Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 10:16d “. . .and harmless as doves.”
Jesus sends us forth as sheep in the midst of wolves. To survive and thrive, we have to be “wise as serpents.” By itself this command can be twisted to excuse cruel acts of revenge, and justify committing sinful atrocities in the name of self-preservation. These dangerous extremes are forbidden to us by Christ’s next command, be “harmless as doves.” The dove has long symbolized life at its ideal best.
The dove is gentle. Avoid being overly aggressive. Let our demeanor be submissive, compliant. Do nothing that makes us deserve persecution or injury.
The dove is harmless, having no intent to hurt or wound. Never wish ill will on anyone. Seek the highest and best good of all within the influence of our lives.
The dove is inoffensive. We are to be winsome in order to win some. Our task is to win wolves, not destroy them. Seek souls to save, not arguments to win.
The dove is pure, universally deemed a striking picture of innocence. Never compromise with evil. Remain transparent, avoiding hidden agendas and mixed motives. Don’t pretend to be playing the Lord’s hand while secretly dealing from the devil’s deck. Be pure through and through, no scheming, deceit, or duplicity.
The dove-traits sharply contrast us believers from the wolves. These differences between us and them are what enable us to capture their attention. Mean, impure, and unkind wolves will never be changed by mean, impure, and unkind sheep. Why should wolves turn their attention away from other wolves to take notice of sheep that act like wolves? We catch the pack’s eye by being different, and then woo them to become like us by being as charming and delightful as doves.
Wise as serpents, harmless as doves–a hard combination to balance. One inclines toward striking back, the other to groveling. One leans toward deceit, one to cowardice. Some Christians will take you; others are gullible. Toward wolves, be courageous and kind. Victory is in keeping “wise and harmless” in perfect tandem, as Jesus did. Wise, He avoided danger till His hour came. Harmless, He remained sweet and pure all the while. The only way we can maintain a proper balance is to stay close to Jesus, thus being progressively changed into His likeness.
A question begs an answer. Why do believers have to be this cautious, why is Christianity so despised? Much of humanity has as its main cohesion a common hatred for our faith. This hostility creates an extremely strong bond, often gluing together what would otherwise be odd bed fellows. Don’t ignore this fact. Jesus told us to love our enemies, not to deny their existence. How does Satan succeed in blazing rejection of Christianity into hatred for it? History gives ten answers.
First, cannibalism. In early days, when we met in secret, rumors abounded that we ate someone’s flesh and drank someone’s blood. This misunderstanding of the Lord’s Supper provided fertile soil for slander from our enemies. The irony here is that wherever Christianity has reached, it has always obliterated cannibalism entirely. Even monkey-man Charles Darwin, bitter atheist and hater of our faith, once admitted that if he were shipwrecked on the ocean and floating toward an island, he would hope Christian missionaries had already arrived there first.
Second, obscenity. At first, believers greeted each other with a holy kiss of peace and called their meetings “Love Feasts.” These practices were grossly misinterpreted. Since we had male and female, young and old, rich and poor, free and slave, all mixed together in our private meetings, our enemies were able to fabricate terrible rumors about what we were doing behind closed doors. The paradox in this scandalous slur is that Christianity has always highly elevated the sexual mores of any culture it touches. We have never been able to eradicate all sex sins in a society, old sin natures strongly fuel lust, but we have made a huge difference.
Third, destroying families. In a day when fathers ruled the household with absolute dictatorial authority, even having the power of life and death over family members, any teaching which made wife or child refuse to obey due to conscience was unheard of, terribly suspected, feared, and resented. The irony is that wherever the shadow of the cross has fallen, the quality of families has been elevated. By far the best thing that ever happened to women and children was the birth of Jesus.
Fourth, insurrection. Believers speak of themselves as being members of a kingdom. We say our Leader will someday come and establish an earthly regime. Our detractors have often taken this to mean we wanted to overthrow the current government. In reality, Christians are usually model citizens. Our Master commanded us to pray for government leaders, lead peaceable lives, and pay our taxes.
Fifth, scapegoats. Nero played his fiddle while Rome burned. He later felt the heat when people started blaming him for the fire, saying he wanted to make room for a huge building project. He needed a scapegoat. Christians filled the bill because they often spoke of judgment by fire, and thus probably liked to set fires. Nero’s example has been oft repeated. If things go wrong, someone needs to be blamed. Let Christians take the heat. People are struggling with guilt, blame repressive Christians and declare nothing is a sin. Folks are dying of sexually transmitted diseases, blame narrow-minded Christians and give away more condoms.
Sixth, sabotaging slavery. Many Christians supported slavery in the modern era for some 250 years. They were wrong. Don’t try to whitewash this shame on our name. No excuses–our forebears were wrong. Even as we make this admission of guilt, we also state the opposite reality, other Christians halted the African slave trade and ended slavery in the English speaking world. William Wilberforce of England and Harriet Beecher Stowe of the USA were the two voices that cried down the end of slavery. Both were radical, sold-out Christians. Believers were slow to come around on this issue, but others have been even slower. Slavery is still a massive business in many places where Christianity is not a major influence.
The Roman Empire had sixty million slaves, one-fourth of the population. Caesar always lived in fear of a slave rebellion. The slave uprising under Spartacus left a legacy of terror in the palace, turning nightly dreams into nightmares.
Christianity made no attempt to free the slaves, but did treat them as equals in the Church. Early in the third century, the Church began breaking the law of Rome by sanctioning marriages between highborn citizens and freed slaves. In the Church, slaves were not called slaves, but brothers and sisters. At least 1,750,000 Christians were buried in the catacombs under Rome. A huge percentage of these believers were slaves, but the word “slave” never appears on any tomb inscription.
Rome, seeing the danger of social upheaval inherent in slaves being treated with respect, attacked the Church mercilessly. Our faith has written many dark chapters, but also has a multitude of chapters wherein people have been lifted to a higher station in life. Christianity tends to bring spiritual salvation and social lift.
Seventh, money. Christianity has dried up the money sources of many enterprises: idol makers, prostitution rings, pagan festivals and temple sacrifices, witchcraft. Our faith has resulted in certain trades ceasing to exist. Christianity is still hated by people who want to make money at the expense of human lives: pornography peddlers, drug lords, alcohol and tobacco dealers, gamblers, casino operators, abortionists. “At all cost, let the money flow, people be hanged, the strong survive, the weak take the hindermost, and tell Christians not to whine about it.”
Eighth, hypocrisy. People scorn and ridicule us when the God we know is not the God we show. When the scourge of communism swept across our globe, it often found the Church a wealthy and encrusted haven for the rich and for corrupt politicians. The Church was too often an island of wealth in an ocean of poverty. I was reminded of this harsh, stark reality on my recent trip to Middle America. In the midst of abject poverty stand church buildings filled with gold and silver idols.
Ninth, aggravation. Sinners love their sins and crave to commit them, but want to do so without anyone opposing them or saying negative things about them. Thus, effort is often made to silence the nagging voice of puritanical Christians.
Tenth, allegiance. Caesar was deemed a god. Once a year everyone had to declare in a pagan temple, “Caesar is Lord.” Christians could not do this. At the critical moment, they instead said, “Christ is Lord,” thus bringing down on their heads a firestorm of persecution. Believers give absolute allegiance to no state. Jesus is venerated above governors, Christ’s kingdom above governments, Bible above constitutions. We are careful to say “For God and country” in that order.