Recently, Ann Coulter got a lot of attention and ire directed her way when she criticized two Christian missionaries for going to serve those in another country. Coulter claims to be a Christian and God alone knows the truth, but one does not see a lot of good fruit coming from her. She has made an idol of her reputation for provoking people to anger, not from provoking people to love and serve God and their neighbor better. It appears nothing in this world is as important to her as arrogantly proclaiming her views and ticking people off.
Coulter is a famous and public provocateur. But there are lots of other provocateurs in the Christian community who claim they are simply continuing in the great Biblical prophetic tradition. We have provocateur-heavy and provocateur-lite going on in the Flathead Valley here in Montana this week. Philip Klevmoen’s 10 Commandments Park in Columbia Falls has been erected and will be dedicated this weekend. It features billboard-sized placards of the 10 Commandments interspersed with religious quotes from the Founding Fathers. It also includes three crosses. When we moved to the Flathead Valley, we were struck by the prevalence of 10 Commandments placards everywhere across the Valley. Some of them were just commandments signs, but more recently some have begun to include New Testament references that point the way to Jesus. The signs have always seemed to me to be very “in your face,” ineffective modes of communication. Undoubtedly, Klevmoen, who had a dramatic conversion experience after a past as a Las Vegas gambler, has some good intentions in displaying the commandments. He knows what it’s like to be without Jesus, and he wants people to know Jesus. I don’t know Klevmoen, but I’m willing to take that desire at face value.
However, Klevmoen has allied himself with others who exercise an even more in-your-face approach, such as controversial street preacher Ruben Israel. Israel is coming to the Flathead Valley this week to host a street preachers convention in Evergreen, MT. Israel is almost but not quite to the level of a Westboro Baptist-style of street preaching. He incites and provokes through images and inflammatory words, but he doesn’t protest at military funerals. Klevmoen stops short of affiliating his organization, God’s Ten, with the street preachers’ group, but he is allowing the convention at a former church building that he owns, and he and Israel have spoken well of each other. Israel is famous for being “stoned” by angry Muslims after provoking them in Dearborn, Michigan a few years ago (a claim Christ and Pop Culture’s Alan Noble has called into some question) In one of his stunts there, he carried around a pig’s head on a stick, claiming that he did this so that he would not be attacked by Muslims. He also carried placards claiming Mohammed was a child molester. One of his fellow preachers shouted things to the crowd like, “Go dye your hair blonde. Go dye your hair!” and “You’re a disgusting Muslim! You’re on the way to the devil’s hand.” Israel has at least some link with even more extreme provocateur Terry Jones, famous for inciting Muslims by burning Korans.
Such Christian provocateurs insist that if they tick people off, it’s simply because people don’t like to hear God’s Word. Is this true? Is the American Christian community so soft that we are unable to hear tough Biblical truth? Should Christians parade around with hellfire and brimstone signs, deliberately provoke groups they perceive to be “sinners” and “idol worshippers,” post 10 Commandments signs right and left? I don’t think so. Here are 6 reasons why:
1. Biblical prophets were characterized by grief and humility.
The Biblical prophets did not arrogantly lift themselves above the people, but grieved and wept over both the people’s sin and their own. Prophets often identified with the people and their sin in repentant prayer, whether or not they were personally guilty of the sins they confessed. Even the sinless Son of God wept over Jerusalem’s coming fate (Luke 19:41-44). Jeremiah was known as the “weeping Prophet” (Jeremiah 9:1, 13:17). God’s prophets, by and large, were humble. Not only this, but many prophets resisted the prophetic call. They wanted to do anything but be prophets (Jeremiah 1:6; Isaiah 6:5; Exodus 3:11; 4:10, 13). This seems to be the polar opposite of the Christian provocateur, who races headlong into whatever crazy stunt will create a reaction or give them more attention.
Because of their confrontational nature, prophets are especially vulnerable to having prideful chips on their shoulder. The Bible does not support this tendency; it condemns it. In the book of Jonah, we see Jonah’s resistance to God welcoming and forgiving his sworn enemy. The Ninevites were a fearsome people. I think it would be fair to compare them to ISIS or Al Qaeda. Jonah admits that he does not want God to save this people. He hates them:
“Isn’t this what I said, LORD, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”
–Jonah 4:2-3, NIV
When Moses loses his temper with God’s people, rather than praising him for confronting the sin of the people, God confronts Moses with his own sin:
“Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.”
2. Prophets, Biblically-speaking, are those who actually speak for God.That means that someone who claims to be a prophet can be tested in order to determine if they are a true or a false prophet.
So-called prophetic voices make truth claims and predictions that can be verified against Scripture and against what actually happens.
With this in mind, challenge those who claim to be prophets with these Biblical tests:
–Do their predictions come true? (Deuteronomy 18:22)
–Even if they produce signs or wonders, do they turn people away from or toward the one true God? (Deuteronomy 13)
–Do they conduct themselves in a fitting, orderly, and peaceful manner? (I Corinthians 14:31-33, 39-40)
–Do they acknowledge Jesus Christ? (I John 4:1)
–Do they encourage you to test their “prophecy”? (I Thessalonians 4:19-22)
True prophets need to have not just one of these characteristics but all of them.
3. Christian witness should always be spoken with gentleness and respect.
Peter once gave this advice about Christian witness:
But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.
–I Peter 3:15-17
In other words, when you communicate the Gospel, don’t be a jerk about it. Being a jerk just gives people an excuse to dismiss you. Being a jerk doesn’t convey that you have an eternal hope. And if you’re being a jerk, don’t claim that you’re being persecuted for your righteousness. Being a provocateur does not inherently make a person a prophet. Just because you tick people off, you don’t get to claim that you’re being persecuted. Live in an exemplary manner so people can take you seriously.
Paul gives similar advice:
Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.–Colossians 4:5-6
4.Provocateurs miss the need for contextualization and translation of their message.
Truth must be contextualized. Just as different nations speak different languages, the cultures of different generations and eras speak different cultural languages. When one seeks to communicate Law and Gospel, one must think about how they will be understood in the culture to whom one speaks. This does not mean abandoning core Biblical teachings, but it does mean doing all one can to come near to people in their culture and communicate truth the very best possible way we can. While hellfire and brimstone preaching, street preaching, some tracts, and religious placards may have been effective in certain previous cultural situations (and may even occasionally be effective in isolated cases now), for the vast majority of people in today’s culture, these methods come across like a giant middle finger being flung out at them by the Christian community. It’s difficult to communicate God’s heart to save when one is holding a sign covered in hellfire.
In our culture, preaching at people conveys an idea of superiority. It causes people to stereotype Christians and fail to give any of them a hearing. It is the opposite of conversation. How can I talk with someone who is preaching at me? How can I begin to even consider integrating their beliefs into my worldview? Conversation opens people up. Preaching at people closes them down.
Conversation opens people up. Preaching at people closes them down.
As part of truth contextualization is the need to glorify God through quality, though-provoking messaging. Not 10 Commandments placards, garishly displayed. Instead, how about something like this:
This t-shirt is advertising Skull Church, an evangelistic outreach of a local church in Kalispell called Fresh Life. This isn’t my church, but I admire these Christians for what they are doing to provide spare, thought-provoking, well-executed advertising and imagery to a world that has good reason to be skeptical of Christians. Fresh Life uses the image of the skull to evoke Golgotha and the beautiful act of salvation that Jesus brought about for believers at such an ugly place. That’s downright poetic and thought-provoking and different from what people expect to hear Christians communicating. The core teaching is the same, but it is translated carefully and well for the current culture.
5. So-called prophets need to beware when their god hates everyone else they hate.
That which is called prophetic in American culture is frequently allied with an idolatry and fetishizing of America as a Christian nation and with the idol of Republican politics. (There is another brand of “prophetic speaking truth to power” that fetishizes Democratic politics, but that is another discussion for another day.) Who can argue with your pronouncements against liberals, people of other religions, homosexuals, or whoever your current favorite Bogeyman is if you claim to speak for God? Sooner or later, false prophets begin to bolster their own prideful beliefs and to proclaim, above all, that they are right. What starts out as a concern for people who are captive to sin, death, and the devil quickly becomes an opportunity for sarcasm, harsh pronouncements, and self-justification.
In contrast, the Bible teaches that we are all wrong, and only God is right. In regards to politics, Christians are called “aliens and strangers” and citizens of another Kingdom. Our normal state as Christians is not being power brokers of some kingdom of God gained through politics, but rather in being humble, self-giving servants. This is why Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol have so impressed a world that is only out for itself. Rather than carrying placards, mounting pig’s heads on sticks, or burning Korans, these faithful missionaries self-sacrificially laid their lives down to care for those who are the most suffering on earth. This kind of service is what gets people’s attention. It’s a love and service that communicates through action that “it’s not about me,” but that it’s about Jesus.
Provocateurs frequently drive their negative energy in the direction of xenophobia. Rather than rejoicing that God has brought the nations to our doorstep, they reject outsiders and provoke them. The New Testament model is not to angrily provoke outsiders, but to engage them. Provoke curiosity not anger. Humbly serve with the love of Christ.
6. More often than not, prophets speak to God’s people, not unbelievers, calling them away from their idols and back to Him.
Who was Jesus the hardest on? The occupying Romans? (That’s who the rabble wanted Him to topple so they could be a Christian–er, Jewish–nation again.) No, Jesus was the hardest on the most religious crowd. The crowd who were most focused on defining perfect faithfulness to God. Jesus showed us that nothing can hide our worst selfish motivations better than religious words and claims. The Old Testament prophets did sometimes prophesy against the sins of the nations, but they confronted the sins of God’s people most stridently of all. So when you hear so-called prophets spending almost all of their time proclaiming that the evil, vile people of the world are going to burn in hell, maybe stop and ask yourself why they aren’t spending more time calling the Church out on its evils. True prophecy begins with calling God’s people to account.
Christian witness is not well-represented by Christian stunt artists. It is best represented by humble service, living the Christ life before a watching, skeptical world.
In contrast to the extremists discussed here, check out this interview that Matt Lauer of NBC’s Today Show did with Jeremy Writebol, the son of Christian missionary Nancy Writebol. Here we see Christians who have faced great personal cost for serving Christ; we see the joy of these Christians in spite of their suffering. And we see their willingness to go back to the place of greatest risk and suffering. Not even the often-flippant hosts of morning TV can dismiss the power of this witness. We need more of this and less of the publicity stunts. Through humble service, God is glorified, our neighbor is served, and people come in contact with the paradoxical cross–the instrument of death through which comes life.