“You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ 29 The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”
John 3:28-30 (ESV)
The truth of Christ is tough. It’s abrasive, confrontational, and offensive all on its own. It’s a hard pill to swallow, even if we added nothing else to it. So why on earth would we make it MORE offensive than it already is? When we combine our apologetics ministry with a harsh, foolish, and loveless personality we make Christ look like a jerk. People won’t smell the aroma of Christ that way. They smell rancid jerky. Don’t be a jerk.
One person who understood confrontation was John the Baptist. John the Baptist specialized in confrontation, and he got himself killed around the age of thirty by confronting the wrong person (Matt. 14). He wasn’t exactly a “people pleaser.” Yet even he understood that his ministry was about pointing past himself and then getting out of the way. He was a big personality. He was hard to miss, with an “old school” preaching style and a hobo-chic wardrobe. People around town knew who he was. Yet He would say of Christ, “He must increase, I must decrease.” John is not interested in inserting his personality, rough edges and all, into the Gospel message. He is willing to step aside, getting his public presence and earthly ministry out of the way so it does not compete with Christ’s. He is perfectly fine letting his earthly ministry dissolve so long as Jesus gets the credit.
John is an interesting case study because he’s about as abrasive a character as you’ll find in the new testament. With his example alone, we have a biblical defense for some “abrasive” ministry tactics. But, we do not have only John the Baptist as our example. We also have the Apostle Paul reasoning with the Jews in the Synagogues (Acts 17:2). We have the mentoring ministry of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). We have the prison ministry of James and Peter (Acts 12). And we have explicit biblical instructions to defend the faith with “gentleness and love” (1 Peter 3:15-16). Moreover, Scripture exhorts all believers, “as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:8). If we take the confrontational abrasive ministry of John the Baptist as our paradigm–the model for how we should do things–then we have compromised on the whole counsel of Scripture and rejecting John’s own words.
“He must increase, I must decrease.”
John the Baptist wasn’t trying to make replicas of Himself. He was trying to make replicas of Jesus. We can learn from him by letting our personalities grow transparent, letting Christ sanctify us inside and out, in private and in public, till we are virtually invisible. Ideally we would be transparent so that people see right through us to the Jesus behind us, inspiring and directing us in the world.
I should caution you not to hear what I’m not saying. I’m not saying personality is all bad, or that we should be self-effacing to a fault. But I am saying we should strive to let Christ shine so clearly through us that our weaknesses never obstruct and our strengths never distort His glory.
I’m also not saying Christian ministers can’t ever be abrasive. We must be abrasive sometimes when disciplining our children, managing a classroom, running a business, or doing evangelism. There is a place for abrasiveness. But, we should let the inborn abrasiveness of the Gospel’s create the friction. We have no good reason to add any friction by being fools or jerks about it.
Jesus could be abrasive sometimes, but He also spoke reconciliation and salvation to the woman at the well (John 4). He calmly dialogued with Nichodemas (John 3). He matched his teaching ministry with healing ministry. He walked with 12 disciples, sharing life with them, earning their trust over time. He invited young children into prayer and blessed them (Mark 10:13-16). Everywhere Jesus went He was embodying love and service so that when He got confrontational, he had proven his right to speak that way.
Another way to say this is that we are to be truthful and loving. The truth of Christ is already challenging enough–especially to people who have built their life and livelihood on lies. But if we’re content to be truthful but loveless, we are not asserting the Christian Gospel. Christ did not save us through a disembodied impersonal list of instructions. He did not rescue mankind through abstract propositions. No, the truest form of the Gospel is with skin on. I’m not trying to wax poetic here, or veer into any weird new theology. I’m just pointing out that the truth of Christ rightly and naturally manifests in loving people, transformed lives, and physical personal evidential proof of that truth. If we are content to leave the gospel dangling in midair as some convicting words without a helping hand, without a caring heart, without a personal touch, then we have only the skeleton of the Gospel hovering in midair.
And floating skeletons are ghoulish. It’s repulsive.
That approach is also dangerous. When we mistake zeal for wisdom, and truth for tact, we have effectively weaponized the Gospel, treating it like some holy hand grenade. Pull the pin and throw it at anyone whose worldview needs exploding.
Biblically, we should be innocent as doves, and shrewd as snakes (Matt. 10:16). We need to find balance, humility, courage, and discernment. Basically, we should be living out the whole counsel of God and not just talking about it. In particular, we should be both truthful and loving (Eph. 4:15). Hand grenade ministry is not exactly going to earn a hearing for the gospel, or earn you inroads among people of peace (people who are open to Christ), or persuade fellow truth seekers about the truth of your view. Instead, when we treat the gospel like a grenade or a ghoul, we are making our claims more offensive then they need to be; we are adding danger and revulsion to the Gospel. Our personality is getting between these people and Jesus. When that happens our own abrasive personalities obscure and tarnish the truths we carry so they don’t see Jesus so much as they see our disfigured reflection of Jesus.
In my experience, fellow Christians and non-Christians are willing to dialogue on theology and grow and learn in the process. And we all like to learn (at least as long as we don’t realize we’re learning). God is already working in the hearts of lots of people, and we might just get a peek if we are humble enough to let God lead us into gracious redemptive conversations with them. But if we are having only shouting matches and insults, making enemies left and right–well the common denominator in all those failed relationships isn’t them, it’s us. Instead of letting our ego infuse toxic repulsive ingredients into the Gospel, we should aim for transparency–no ego obstacles here. We are ego-invisible.