When you handle God’s word with others, you encounter portions of Scripture that feel like trying to hold a screeching wet cat. Nobody wants it, not even cat people. Some accept the challenge: years of experience or their personalities thrive in it. Some dare avoid it, insisting it’s not the “right time.” In any case, whether it’s homosexuality or predestination, dust is doing to be kicked. Be sure to have been faithful when it settles. In that effort,to understand how people react to controversial issues can be helpful.
You want to exegete your Bible and your people. People’s reactions aren’t solely based on only one process: rational, emotional, or psychological, etc. People react as a whole; a collaboration tightly wound together by their personal narrative.
These are three responses I’ve encountered with a touchy topic. They aren’t exhaustive, they have kids of their own. They’re real, but unhelpful. Some are defensive. Some are offensive. All are hindrances to hearing the realities of God’s Word.
1. Put walls up
Many revert to a sort of psychological heisman, “Nope—won’t have any of that.” Or a brand of pseudo-sophisticated agnosticism, “Don’t know, don’t care.” The worst is when they appeal to a certain kind of Jesus, “I’m just good with Jesus”—as if He never said or did anything controversial or unpopular. For some, they feel like an exposed nerve from being burned the last time this came up. We need to help others see while the Gospel is immediate and central, it isn’t guaranteed to just a top layer. Just because you’ve moved toward a controversial issue doesn’t mean you’ve moved away from the realities of grace.
2. Put gloves on
Approaching a controversial topic turns some into Rocky Balboa. They’re ready to rumble, yet sorely ready to actually deal with it well. Appearing to be gracious, they put on debate gloves. What you don’t see is their theological brass knuckles hiding underneath. Sure there’s some cushion, but the real bite hides underneath- like a serpent in a pillow. A good amount of satire goes a long way here, but don’t steamroll everything with a joke. Soon enough, you’ll be the joke.
3. Glassy eyes
Lights are on, no one’s home. In an increasingly post-Christian nation, three to four syllable words that end in “-tion” are an invitation to punch out. If you’re going to use them, do so at the end of explaining what they mean. Irrelevance is a culprit. More and more, people want to know how what you’re saying coheres with reality. Thankfully, a faithful explanation of God’s Word ought to cohere nicely as Scripture is reality’s lens, critique and clarity.
Tim Keller talks about being “message-centered and receptor-oriented.” You can be faithful to the text and know your people to enter into their reactions in your exposition: expose the problems in their posture and show how the Gospel gives us better ways of thinking about tough topics.
Everyone commissioned to draw out God’s word will encounter people’s watersheds. As long as Romans 1 is the case, the Gospel will reveal God’s righteousness and confront the unrighteousness in and by any person in any culture. The difficulty is to not address it in a way that tips your hat to it, paying homage to it. You can, in an effort unravel controversial issues, but find yourself tangled up in it. Watersheds are controversial, but they can’t hold a match to the controversy of God’s Gospel, the watershed of history.
At the end of the day, the biggest watershed for any person, any culture, any nation is the Gospel.