Right now, evangelicals are very conscious of the dangers of aggressive pastors and preachers. Spiritual abuse scandals overshadow evangelicalism on both sides of the Atlantic, and a number of these involve men who it should have been obvious were abusive and aggressive. The red flags and alarm bells were there over their conduct in public for years, and so it should have been no surprise that they were even worse behind closed doors. For all the criticisms I could make of it, Christianity Today‘s The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill is doing some great work in this area.
The (very welcome) unearthing of these scandals feeds into a reassessment many evangelicals have made of themselves over the past twenty years or so. The advent of the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement and TGC in the US, and their knock on effects in the UK, has created a generation of evangelicals keen to distance themselves from the stereotype of aggressive, fire-and-brimstone fundamentalists. Tim Keller’s winsome style of preaching and evangelism, developed to win over liberal New Yorkers, has become something of a status quo for evangelical preachers (not something Keller himself is necessarily happy with). The smash hit book among evangelicals in 2020 was Dane Ortlund’s Gentle & Lowly (I sometimes think I’m the only man in evangelical Christendom who’s not read it yet).
Now, all of this is, on one level, A Good Thing. The judgementalism of both fire-and-brimstone American Fundie Baptists and buttoned-up-stiff-upper-lip Brits in the late twentieth century was, undoubtedly, something evangelicalism needed to address. Mark Driscoll deserved everything that was coming to him in the US. So did Jonathan Fletcher in the UK. There are people very close to me who have suffered under the ministry of aggressive, narrow-minded pastors, who insist their way is the only way and chase down anyone who disagrees. I am glad, for their sake at the very least, that such things are being somewhat confronted.
Within this new evangelicalism – winsome, reticent, gentle and lowly – the pendulum has, to some extent, swung in the opposite direction. Now, we tend to think that anything which seems aggressive, in both discipleship and evangelism, is to be avoided. It was, we think, a mistake for anyone to ever put their eggs in the aggressive basket at any time, for whatever reason.
Yet, reaching back far beyond the aforementioned twentieth/twenty-first century examples, it seems that our forefathers in the faith had a place for a cultivated, godly aggression in their teaching.
Before looking at some examples, we should probably define “aggression”. I have “aggression” in mind more as a style or rhetoric, as opposed to an attitude or feeling. The latter is more obviosuly a problem, or at least has greater potential to be. My concern, really, is one of style or approach, which manifests in our preaching, discipleship, and evangelism. An aggressive speaking style does not necessarily mean a sinfully aggressive and wrathful heart in the speaker.
Let’s consider an example relevant to evangelism: the opening of Augustine’s City of God. Augustine wrote in the wake of the Fall of Rome in 410 AD, prompted initially by Romans who blamed the fall of the city on Rome’s conversion to Christianity a century earlier. Augustine, in short, is having none of it, and sets out to refute his pagan opponents. And he comes out fighting. His argument across the first section of the book is essentially that polytheism is stupid and evil, and anyone with half a brain should see that. Early on, he points out how absurd it was for the Romans to hope their gods would protect Rome, when they had already failed to protect Troy (the Romans based their gods on the Greek/Trojan gods, and believed they were descended from the Trojans). Augustine writes:
Anyone who gives mind to it can see that it is utter folly to count on invincibility by virtue of the possession of defenders who have been conquered and to attribute destruction to the loss of such guardian deities as these. In fact, the only possible cause of destruction was the choice of such perishable defenders. When the poets wrote and sang of ‘vanquished gods’, it was not because it suited their whim to lie – they were men of sense, and truth compelled them to admit the factsBook I.3, trans. Henry Bettinson
Them’s fightin’ words. Augustine carries on in this vein chapter after chapter, laying on thick just how absurd Roman religion is, and just how much they owe to Christianity.
Let consider an example more relevant to discipleship. John Calvin’s Institutes open in a similarly aggressive vein to The City of God. He begins Book I by exploring the question of what man can know of God as his creator. He argues strongly for a sensus divinitas in all men – “a sense of the divine”, a knowledge on some level that there is a God and that we have obligations to him. Calvin does not mince his words about atheism here:
If ignorace of God is to be looked for anywhere, surely one is most likely to find an example of it among the more backward folk and those more remote from civilisation. Yet there is, as the eminent pagan [Cicero] says, no nation so barbarous, no people so savage, that they have not a deep-seated conviction that there is a God.Book I.iii
One wonders what Calvin would make of the modern secular West. Atheists were probably more of a theoretical possibility for Calvin than something he’d actually encounter, so perhaps he’d change his tune were he living in our context. But maybe not. If we take him at his word here, atheism shouldn’t be regarded as one valid perspective among many, but as savage and barbarian – and we should say so. Calvin wrote the Institutes as much for laypeople as for Christian scholars, so this is something of a starting point for him in discipleship. Is this how I encourage the kids in our church youth group to regard the atheism of their friends and neighbours – as barbarous, as savage? Probably not.
A Question of Context
Of course, the main concern with such an aggressive style is that it will put people off and lose a hearing for the Gospel. Of course, this can be the case. But it isn’t necessarily so – it just takes wisdom to know when aggression works and when it doesn’t. Some will be poorly served by it. Others, however, will feel engaged and taken seriously.
To take a non-Christian example of when this works: you see this kind of aggression in Plato’s Alcibiades. Here, the philosopher Socrates is convincing the young, up-and-coming politician Alcibiades that he is not yet spiritually and morally fit to enter politics. After a good while grinding down Alcibiades’ pretensions about himself, Socrates says:
Good God, Alcibiades, what sorry state you’re in! I hesitate to call it by its name, but still, since we’re alone, it must be said. You are wedded to stupidity, my good fellow, stupidity in the highest degree – our discussion and your own words convict you of it. This is why you’re rushing into politics before you’ve got an education.Alcibiades 118.d
Alcibiades, in the end, responds to this. It’s just what he needs to pierce his youthful arrogance, so that he apprentices himself to Socrates. Now, I’m not saying this is the way everyone should talk to their church interns, or the young men they’re discipling. But it might be how you should speak to them sometimes. It depends on a lot of things – context, their disposition, the power dynamic etc. But it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.
Similarly, our evangelistic interractions with non-Christians do not necessarily have to always be demuring and winsome. Sometimes, a pointed remark can be just what’s needed. An amusing example of this popped up on my Twitter timeline this week – a occasion when T.S. Eliot, the great poet and a Christian, wrote to Bertrand Russell, the famous atheist intellectual:
T. S. Eliot giving B. Russell a gentle (and much deserved) dressing down in a letter of 22 June 1927. pic.twitter.com/pfoGS1wCk7
— Thomas Pfau (@ThomasPfau3) September 28, 2021
Now, T.S. Eliot and Russell had a rather complex personal relationship (Russell had, by this point, had an affair with Eliot’s wife, but Eliot seems to have either condoned it or not cared due to the deeply unhappy nature of the marriage). But that partly serves my point: there is a great deal of context here, which afforded Eliot the right to respond to his atheist conversation partner with a certain amount of appropriate aggression.
But What About…
Of course, the concern returns: but what about Mark Driscoll? Or Doug Wilson? If we try out this kind of aggression, don’t we just open the door to more of those guys?
Well, for every hundred Mark Driscolls, there’s a Jordan Peterson. Peterson hade made a career as a non-Christian psychologist doing the same thing that Driscoll did fifteen years ago to make a career as a megachurch pastor: giving young men a sense of purpose in life by addressing them with clarity and, in a certain sense, aggression.
But they are worlds apart. Peterson’s aggression is that of a father, and ultimately a matter of style rather than heart. And his style is aggressive more in terms of its rigour and sincerity, as opposed to its intensity or volume. When you watch him go toe-to-toe with his opponents, exercising some rhetorical aggression, it can be the most winsome thing in the world for them (like his now famous interview with Cathy Newman).
Driscoll’s aggression was (still is) that of the Leader of the Gang – someone who’s actually your peer, but uses his aggression to make it seem as if he isn’t. He was the guy always just a little beyond where you were, who you aspired to be – like Tyler Durden in Fight Club, or The Man Your Man Could Smell Like.
A final concern: what about those who’ve been bruised by aggressive pastors before? Do we serve them well by adopting an aggressive stance, even occassionally?
Somtimes: yes, and very much so. Again, this is a matter of judgement, context, wisdom, death by a thousand caveats etc. But, being very close to a depressingly large number of people who have suffered under the aggression of bad pastors, in my experience they are sometimes best served not by the passivity but by the aggression of good pastors – pastors who are aggressive about things worth getting aggressive about.
To quote from the opening sequence of the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill: “A lot of pastors get fired. Driscoll got fired for being an asshole.” That simple lesson is perhaps where to start with a right handling of aggression: don’t be an asshole. Or arsehole – this includes us Brits too.