enerally speaking, avoiding conflicts is a good idea. Warmth and congeniality are normally preferable to cold harshness. Civility, compassion, and good manners are in short supply these days, and we ought to have more of them. Gentleness, a soft answer, and a kind word usually go further than an argument or a rebuke. That which edifies is more helpful and more fruitful in the long run than criticism. Cultivating friends is more pleasant and more profitable than crusading against enemies. And it's ordinarily better to be tender and mild rather than curt or combativeespecially to the victims of false teaching.
But those qualifying words are vital: usually, ordinarily, generally. Avoiding conflict is not always the right thing. Sometimes it is downright sinful. Particularly in times like these, when almost no error is deemed too serious to be excluded from the evangelical conversation, and while the Lord's flock is being infiltrated by wolves dressed like prophets, declaring visions of peace when there is no peace (cf. Ezekiel 13:16).
Even the kindest, gentlest shepherd sometimes needs to throw rocks at the wolves who come in sheep's clothing.
Was Jesus Always "Nice?"
The Great Shepherd Himself was never far from open controversy with the most conspicuously religious inhabitants in all of Israel. Almost every chapter of the gospels makes some reference to His running battle with the chief hypocrites of His day, and He made no effort whatsoever to be winsome in His encounters with them. He did not invite them to dialogue or engage in a friendly exchange of ideas.
Jesus' public ministry was barely underway when He invaded what they thought was their turfthe temple grounds in Jerusalemand went on a righteous rampage against their mercenary control of Israel's worship. He did the same thing again during the final week before His crucifixion, immediately after His triumphal entry into the city. One of His last major public discourses was the solemn pronunciation of seven woes against the scribes and Pharisees. These were formal curses He pronounced against them. That sermon was the furthest thing from a friendly dialogue. Matthew's record of it fills an entire chapter (Matthew 23), and as noted earlier, it is entirely devoid of any positive or encouraging word for the Pharisees and their followers. Luke distills and summarizes the entire message in three short versesLuke 20:45-47: "Then, in the hearing of all the people, He said to His disciples, 'Beware of the scribes, who desire to go around in long robes, love greetings in the marketplaces, the best seats in the synagogues, and the best places at feasts, who devour widows' houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. These will receive greater condemnation.'"
That is a perfect summary of Jesus' dealings with the Pharisees. It is a blistering denunciationa candid diatribe about the seriousness of their error. There is no conversation, no collegiality, no dialogue, and no cooperation. Only confrontation, condemnation, and (as Matthew records) curses against them.
Jesus' compassion is certainly evident in two facts that bracket this declamation. First, Luke says that as He drew near the city and observed its full panorama for this final time, He paused and wept over it (Luke 19:41-44). And second, Matthew records a similar lament at the end of the seven woes (Matthew 23:37). So we can be absolutely certain that as Jesus delivered this diatribe, His heart was full compassion.
Yet that compassion is directed at the victims of the false teaching, not the false teachers themselves. There is no hint of sympathy, no proposal of clemency, no trace of kindness, no effort on Jesus' part to be "nice" toward the Pharisees. Indeed, with these words Jesus formally and resoundingly pronounced their doom and then held them up publicly as a warning to others.
This is the polar opposite of any invitation to dialogue. He doesn't say, "They're basically good guys. They have pious intentions. They have some valid spiritual insights. Let's have a conversation with them." Instead, He says, "Keep your distance. Be on guard against their lifestyle and their influence. Follow them, and you are headed for the same condemnation as them."
This approach would surely have earned Jesus an resounding outpouring of loud disapproval from today's guardians of evangelical protocol. In fact, His approach to the Pharisees utterly debunks the cardinal points of conventional wisdom among modern and postmodern evangelicalsthe neo-evangelical fondness for eternal collegiality, and the Emerging infatuation with engaging all points of view in endless conversation. By today's standards, Jesus words about the Pharisees and His treatment of them are breathtakingly severe.