Denunciation, condemnation and dire warnings: Can these be Christian?
You would be hard-pressed to find a Catholic today who would dare to denounce or condemn anyone for their failure to accept the Gospel and live accordingly. Such harsh speech is part of the larger secular culture, but it has generally faded from what we might consider Catholic culture. Most often we encounter this sort of frankness only when our cultural elites are intent on chastising Christians for acting as if Christianity is true.
Within the Church, on the other hand, we are taught in numberless ways that we cannot pass judgment on others, that condemning errors is a terrible presumption, and that warning others of the consequences of their sins betrays a damnable (oops!) lack of mercy. Even Pope Francis is likely to dismiss those who speak harshly against sin as “doctors of the law”. Indeed, this is another instance of the point made above—I mean that the only persons who seem to merit condemnation are those deeply-committed Christians whose arguments cut across the grain of our secular culture’s dominant ideas.
It is necessary to admit that this moratorium on strident criticism has been shaped in part by two very legitimate insights. In the first place, we in the West have become far more aware over the last several hundred years of the diversity of human culture and how much each one of us has been formed by different cultural influences. In the second place, we have grown in our understanding of the role played by key psychological influences in the formation of our beliefs and our moral codes. Reflection on these influences leads us to conclude, perhaps, that people cannot be faulted for their differences. And if that is so, it is pointless to criticize. Far better to proceed gently—if, that is, we are determined to proceed at all.
But before we concede too much, we ought to remind ourselves again that denunciation, condemnation and dire warnings continue to flow effortlessly from the mouths and pens of those who somehow regard themselves as most in step with the times. They have the greatest possible confidence in their own mythologies. They always believe they are only stating the obvious. In the Christian context, however, denunciation, condemnation and dire warnings have more than fallen out of fashion: They are generally considered cardinal sins that can never be justified. We have come very close to the presumption that if we are to love the sinner, then we must also love the sin.
The counter-witness of Scripture
All of this and more has been impressed on us not only by our larger secular culture but also by the preponderance of our Catholic leaders. This appears to be the hallowed viewpoint of the Church herself. There is almost nothing we can find to say against it. And yet there is a problem with this universal (though, as I have already said, highly selective) viewpoint, and it is exactly the sort of problem that must bring us up short. I refer to the fact that the sainted apostles and other leaders of the early Church taught, spoke and acted in exactly the opposite way.
I end this essay with a list of twenty-one quotations from the New Testament which provide ample evidence that there is something very different about the lack of forcefulness with which we typically bear witness to Christ today, as compared with the boldness of the apostolic age. This does not mean that we should always speak in the same tone, but it probably does mean that we have been unfortunately acculturated into speaking very softly and even apologetically. It is as if we forget—with all our sensitivity to cultural formation and personal psychology—that in a great many cases those who refuse to respond to the Christian message, and those Christians who subvert it in various ways, typically bear a good deal of personal responsibility for their refusal. Very frequently they are personally resistant to truth and grace.
The proof of this, for most of us, is easily discovered by reflecting back on our own progress as disciples. I suspect all of us can point to periods in our lives when, mostly through our own personal fault, we refused to open our hearts fully to the Holy Spirit. Most of us, at one time or another, have pretended not to be home when Our Lord has knocked at the doors to our hearts. I do not say that there never were any mitigating circumstances, but I do say that most serious Christians recognize times in their own lives when they were guilty of a certain disinterest, or a certain reluctance, or even a certain dishonesty in their response to the promptings of the Holy Spirit for the growth of their relationship with Christ.
If we take Scripture seriously, we find passage after passage in which the message of Christ was preached very forcefully, without fear of disapproval on the part of those who really did need to be warned of the danger they were in. Too often it is fear or embarrassment which keeps us from openly challenging those who are probably, in at least some measure, actively deceiving themselves. My point is that we need to become more sensitive to situations in which straight talk and strong talk might be very helpful to those who are hiding from their Savior.
At the very least, we need to ask ourselves why we should always assume that such straight talk and strong talk is inappropriate. When we make this assumption, whom are we serving? Is it a friend who needs evangelization? Or is it our own reluctance to dare to proclaim Jesus Christ?
SCRIPTURAL EXAMPLES OF FORCEFUL SPEECH
Let me cite just a few passages that demonstrate the prophetic voice in which the followers of Christ are sometimes called upon to address their brothers and sisters, both in the Church and the world. First, let us see how Our Lord Himself spoke on many occasions. For brevity, I am restricting this survey to the Gospel of Matthew.
The Words of Our Lord
Mt 5:27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Mt 7:21 “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
Mt 19:28 “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Mt 11:20-22 Then he began to upbraid the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! woe to you, Beth-saida! for if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes…. But I tell you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you.”
Mt 12:36-37 “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
Mt 16:24-25 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Mt 18:7-8 “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the man by whom the temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.”
Mt 24:48-51 “But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ and begins to beat his fellow servants, and eats and drinks with the drunken, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will punish him, and put him with the hypocrites; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.”
Now, if only Jesus spoke in this way, we might be wary of adopting such a tone for ourselves. But in fact we find the same honesty and urgency in the speech of his early followers. First let us take Peter.
Acts 3:14-16 “But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And his name, by faith in his name, has made this man strong whom you see and know; and the faith which is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in the presence of you all.”
Acts 5:3-5 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear came upon all who heard of it.
Acts 5:29-33 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.” When they heard this they were enraged and wanted to kill them.
1 Pet 1:13-16 Therefore gird up your minds, be sober, set your hope fully upon the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
1 Pet 4:3-5 Let the time that is past suffice for doing what the Gentiles like to do, living in licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and lawless idolatry. They are surprised that you do not now join them in the same wild profligacy, and they abuse you; but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.
2 Pet 1:5-9 For this very reason make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these things are yours and abound, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these things is blind and shortsighted and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins.
2 Pet 2:4-10 For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of nether gloom to be kept until the judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven other persons, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction and made them an example to those who were to be ungodly; and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the licentiousness of the wicked…then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority. Bold and willful, they are not afraid to revile the glorious ones….
We could go on nearly forever, but out of twenty-three other passages I noted down during a very quick review, I will simply cite one for each of the the other figures whose voices are represented in the New Testament text—except that there are so many from St. Paul, that I have included two.
Other New Testament Figures
St. Stephen (Acts 7:51-53): “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
St. Paul (Rom 16:17-18): I appeal to you, brethren, to take note of those who create dissensions and difficulties, in opposition to the doctrine which you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by fair and flattering words they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded.
St. Paul (1 Cor 6:9-10): Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.
St. James (Jas 1:21-25): Therefore put away all filthiness and rank growth of wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who observes his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But he who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer that forgets but a doer that acts, he shall be blessed in his doing.
St. John (1 Jn 2:15-17): Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides for ever.
St. Jude (Jude 3-13): Beloved, being very eager to write to you of our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. For admission has been secretly gained by some who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly persons who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. Now I desire to remind you, though you were once for all fully informed, that he who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe.... But these men revile whatever they do not understand, and by those things that they know by instinct as irrational animals do, they are destroyed. Woe to them! For they walk in the way of Cain, and abandon themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error…. These are waterless clouds, carried along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars for whom the nether gloom of darkness has been reserved for ever.
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Posted by: Jeff Mirus -
Jan. 15, 2017 9:40 AM ET USA
Jan02: Good questions, but there is no right answer for everyone. As I mentioned, we must do our best to discern whether a franker and harsher tone will be helpful to a person. Obviously we do not want to use such a tone if we think it will be harmful. But we do need to examine our consciences. Are we holding back out of lack of conviction, or timidity, or a desire to be comfortable, or for the others's good? Another key consideration is this: If the person has not responded to gentler treatment and is in great spiritual danger, why would we not at least give a more forceful approach a try? And by the same token, if a more forceful approach did not have any good result, why would we keep doing it again and again?
Posted by: jan02 -
Jan. 13, 2017 10:41 PM ET USA
Should we refrain from admonishments if we have no responsibility for the person, i.e., the person is not a student, a directee, a child we are raising ? Should we repeat concerns for the person's salvation more than once because of their belief on a topic on which we have already voiced our concern (i.e. abortion)? If admonishment does more to drive a person away from Christ than draw the person to Him, what have we accomplished? Some cautionary guidelines would be helpful.
Posted by: koinonia -
Jan. 13, 2017 10:05 PM ET USA
Matt 21:19 "Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, 'May you never bear fruit again!' Immediately the tree withered." Quick and brutal! The Christian vocation is not ours to tweak. It involves testimony. There's a certain severity in this that must be appreciated. Death in some fashion is somehow indispensable to life. "We know that our old self was crucified with him...that we should no longer be slaves to sin." Rom. 6:6