What unbelievers think matters (at least a bit)

It is not at all uncommon to talk about whether church should do this or that. Usually, during those discussions, at some point the question of how unbelievers and visitors will view things rears its head. Some sense that we pay far too much attention to what outsiders think and reckon we should do nothing more than worry about what God thinks. Others go the opposite way and reckon that we can hardly be surprised if visitors and outsiders never come to the church because we apparently don’t pay any attention to what they think about anything.

The locus of the discussion centres around two points. First, that we should be aiming to please God rather than man. Where God tells us to do something clearly, we shouldn’t be worrying about how outsiders and unbelievers might view it. We just get on with it. Second, though there will be things the Lord commands of his people that make us appear weird in the world’s eyes, we oughtn’t to be any weirder than we have to be. There is a difference between the direct commands of God and applications of those commands as we judge it. There is similarly a difference between the inherent weirdness of believing what most people do not believe and being weird because we are actively choosing weirdness that the Lord doesn’t demand.

The first of those points is, among evangelicals at least, universally acknowledged. Everyone recognises that where God commands something, even if onlookers think we’re strange or odd, then we are to do it. Our first and highest duty is to God, not other people. So, if someone comes in and says communion seems a bit mental, well, that’s tough luck. Jesus instituted communion and commands his followers to participate in it, so we’ll do it regardless of how weird some may think it is. This sort of thing isn’t all that controversial.

The second of those points, however, is more hotly contested. Do the views and opinions of outsiders and unbelievers matter? Some insist not. If unbelievers think we’re weird, they can shove it. Which, whilst maybe not how we would phrase it, is fair enough when it comes to clear and direct commands of scripture. But others say their views and opinions do matter, even if they are not ultimate.

Consider, for example, the qualifications of being an elder. What are we to make of 1 Timothy 3:7 and being ‘well thought of by outsiders’? There are a whole host of things we might want to say about that, all sorts of ways we might want to nuance it and understand it, but there is a fairly simple and obvious point here, isn’t there? How outsiders view us as elders matters somehow. Indeed, our qualification as elders rests partly on outsiders view of us. This is not the ‘you can go hang yourself’ logic some would have us follow. Again, whatever we make of 1 Peter 2:12 and Matthew 5:16, clearly there is some sense in which the views and opinions of unbelievers towards us matters.

When it comes to the church, again, our first duty is of course to the Lord. Where he tells us to do something directly and clearly, we are to do it, no matter how weird outsiders may find it. By the same token, we have to recognise that what goes on inside the church is principally for the upbuilding of God’s people. So, again, if something is genuinely serving the good of God’s people and is building them up in the faith, we are likely going to prioritise that over stuff that is going to make outsiders feels comfortable. Dare I say, if unbelievers never feel uncomfortable in the church, I suspect we are not being as clear on the gospel as perhaps we ought to be.

However, notwithstanding those two things, we do want unbelievers to engage with the gospel through the church. We want everyone to feel welcome, even if we don’t necessarily want them to feel comfortable with absolutely everything that goes on. Which presumably means where Jesus demands we do stuff that will make people feel uncomfortable, then we do it. But where he does not demand that from us, we oughtn’t to be making people feel uncomfortable for any other reason. Which leads to another diagnostic question: does Jesus actually demand this particular thing we do or not?

So, for example, think about congregationally reciting historic creeds. Does Jesus say we must not do this? Clearly not. It is evidently a permissible thing to do. Is it a legitimate application of something he does ask us to do? I think so. It is a legitimate means of teaching and encouraging believers. But does Jesus say we have to do this? Clearly not. It is a means of achieving something we think might be worthwhile. Which then means we have to ask, are there any potential issues in our context with doing this? Now, you may answer no. You might answer yes. Where you ultimately land on the question isn’t that important. What is important (for the purposes of this particular point) is that, because Jesus does not demand this as the way to achieve something, we have liberty either way and other considerations will ultimately determine whether we do it or not. Among those considerations would presumably be whether this might be a barrier to outsiders or not.

You can see this point all over the things we are commanded to do. So, take singing as another example. Are we commanded to sing together? Of course. But there is quite a lot of wiggle room in exactly what and how we sing together. So, other considerations are going to drive what we decide is best in our context. Again, whether it is considering what other believers who may want to join would consider helpful and valuable or what may be off-putting and strange to unbelievers, whilst those considerations wouldn’t lead us to determine that we won’t sing at all, they may well be a factor in determining how we apply that command in our context.

This point extends even to how we present the gospel. Again, the gospel message is what it is. We don’t faff around with the truth that all people are sinners by nature, none of us meet God’s perfect standards and that we all stand just condemned before him. But Jesus came into the world to save sinners, he died on the cross and rose again so we might be forgiven and brought into a relationship with God again. Outside of him we face the eternal punishment of Hell, in him we receive the blessings of his covenant, right standing with God and an eternal relationship with him in glory. Those are the truths that we proclaim wherever we are.

But we all recognise that how we package and present those truths is going to change depending on our context. In other words, how outsiders might hear that message needs to be considered so we can present it most helpfully where God has placed us. So, in my community, we lead apologetically with Hell. Not least because most people here believe in it, believe in a judgement and want to know how best to come out on the right side of it. We may disagree with the answer and solution, but a starting point of judgement is a good way in. More than that, people appreciate straight answers to these questions, and it doesn’t get straighter than that. In other communities, nobody would start with Hell. In fact, that would be an apologetic question to be avoided for as long as possible. Why? Because how people hear us differs. What we land hard on, what we emphasise, will make a real difference to how people hear us. What plays well or needs to be treated carefully – what will help your message get a hearing – is different from one place to the next. In other words, when we come to present the gospel, what outsiders think about how we present it matters.

We could go on and on with examples, but these should be enough. Where outsiders and unbelievers think something is weird, but Jesus clearly commands that thing, obviously we are going to do what Jesus says come what may. But often, we aren’t dealing with stuff Jesus commands. More often than not, we’re dealing with potentially legitimate applications of Jesus’ commands, rather than things he directly and specifically calls us to do. Other times, we are just dealing with our tradition or assumed mode of operation. When it concerns these things, the fact is, what outsiders think really does matter. The Bible says that our witness, to a lesser or greater degree, depends on it.