The Problem of Christian Passivity, Part Two

In part 1 of this article, I argued that a temperament of “Christian passivity” is a problem in the contemporary church. In part II, I argue that the Bible warns us against sins of passivity and calls us to boldness. I also offer some suggestions for promoting a Christian culture that can cultivate the virtue of boldness. 

A second argument—one less outwardly vapid—urges that “while Christ’s harsh language is always righteous, ours is tainted by sin.” Like the previous argument, the statement is entirely factually correct, but does nothing to justify the implied conclusion. 

The problem with this argument it is not that it observes that human anger is usually sinful, which is obviously true. Instead, the problem is that it assumes that human passivity is not sinful—or, at least, that it is less sinful than anger. But this is simply begging the question: the argument commits the very practice it is trying to defend, assuming a standard of passivity and then reading the Bible according to that standard. 

What, then, do biblical ethics teach us about passivity? To begin with, if passivity is good, or even preferable by comparison to anger, we would not expect Jesus to single out sins of inaction as particularly egregious. Yet this is precisely what Jesus does, such as in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.

The Bible presents passivity as sinful in direct terms. To take the most well-known example first, consider Peter’s denial of Christ. When Jesus asked Peter “Do you love me?” three times in John 21, this seems to have wounded Peter far more than when Jesus called Peter “Satan” in Mark 8. Yet Christ delivered the rebuke, not because Peter was sometimes abrasive—which he was—but because Peter had been a coward. Peter’s denial of Jesus—a sin committed specifically to avoid conflict and its consequences—is presented as a profound betrayal of Jesus, not a minor offense. This fact, by itself, refutes the idea that conflict-avoidant meekness is somehow the standard of goodness. 

Likewise, when God warned Ezekiel about what would happen if Ezekiel did not “speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way,” He was not warning Ezekiel away from being overzealous, but from being too passive. This verse—Ezekiel 3:18—has been cited throughout church history by Christians who have taken bold positions, such as Ambrose of Milan when he barred the Emperor Theodosius from communion in 390, or by Gregory VII when he excommunicated Henry IV in 1076. 

The reason the Bible condemns passivity is because it leads to hellish suffering and hell. In some of the most grotesque passages in the Old Testament, the authors condemn cowardice using the motif of a man who will not risk his safety to defend his wife or concubine from sexual abuse. This occurs in Judges 19, in Genesis 12, 20, and 26, and in 1 Kings 20. One striking aspect of these stories is that they present pure inversions of the Gospel. Christ loved the church as His bride, and therefore gave Himself up for her sake. In contrast, the man in each of these stories loved his own bride so little that he was willing to give her over to be raped for his own sake. He committed, in other words, an act of pure evil. 

Appropriately, then, Revelation 21 lists “the cowardly” first among those who “will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur,” together with “the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars.” The Greek word translated as “cowardly” connotes—among other things—being agreeable in order to avoid conflict. In the Iliad, for example, Achilles uses the same word when he tells Agamemnon “Surely I would be called cowardly and of no account, if I am to yield to you in every matter that you say.” 

I note with some hesitation that, while the Bible also condemns sinful anger—in Greek, “Ὀργίζεσθε”—this word does not appear in Revelation 21’s pantheon of evil. I mention this not to make light of sins of anger—which I know firsthand can be ruinous—but because Christians have committed the opposite error. We assume that sins of passivity are less deadly than sins of zeal but, if anything, the inverse is true. When Simeon and Levi defend their sister by massacring the entire male population of Shechem, there may be a suggestion of moral judgment from the author. But this judgment pales in comparison to the nihilistic abyss of Judges 19. By the end of the story, the Levite protagonist seems like Tolkien’s Gollum: a withered creature barely recognizable as a human being. This is cowardice, one of the fathers of all sin, in all its wretchedness. 

Christian passivity has gone even further, and altered our perception of biblical events. In one case, the pro-passivity spin on a biblical story is so common that it is actually the prevailing view of the passage: the account in Exodus 2 of Moses’ killing the Egyptian. When this story is told, it is usually taken for granted that Moses was wrong to defend the Hebrew who was being beaten, and that the godly response would’ve been to let the Hebrew suffer and wait for God to act. Some translations of the Bible even use section headings along the lines of “Moses Commits Murder.” 

This interpretation of the story has been repeated so often that I expect readers will be hesitant to consider the idea that Moses may have been in the right. Ask yourself, though: where did you really get the idea that Moses should not have defended the Hebrew? Is there any indication of this in the text, or is this simply the way the story has always been presented to you? 

In fact, while Exodus 2 provides no moral commentary, an analysis of Moses’ actions appears in Stephen’s speech in Acts 7. While narrating the history of Israel, Stephen says that “[Moses] saw [a Hebrew] being mistreated by an Egyptian, so he went to his defense and avenged him by killing the Egyptian. Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not.” Stephen then recounts how the Hebrews rejected Moses’ help, saying “Who made you ruler and judge over us?” 

The context of Stephen’s speech is key to understanding his point. Throughout his speech, Stephen argues that the Sanhedrin has rejected the salvation offered by Christ just as their ancestors rejected the salvation offered by Moses. “You are just like your ancestors,” Stephen says: “You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute?” Stephen’s implication is that the Israelites should have recognized that “God was using [Moses] to rescue them”—not that Moses was in the wrong. 

Christian passivity therefore entraps us in circular reasoning, fails to take account of the dire picture that the Bible paints of passivity, and warps our perception of biblical events. It looks suspiciously as if this standard is not coming from biblical interpretation at all, but from its defenders themselves—and what happens to be convenient and comfortable for them to do and say in the current cultural moment. The assumption that passivity is morally safe, let alone praiseworthy, places one’s private judgment above the authority of God.

What can be done within the church to solve this problem? First, an important objective can be achieved by ordinary educated believers in their everyday lives: challenging the clichés of Christian passivity wherever they emerge. When someone qualifies a story about Christ’s zeal with a reminder that our own zeal is sinful, politely but firmly remind them that our passivity is also sinful. Just as ordinary believers can propagate and sustain theological clichés, ordinary believers can dismantle them. 

Doing this does not require that you be well-read in theology: the essence of clichés, after all, is that they are shallow. Similar theological errors, such as antinomianism—claiming that obedience to God’s law is optional for the Christian—also consist largely of superficial slogans, most of which can be easily exposed by any believer with a Sunday School education. Christian passivity is also like antinomianism in another sense: it should not be treated as an area on which Christians can reasonably disagree. 

Another important change can be effected by pastors. If you are a pastor, and have been persuaded by even half of what I’ve written, then consider giving a sermon, or a sermon series, about the necessity of Christian boldness or zeal—perhaps based on one of the biblical examples referenced above. Jonathan Edwards’ powerful sermon “Zeal, an Essential Virtue of a Christian” might inspire you. 

You might think that you’ve already done something like this. But, this time, I ask you to do something different: do not pile on so many qualifiers and disclaimers that you risk doing more to discourage boldness than to encourage it. Do not let your church go away thinking that boldness is so fraught with sin that it is best left to you, and that they’d better go on scarcely even telling their acquaintances that they are Christians. In fact, now may be the time to qualify sermons about humility and kindness with reminders to be zealous. Christian musicians and other artists can also make an impact here, writing songs and creating other content that focuses on examples of zeal from the Bible or from church history. 

Pastors and other influential Christians should also promote an awareness of church history. One consequence of Christian passivity is that contemporary Christians would struggle to be at home in almost in any period of church history. If a present-day Christian attempts to read the work of almost any Christian leader from before the 19th century, he is likely to be shocked by the leader’s supposed rudeness and “unchristlikeness.” For example, in an article on Athanasius—one of the most formative leaders in Christian history—a Gospel Coalition writer observed that modern Christian readers are likely to “sniff at his angry style of writing.” In a preface to a translation of Luther—by two Lutheran academics—the translators remarked that “Luther was a person of his time, and his language expresses the roughness of the age.” Of course, it is only people in the past whose choices are explained away by their social context. Nobody reads a Christianity Today editorial and says that, after all, the author “is a person of his time, and his language expresses the gentility of the age.” Instead, it is 21st-century, middle class evangelicals who are implicitly assumed to have finally gotten christlikeness right after all these years. 

To call Athanasius un-christ-like is ironic, for—as we’ve already seen—Christian passivity does not actually encourage Christlikeness. The pietists admit this when they say that Christ is not to be imitated. The “Christlikeness” of Christian passivity is therefore made up by the pietists themselves. 

The church needs a Christlikeness which is modeled on Christ himself, and on every aspect of His character and teaching. When the church once again looks like Jesus, then—if history is any indication—more seekers than ever will say, as I once did, that “there must be something in this idea that gives it power.”

*This article (part 2 of 2) is adapted from a longer version found here. See here for part 1. Used by permission.

*Picture Credit: Pixabay

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Ian Huyett

Ian Huyett Ian Huyett is a litigation attorney whose practice is currently focused on issues affecting religious organizations, including religious liberty and related areas. He publishes academic work on law and religion and on law and technology.