Ever since our exile from Eden, mankind has been in a mad dash after fig leaves like they’re going out of style.
We trade divine approval for human head nods to relieve our inner shame. And in our evangelical empires, this often takes the form of avoiding “guilt by association” at all costs—lest the real who’s-whos disassociate from you.
To avoid such perceived guilt, however, can be less upright than it seems.
We cannot passively participate in the sins of others or yoke ourselves with the unrepentant. When someone is genuinely guilty of theological or moral error, the failure to disassociate incurs guilt of some kind (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:11).
I am not referring to the righteous dissociation from the wicked that recognizes that bad morals corrupt good character (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:33). But when the lines are less clear, when the situation is more political, our separatism can become a new form of the bad kind of fundamentalism.
As someone in ministry, I understand the desire to appear untarnished, stay respectable, and ascend to the exalted plane of influencer. But even in the evangelical empires we erect this side of Eden, our fig leaves eventually fade and our fellow exiles realize the emperors have no clothes. And I am worried that we are clinging to the wrong kind of righteousness.
Christians aren’t immune from keeping functional blacklists. If someone isn’t sufficiently nuanced, or held that position once, or if an anonymous tweet said he insulted Billy’s mother in the seventh grade, then the sense is that we all ought to boycott his books—just to play it safe. Such sensitivity is not uncommon, nor altogether unwarranted, when good, godly ministries and institutions are on the line.
To be clear, we must distance ourselves from those who are in genuine error, who lack the gospel. But I am referring to leaders who create more controversy by their tone than their content. The Lord’s bondservant must not be quarrelsome (2 Timothy 2:24)—a point which must not be understated, and needs to be drawn out—but today we often take this to mean that the man of God must be virtually soft, and can certainly never offend on purpose.
Tone matters, but the disturbing fact is that it’s a worse crime these days to speak the truth with the wrong tone than to speak damnable falsehoods sweetly and with nuance.
And in this way, we have become like Peter, who for fear of the circumcision party disassociated from the Gentiles—even though we know that the Gentile blogs were Peter’s guilty pleasure when his Jewish friends weren’t watching.
Why do we flee from controversy? Simple: it’s easier than facing it. It requires more effort to chew the meat and spit out the bones than to sip spiritual nutrition through a straw. It’s easier to just avoid discernment altogether than to really be a Berean.
But Scripture doesn’t allow us to avoid fellow believers when controversy arises in the body. Rather, it commands us to believe the best about others in love (1 Corinthians 13:7) and reject accusations made against elders in the absence of two or three independent lines of evidence (1 Timothy 5:19). The posture of the discerning Christian ought to be to “welcome one another as Christ as welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7).
Yet there is a subtler reason that avoiding associational guilt isn’t always as godly as it seems. Namely, it’s that our very innocence before God depends on being associated with a particular controversialist named Jesus of Nazareth.
Christian subculture has sawn off the branch on which it’s sitting, and that theological branch is our willingness to be identified with Another. In so doing, we’ve forgotten that Jesus was quite the rabble-rouser in his day.
Not Quite an Equal-Opportunity Offender
When the disciples approached Jesus, saying, “Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this statement?’” (Matthew 15:12 NASB), Jesus upped the ante on his rhetoric: “Every plant which My heavenly Father did not plant shall be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit” (vv. 13-14).
Jesus was not merely a mild, polite, careful seminarian-type. Not only did Jesus offend, but he was an offender of specific persons, ideas, and systems of thought. He was not the type of Rabbi you’d cite in your Torah commentary or invite as a guest on your podcast. He had political baggage. And while we are generally content to recognize Jesus’ controversial nature in theory, we start to sweat when we consider which tables Jesus would overturn in our temples.
It is no wonder that the people of God esteemed him stricken and afflicted by God for his own sins (cf. Isaiah 53:4), causing him to be counted as a member of the counterculture (v. 9), and not in the cool way.
Today’s modern cultural tone police would have had a heyday with Jesus; yet if we do not associate with this public enemy, we are in worse danger than if we do. That’s because in identifying with Jesus, his righteousness before God is imputed to our account, while he shoulders our actual guilt (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21). If we risk our necks in the public eye to align ourselves with this character, he is able to save us to the uttermost from both divine wrath and human scorn.
If Jesus were our contemporary in his earthly ministry, would we retweet him or just lurk on his threads? Would we passive-aggressively subtweet him, rebuking him for his narrow-mindedness, positioning ourselves as more nuanced? Would he be invited to our conferences to present his own material, or would he be the secret, uncited source used by the real platform people?
Would we even know his name?
A Call for Consistency
Now, not all public controversialists are Jesus. (In point of fact, I can count only One.) My purpose is not to issue a blanket defense of all controversial conservative theologians to the effect of, “Touch not the Lord’s anointed.” All Christian leaders pale before the glory of God, and even the brightest lights dim in the glow of 1 Timothy 3:1-7. That all being said, if our default posture is to separate from those who happen to offend in their speaking of the truth, we risk finding ourselves on the business end of one of Jesus’ harder sayings: “Whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:33 ESV).
I am not calling for my brothers and sisters in the Lord to ignore tone, platform hotheads, or suspend discernment. Instead, I am calling for consistency. If a person can be credibly and biblically charged with theological or pastoral malpractice, let us keep our distance. But since association with Jesus is what makes us innocent, as unloved by the world as he is, then we shouldn’t be too quick to separate from brothers who are derided simply for speaking hard, Bibley things to hard hearts.
Perhaps I am too optimistic, but I believe we can put a moratorium on the apparent derangement syndrome surrounding many godly influencers. Let’s not unnecessarily separate from our brothers. Let’s refrain from evangelical guilt by association.