Evangelical Self Flagellation Isn’t Prophetic Witness

Daniel Darling | Director, Land Center for Cultural Engagement | Updated: Apr 12, 2021
Evangelical Self Flagellation Isn’t Prophetic Witness

Evangelical Self Flagellation Isn’t Prophetic Witness

The church has always been in need of a prophetic witness. Not many years after Pentecost, even after the Holy Spirit descended and blew his fresh wind upon the people of God, neglect of widows became an issue that had to be addressed (Acts 6). A few years later, the church of Jerusalem was rife with dissension over the inclusion of Gentiles. Paul, who was not long ago an enemy bent on the elimination of Christians, publicly rebuked Peter for his inconsistency (Galatians 2). Imagine this, the persecutor-turned-Christian taking on one of Jesus’ closest friends, a witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. A newcomer taking on a pillar of this new Jesus movement. Yet Paul was right. This was a serious issue that had spiritual and eternal ramifications. Throughout the New Testament, this is repeated, as the gospel makes its way around the world and churches, made up of redeemed sinners, are constantly in need of correction and rebuke.

Since then, the church has had a need for prophets in every generation, sometimes to awaken it from spiritual slumber, sometimes to guard and defend the truth against heresy, sometimes to call it to repentance from deep sin or injustice. You can’t really read any period of church history without hearing its prophetic echoes, from Athanasius to Luther to Wilberforce to Tozer to Martin Luther King. Today the church needs those same kinds of voices, drawing on the rich history of the church and on the prophetic witness of the Old Testament.

And yet, at times I think we mistake prophetic words—calling out sin and injustice in the church—with a kind of performative self-flagellation incentivized by a social media environment that rewards hot-takes, shaming, and appealing to tribes. Evangelicals are an especially target-rich environment. Sometimes the takes land and correctly diagnose sins and areas of serious concern within our movement. Quite often though, being anti-evangelical has become a permanent posture, a kind of career path that leads to news coverage, bylines and books.

I want to be careful here because I have, throughout my career and ministry, addressed imbalances, injustices, and imperfections in the movement. I’ve used my platform to speak out on many issues evangelicals should address. I’ve spoken publicly and have written about our need to adopt a holistic human dignity approach in our public witness and to avoid the unnecessary dichotomy between individual salvation and social witness.

Yet I fear that at times our attempts at being prophetic often just become a modern version of the Pharisee in the temple, declaring to a watching world that we are “so glad not be like that sinner” (Luke 18:9-14). The easiest way to an op-ed these days seems to be to find another tribe of Christians to rhetorically sacrifice.  Or I fear we think that by continually bashing our brothers and sisters, by the willingness to blame our movement for every social ill, will somehow endear those who are not followers of Jesus to fall on their knees in repentance and faith.

I see this on both the right and the left. A genuine concern for orthodoxy and truth (a concern about which I am passionate) can easily turn into a witch-hunt that makes everyone suspect. Recently a Christian leader I admire, whose theological faithfulness and commitment to the gospel has been publicly evident for decades, was dragged on social media by Christians, accusing him of being faithless. I saw folks post lies and misstatements, without hesitation, about a good brother in Christ.

I was also dismayed in recent days about the way so many were willing to assign full blame for the horrific Atlanta shooting to the church the shooter once attended, claiming this small Baptist church, pastored by a faithful man of God, was the source of radicalization. You could have filled a small library with all of the hot takes, all but blaming this good SBC church for murder. Some even claimed that a message on the book of Revelation, something Christians have been teaching for 2,000 years, motivated this disturbed man to commit these violent acts of evil.

This is where James 1:19 is important. We should be quick to listen, slow to speak (or post), and slow to (digital) rage. Too often we join a chorus of knee-jerk criticism without having any facts or without realizing the collateral damage we are doing to the body of Christ. James 4:11 tells us not to slander each other. This is true even, and perhaps especially, of our public witness. In our attempts to appear prophetic, we may actually be sinning against our brothers and sisters in Christ.

This is not to say that we should never call the church out. These two examples I cited above contain kernels of truth. I think there is an urgent need to guard orthodoxy, to defend the faith once delivered to the saints. I also think there are important conversations about how we teach purity. I endorsed a book by a faithful sister that attempts to address good and bad ways to teach Christian sexual ethics.

There are unhealthy movements in our midst. There are unorthodox movements within our midst.

Yet our critiques must be delivered with nuance and compassion toward those we criticize. Our rebukes should be bathed with humility and perhaps tears. Even when Paul is urging Timothy to stand strong against sin and heresy in the pastoral epistles, he surrounds these challenges by appealing to his own sinfulness and weakness. Perhaps the first step to being prophetic is to not imagine ourselves as the next prophet.

Most of all, we should remember that Jesus loves his people. Christ is infatuated with his Bride. So taking potshots at other Christians, online, for sport, may lead to the next byline or book contract, it may bring a bunch of sweet retweets and likes, but those are temporal rewards that often come at the expense of the unity of the body for which Jesus gave his life. Prophetic witness calls people out, but it also calls them up. It’s delivered with compassion, not contempt.

After all, Jesus didn’t say we’d be known by our self-flagellation, but by our love (John 13:35).

The views in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.

Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Fizkes

Daniel Darling is the Director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement. He previously served as the Senior VP for Communications at National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) and VP of Communications for the ERLC. You can find more from Dan at DanielDarling.com.

Evangelical Self Flagellation Isn’t Prophetic Witness