because that kind of ‘boldness’ is viewed as the epitome of godliness; once you’ve mastered the art of using every conversation to tell people they can’t save themselves by good deeds and must trust the gospel, you’ve reached the peak of evangelistic faithfulness. But this feels dishonest and, I don’t know, lazy, maybe? Like we’re not taking enough time to truly think about how the truth of Jesus might be delivered to each person so as to ‘cut to the heart’ in just the right way. It seems that the NT epistles, however, are pretty careful to apply the right aspects of the gospel to the specific situations of each church being addressed.

    • timgombis

      Who else acts like that? Salespeople? People who don’t care about others but just try to manipulate conversations to get their little ‘pitch’ in there? That’s just not redeemed behavior. If you care about other people and have reservations about acting like that, it’s unfortunate that you’re made to feel less than godly, but I realize that’s a pervasive sort of dynamic.

  • Round and about. « Trinitarian Dance

    […] Gombis from Faith Improvised has written an article on Christians speaking wisely in public. In his conclusion he says – We might consider the virtues of deference, the activity of […]

  • Debra VanSandt

    You have hit the nail on the head as far as my feelings about Evangelical Christians are concerned. I am a Christian. I, however, distance myself from Evangelical Christians whenever given the chance. Evangelical Christians in today’s U.S. make Christianity and faith look ridiculous and artificial. Every time someone makes a ‘faith declaration’ on a public forum, such as Facebook, I now cringe even if it’s appropriate in the discussion. When the headlines show nothing but radical religious beliefs and behavior, It’s no wonder that people like Bill Maher are disgusted with religion. Evangelicals often tip into that radical, right-wing religious dogma that I abhor.

    • timgombis

      I know exactly what you mean, Debra! That’s why I think that the best Christian witness in media, given our current cultural situation, is quiet reserve. Silence speaks volumes in a culture of blah blah blah.

  • Debra VanSandt

    I have always been a proponent of living my witness, not voicing it. My family and friends know that I go to church, but I don’t prosthelitize. My experience is that people can say anything, but it’s their actions that reveal their true character.

    And, by the way, the louder and more persistent a ‘Christian’s’ voice, the more I mistrust them and stay away from them..

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