I’m here on behalf of others to say that if you don’t change the focus of your preaching, we might be unhappy,” she said evenly, eyeing me for any nervous tics her words might induce.
I bit my tongue, exhaled slowly, and assured her that while I was grateful for her counsel, I would continue to preach the messages I believed God wanted me to preach.
“I don’t think you understand,” she said with growing exasperation. “If we are unhappy, you might not have our approval.”
I swallowed hard and whispered words that hardly seemed my own: “While I will always appreciate your approval, I don’t require it to do what Jesus calls me to do as your pastor.”
No longer attempting to conceal her frustration, she blurted out, “Don’t you care if we like you as our pastor?”
“Because I am a human being with a normal desire to be liked, I will always be glad if you like me,” I said slowly, praying through the words. “But there is really only one day on which I need you to like me. And that is the day when the books of heaven are opened, and all that we have done is revealed. On that day I want you to say, “He was a faithful pastor. He spoke what we needed to hear.”
She swept out of my office, indignant and sputtering. I slumped in my chair, wondering how long it would take for the phone to begin ringing. Well-intentioned others would surely urge me not to get crossways with the church’s leading lady.
It was an early—and memorable—encounter with scorn, that most insidious of tools believers use to manipulate each other into not doing what conscience requires. Thirty years of watching its amazing influence on the body of Christ have made me respectful of its painful power, even as I grow daily more committed to diminishing its reach and effectiveness.
Scorn is the weapon we pick up when persuasion fails to persuade, or blunt intimidation doesn’t silence the argument we detest. We reach for it when logic fails, or when we think opponents are being willfully stubborn. With cunning that evil angels must admire, we strike at that most vulnerable part of opponents—their sense of security, their need for approval—and threaten to eject them from the community’s esteem and acceptance. Scorn is the threat of personal excommunication by which we darkly promise to cut off others’ access to warmth and companionship unless they yield to our demands. “You can’t be one of us if you continue doing that—believing that—acting that way. I’ll tell: Oh, yes, I will. I’ll tell.”
And it works. I’ve watched seasoned administrators waver, then surrender, when confronted by the scorn of forceful or gifted constituents. They fear that the threatened “internal exile” will be more than they can bear. I’ve seen talented pastors and teachers—persons who could otherwise never be bought or sold—melt like sand castles in the tide when intimidated by the power of a postgraduate degree. We so much want companionship, approval, and the bonhomie of peers that we make ourselves vulnerable to anyone who seems to control our access to those things. The price we pay for yielding to scorn is the security we once had of knowing we were in the center of God’s will—Daniels in the den and Esthers in the court—men and women “as true to duty as the needle to the pole.”*
It’s time the church called scorn by the name it deserves—an art of darkness, unworthy of a pilgrim people bound for the City of God. Let argument be clear and candid; let differences be drawn with all the color they deserve. But, in the name of the One who took our scorn, save yours for the devil, who so richly deserves it.
* Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1903), p. 57.
Bill Knott is editor of the Adventist Review. This article was published May 10, 2012.