Why the Temple Cleansing (Etc.) Isn’t Your Permission to Always Be Fighting
It's becoming a common trope on social media — certain figures who spend an inordinate amount of time arguing, picking fights, insulting other Christians or mocking them with scathing sarcasm or silly memes, when reprimanded, citing the biblical prophets, Paul's harsh words for heretics, or even Jesus' cleansing the temple as defense for constant platform pugilism. They are "contending for the faith," they claim.
Perhaps the motives are good in these endeavors, and I'm sure for some they are. But I don't think I'm alone in thinking the fruit is not. The spirit is not. Because certainly the Bible says at least as much — if not more — about speaking the truth in love, not tearing down, and letting our speech be gracious as it does "letting people have it." In any event, what are we to make of the biblical support for this kind of online behavior? A few words:
1. The prophets wept and pleaded too.
This is something missing in far too many of the online prophets — tears. Setting aside the fact that the biblical vocation of God's anointed messengers isn't really a one-to-one correlation with self-appointed pundits on Twitter, we certainly can learn from them — and many other places in Scripture — that there is a certainly a place within the church for pastoral rebuke, prophetic witness, and courageous calls to repentance. But this is but one aspect of prophetic ministry. The guy spending all day every day looking for people to fisk, mock, or otherwise use for his own promotion and praise isn't echoing biblical prophetic ministry. If anything, he is more like the pharisaical enterprise of nitpicking, condemning, and "laying traps" to catch people in alleged errors or missteps.
Where are the tears, brothers and sisters? Where is the pleading for the objects of your scorn? We know you're angry and have the firmness of your convictions. What we'd love to see is a softened heart for people, including people who are ostensibly your brethren.
2. Paul was not a Christian insult comic.
Like the OT prophets before him, Paul issued more than a few harsh words for both brethren and heathen alike. He's telling Judaizers to emasculate themselves. He's in Peter's face (Gal. 2:11ff.). He's not shy about actually contending for the faith and it's a key facet of his apostolic ministry. And yet, to take these instances as defense for an entire online disposition of harshness misses Paul by a very long shot. The general tone of Paul's ministry to the lost and to the church was one of gentle, loving, fatherly shepherding. It was evident he cared about those he interacted with, and the harsh rebukes were exclamatory interludes in the normal course of his ministry — not the other way around.
So until we find an entire letter that's one excoriation and sarcastic directive after another, no, your steady stream of tweets making fun of all the Christians who are getting it wrong isn't Pauline. Not even in the slightest.
3. You aren't Jesus.
I've seen the meme. Perhaps you have as well. It's an artist's depiction of Christ cleansing the temple with the big white block letters reading: "The next time someone tells you to be Christlike / Remind them that overturning tables is a real option." There are numerous variations of this meme out there. And it's shared textually often in defense of someone's harsh demeanor and un-edifying speech toward believers. The idea is that since Jesus turned over tables and drove the moneychangers out of the temple (with a whip!), verbal excoriations really aren't even that bad.
But the fact remains that temple-cleansing, first, wasn't what Jesus did every day. Well, okay, spiritually speaking perhaps it was. But the Gospels only show him using that whip twice, at the most. It's not like he kept it by his bed and got up every day looking for names to take. "Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you the biggest butt-whooping of your life." No, like the prophets, Jesus wept over his countrymen far more than he cursed them. Publicly and verbally, he longed for them to see his glory. And the normal course of his ministry was pastoral — caring for the lowly and sick, confidently teaching and storytelling, speaking words not of condemnation (for the world already stood condemned) but of grace.
On top of that, citing the temple cleansing is a curious defense of one's treating others harshly. To begin with, brothers, you aren't Jesus. I know he is our moral exemplar, and we are to be Christlike. But there are things Christ did that we cannot and should not replicate. He died for the sins of the world. You and I can't do that. He healed the sick. You and I (probably) can't do that. None of us can "be Jesus." Jesus was Jesus because of that fact! And his cleansing of the temple was a unique event, an apocalpytic act in a space that he owned. The temple cleansing in the context of Christ's ministry and the in-breaking of the kingdom was an act of messianic judgment. You charging key denominational leaders with being George Soros-funded Marxists isn't quite the same thing.
Isn't it possible — just possible, even if not in your mind probable — that because of the deception in our own hearts, that we may be more harsh than we ought to be? That in fact, what we think is Christlike behavior doesn't strike many as genuinely favoring the aroma of Christ?
Is it possible you aren't contending for the faith but are just being a jerk?
Let any of us take heed we stand, lest we fall. And let's remember that the Bible says too much about the danger of the tongue and the poison of anger for us to take these matters lightly.
"Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear." — Ephesians 4:29
"Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body." — Proverbs 16:24