As Serpents and Doves
Updated: Jul 17
Frightening headlines and startling polls about Christian decline in America have become commonplace for me. About once a month, if not more often, someone sends me the latest terrifying data that is predicting the inevitable death of Christianity. Worse, the decline in Christian affiliation has occurred simultaneously as a noticeable hostility against Christianity in the public square.
How do disciples behave when society becomes hostile to Christianity?
First, we take a deep breath and realize that reality is different from sensational headlines. I worry about the state of Christianity out in the public arena, but no one is preventing me from attending worship this Sunday morning. No one is threatening my life. No one is taking away my Bible. No one is forcing me to worship Baal or deny Christ to maintain American citizenship. In my ordinary daily life, the reality of the rise of anti-Christian sentiment is not even noticeable unless I go looking for it in clickbait headlines meant to frighten me.
Settle down just a bit.
Second, we must remember that society has usually been hostile to Christianity. In what is commonly called the Limited Commission, the disciples of Jesus were warned, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves” (Matthew 10:16a). Nor was this an unusual warning from Jesus. In the opening lines of the Sermon on the Mount, he said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake … Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:10-11).
We can hardly claim we didn’t see this sort of thing coming. It is the first thing Jesus told us.
Nor do we have to believe that hostility spells the end of Christianity. If the gospel was opposed from the start but remains with us so many years later, why do we think this modern circumstance will accomplish what the ancient persecutors could not? Do I believe that either fascists on the right or anti-Christian zealots on the left will accomplish what the Roman legions could not— the destruction of the church of our Lord? Ignatius, writing in the second century of Christianity, observed, “Christianity is greatest when it is hated by the world.” Maybe we are going to learn something important about ourselves in the years ahead.
But setting all that aside, my third and most important piece of advice for Christian disciples comes from the second half of the verse I referenced above. “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). In our age of uncertainty and fear, Christian disciples must learn to be wise and innocent at the same time.
What does it mean to be innocent and wise?
Wisdom knows that there are forces at work to oppose Christianity. “Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles” (Matthew 10:17-18). We are not naive to the reality of the age in which we live or the intentions of some of the forces at work within it.
For that matter, Paul would remind us that there are unseen forces that are more dangerous to us than the ones we do see. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:11). When I remember that we are fighting the influence of demons, the influencers of YouTube and TikTok seem a little tamer by comparison. Wisdom sees the world as it is.
But innocence trusts that God’s response to the conflict is better than any scheme I could devise. It amazes me that when Jesus issued his most dire warnings to his disciples, he usually followed with another warning against anxiety. “When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matthew 10:19–20).
Wouldn’t it be reasonable to tell the disciples to prepare a plan for undermining the forces arrayed against them? And yet, not only did Jesus not advance a particular strategy, he actually told his followers not to think too far ahead! Every attempt of the disciple to seize power in the world is an act of pride that tries to wrestle control away from God. We believe that he is not in control, and so we believe that we should be. Yet the message of Christ for his disciples was not, “Be aware and react.” He said instead, “Be aware and trust.”
Wisdom knows that opposition will come from unexpected places. “Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:21–22). Jesus warned with grim honesty that the Christian will find opposition in the most intimate spaces of their life and must be wary. “And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14).
When we feel we are losing control, we may attempt to embrace an ally who is not an ally at all. Out of fear of the political left, we endorse the faults of the political right. Out of repulsion at the hypocrisy of the political right, we embrace the ideological errors found in the political left. Or perhaps finding public figures deceitful, we put our trust in family and friends. Perhaps being disappointed in family and friends, we follow the personality cult of the latest public figure. Wisdom knows replacing one untrustworthy influence with another accomplishes nothing.
But innocence knows that the proper response to personal disappointment and opposition is not retaliation but rather patience. “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (Matthew 10:23). Innocence trusts that God will sort things out so we don’t have to. The disciples’ task is not accumulating power, doling out retribution, or even staying to the bitter end in every painful situation. Sometimes it is okay to move on to the next town or circumstance and try to be faithful there. Sometimes institutions fall, and our task is not to save them. Innocence knows our faith was never tied to these lesser foundations at all.
Above all, the disciple recognizes that this method of paired wisdom and innocence is modeled perfectly in the life of Christ. “It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master” (Matthew 10:24–25). Wisdom tells us that we cannot expect any different response in the world from Jesus’s message than he received for preaching it. We do serve a murdered Lord, after all, so what do we expect?
Innocence tells us that the meekness of Christ was a response more powerful than any plot we might devise.
Listen to Peter summarize the suffering of Christ: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). It is interesting to me that Peter’s epistle emphasizes the patient suffering of Jesus so much because it was Peter who found that type of discipleship so hard to practice. Peter met hostility in the Garden of Gethsemane by drawing a sword—wise as a serpent but not at all harmless as a dove. Remember how Jesus rebuked him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53-53) Jesus was not practicing innocence and meekness because he lacked power. Jesus was practicing innocence because it was more powerful than the sword or the legion of angels.
From the wisdom of Jesus, we learn to recognize the danger arrayed against us. From the innocence of Jesus, we learn not to pick up the enemy's tools in desperation. I am convinced that in the years ahead, Christian success will be measured neither by how hard we hurt the enemies of faith nor how doggedly we refused to acknowledge them. No, Christian success will be measured by how well we imitated the wisdom and innocence of Jesus in times of opposition.
“For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God” (1 Peter 2:19-20).
Dr. Benjamin Williams is the Senior Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his books The Faith of John’s Gospel and Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.