On (Theological) Courage

Courage does not consist in drawing lines. It consists in holding them. Especially in today’s church climate, the need for courage is the order of the day. Yet courage is so often misunderstood.

On the one hand, those of a “confessionalist” background who adopt detailed, multi-page statements of faith (like the Westminster Standards) deride those who are “center-bound” in their theology as having lowest-common denominator theology.

Unfortunately, adopting detailed statements of faith does not guarantee a slide into theological liberalism (see the history of the Presbyterian Church USA – PCUSA). Having a line–no matter how detailed, how comprehensive, or how ‘biblical’–doesn’t matter if you don’t hold it.

Other conservative Christians equates courage to to recommending and approving conservative politics. To not fully endorse the Republican party cart-blanche is seen as a capitulation to liberalism…political liberalism. There can often be more outrage over a minister’s perceived politics than his actual theology.

Furthermore, so-called “discernment ministries” perpetuate a constant “sky-is-falling” mentality so that real issues in a local church can be missed. As Tom Schreiner says,

If we regularly condemn as unorthodox those who are orthodox, we’re in danger of crying “wolf!” When the real wolf comes, no one pays attention to us anymore, because we’ve so often criticized others. If we’re negative about everything except our own views, people will begin to think we’re cranky and will ignore us when there’s a real problem.

Theological courage–upholding the gospel and upholding the purity of God’s church–does not consist in always hammering away at an issue in the pulpit. Too many preachers jump on their favorite topic or sound an alarm, rather than sticking to the text God has given them to preach that week. If a text doesn’t mention the sinfulness of homosexuality, it is not pastoral compromise if a preacher doesn’t mention it in that particular message!

Pastoral compromise means coming to a text which does mention something distasteful in the eyes of the world (like the sinfulness of homosexuality) and avoiding it. Or pastoral compromise can mean never preaching on controversial issues. But the plain fact is that the local church pastor often has his pulse on the needs of his particular congregation and will therefore shape his series around those needs. Before charging him with lack of courage, maybe there’s a reason behind why a sermon series is chosen.

Courage is also often hammered out in the application of church discipline. It does no good to “talk a good game” from the pulpit but not back it up by appropriately applying church discipline when it is called for. Most courage is done in individual conversations. That’s where the soul of the church is won or lost. Not always from the pulpit.


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