The restaurant was bustling with chattering and the clanking of cups and plates as diners enjoyed authentic Mandarin food. My family was seated by a smiling waitress as she placed a pot of hot jasmine tea in front of us along with the typical porcelain cups decorated with a floral pattern I see all too often at Asian restaurants. I was hungry and knew what I wanted to order. The waitress must have sensed my appetite as she looked at me and asked if we were ready to order. Someone at the table quickly spoke up, “Not yet!” I sighed as our moment for quickly getting our ticket to the cooks walked away to the next group waiting in line.
As we waited to order, I couldn’t help but overhear a fairly intense conversation going on at a table parallel to our own. I quickly glanced over to see five individuals engaged in what looked like a hot debate, the person speaking at the moment had lifted his voice and exclaimed, “I don’t like your polemic!”
I know I shouldn’t have been eavesdropping, but the arguing was lively and hard not to overhear. In fact, it would have been reasonable to ask the table to tone it down, but my curiosity was peaked. Besides, I didn’t need to stare at the menu, since I knew what I wanted. So, I briefly turned my attention to the woman being told her argument was disliked. She looked pained by her interlocutor’s complaint and somewhat apologetically explained that what she was arguing was universally believed by Christians. She was arguing that Jesus was not merely one of many “messiahs” who attempted to establish an earthly kingdom in Jerusalem, as her counterpart apparently argued, but that He was THE anointed one spoken of throughout the Old Testament and that His truth claims had to be taken seriously because of that historical fact. Her opponent heatedly disagreed.
I soon tuned out the table near mine and paid attention to those at my table, but what I could gather from their conversation was that individuals in the group represented Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism, who had gathered together to confess their beliefs and discuss what they held in common. It was obvious the Christian representative wasn’t compromising what she believed about Jesus.
What was even more obvious, from the tone and facial expressions of those engaging her, was that her confession of faith was rejected in earnest. “I don’t like your polemic!” was the cry; even though the woman wasn’t saying anything controversial from where I sat. Yet, what she had to say was certainly not acceptable to her conversation partners. It was evident they wanted her to “tone it down” and to be more “generous” with her orthodoxy. In short, they wanted her to give something up in order to meet them on common ground, but meeting them on what they thought to be “common ground” was to adopt heresy, for the Christian confessor.
When confessing the pure doctrine of Christ, the way we deliver our message isn’t going to matter for some. We can be as charming and sweet as an insurance salesman wanting to land the “big sale,” but the words pouring out of our mouths will burn like a red hot coal blistering the skin. No matter how we confess Christ, if we speak the truth, we are going to be misunderstood, thought of as being fools, and hated for the sake of Christ. Indeed, it is the Apostle Paul who makes such a point when he writes to the Corinthians:
“Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:20-24 ESV).
The Gospel is a “stumbling block” and “folly” to those who are perishing. Paul understood this all too well; that confessing “Christ crucified” often meant physical suffering. It meant beatings, being imprisoned, and many other grueling hardships.
Noticeably, though, our Lord and the Apostles didn’t have to use shocking levels of rhetoric in order to be offensive. Jesus would simply speak the truth to the Pharisees, for example, and would gain their abuse; even being told by them that He was born “illegitimately” and was “demon possessed” (see John 8:41, 48). Jesus makes it clear to the Pharisees that they don’t want to hear His word; they are unable to give ear to the truth. Indeed, if we read through the Scriptures we find that sometimes when Jesus and the Apostles are speaking, no matter how winsomely they announce their message, the response from those hearing it is reminiscent of those horror movie scenes where a vampire melts into a shrieking pile of burning flesh because it was splashed with “holy water” or pelted with a garlic necklace. Whoever said, “Words will never hurt me” probably never heard solid law and gospel preaching.
Of course, knowing that the Word of God truly is “sharper than any two edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12) also means that we don’t have to use anymore English than what is essential for moving the ball, so to speak. This is true for when we confess our faith before the unregenerate and regenerate alike. As it stands alone, the truth of the Scriptures hurts the Old Adam. In fact, I have seen atheists get red faced angry at being told, “Jesus loves you.” Implicit in that simple statement of fact are other facts such as there really is a God and we are sinners in trouble with God who need to be forgiven. Or, in other words, John 3:16. No wonder atheists squirm at nothing more than a mention of Jesus!
“I don’t like your polemic” are words spoken to one another by brothers and sisters in Christ, too. When we engage hot topics it is hard not to find polar opposites tugging at each end of a controversy, and often in a way upsetting to even those lurking the debate. All too often the temptation is to shut down heated exchanges and not just for the sake of peace, but in order to silence words which cut our hearts. I think it is easy to forget that all parties involved in a debate are entrenched in the fundamentals of their confession. A confession which is easily moved isn’t one held with conviction and we all know that is the case. What this means, too, is that we shouldn’t be surprised when the sparks fly as iron grinds against iron. What this doesn’t mean is that we should become shock jocks—using coarse language in order to get a rise out of some one—but at the same time we are aware that no matter how kind we are in our tone somebody is going to be offended. Confessing the pure doctrine of Christ is a full contact exercise. That also means we don’t need to kick up our rhetoric a notch or two when dialoging with those who disagree with us, since what is being said likely is already getting the response, “I don’t like your polemic!” We are to be the salt of the earth, not the salt in the wound opened up by God’s Word.
As we sat at our table gobbling down delicious plates of Mandarin cuisine and enjoying each other’s company, I noticed the group of people gathered together for some sort of “inter-religious” dialogue leaving their table. They weren’t shaking hands. There was no hugging and no patting each other on the back. I remember seeing strained smiles as they bid each other a good evening and made their ways to the front door. Apparently their efforts at reconciling their vastly different confessions failed. I suspect they had extreme difficulty just understanding each other and assuredly, nobody understood the Crucified and Risen Christ save for the woman who confessed Him at their table.