‘The church is in a mess.’ ‘We have cowards in the pulpits.’ ‘There is rampant sin in the pews.’ ‘Believers have lost their backbone.’ I and others are often making statements like this. They are all-inclusive or stereotypical statements. Examples of this are legion of course. I might say any number of things which use rhetorical devices of all-inclusion or generalisation:
-we have become slaves to the world
-where are all the men of faith?
-God’s people love the world more than God
-we are nothing like the New Testament church
-we are in great need of repentance
-why are we so far from where Christ wants us to be?
Does that mean I or others believe there are no true believers or churches anywhere? Of course not. We are using deliberately strong language to make a point – and to also include ourselves in such warnings or concerns. We all know (did I just make another all-inclusive claim?) that God is at work in the world and many good things are happening. But we also realise there are many problems.
As we will see in a moment, such rhetoric is a common feature of biblical testimony, especially among the prophets. But often when I use such language, the critics seem to come out of the woodwork. I often will write an article, post something on social media, or say something with a fully biblical rhetorical fashion, only to get attacked for it.
As a simple example, I might make a comment such as this: “the church is in a mess”. It is a generalised or all-inclusive statement designed to have some effect, and challenge the hearers. Thus it is a rhetorical device, but one which is meant to add some punch and stir up my hearers.
It is a very common rhetorical device. So do I mean by that that the entire church everywhere on the planet is only always screwed up? Of course not. There are always exceptions to anything, and many churches are doing a good job, but generally speaking this is a fully correct statement – certainly when describing things in the West.
My point is quite simple: the church is in a mess, and we all can do better here. Yet so often when I say or write something like this I get all these Christians coming out of the woodwork to blast me. And often it is someone I otherwise never hear from. They never seem to come to praise you; but only open their mouths when they want to criticise you!
This must be their idea of WWJD sadly! So there I was, with the best of intentions, seeking to stir up the church and encourage believers, only to get slammed by some believer who thinks I was being unhelpful in my remarks. They will invariably come out with something like this:
-but my church is not like this
-you are over-generalising here
-don’t be so broad in your statements, etc.
So these folks are committing two errors in my books: One, they are missing entirely the point of what I am trying to say, and two, they seem to be clueless as to how prophetic utterances and biblical rhetoric work. As but one example, a friendly critic recently said this: “The church is wide. The title should read ‘time for some spring cleaning in one of the church’s cupboards’. I know it wouldn’t be as catchy but it would be truer.”
No, it sure isn’t catchy. Which is exactly why such watered-down and half-hearted statements are rarely used when God is stirring up his spokesmen to get his message out. But these critics, instead of getting the gist of what I am trying to do, and instead of letting God speak to them and spur them on to bigger and better things for Christ, actually get all in a huff. Instead of letting God’s Spirit speak to them about how they can go further on for Christ, they get all defensive and grumpy.
One thing I have learned over the years is this: those who are the most humble and open Christians are those who will always hear God speaking from any quarter. They will always apply the word spoken or prophetic utterance given to themselves first.
But the proud and self righteous will always (there I go again, using generalisations) get upset with you, want to argue with you, and not receive what is being said, or receive the spirit in which something is being given. So we have a double problem here of misunderstanding rhetorical language, and of not being receptive to God’s word.
As to the first point, they seem to be totally unaware that this is always how God’s spokesmen have spoken, both in the Bible and church history. This is just common practice to help make a point and bring some emphasis. It happens throughout Scripture and elsewhere.
Let me just take one example from recent US history. Martin Luther King Jr used plenty of such language in order to make a more powerful, more challenging, more convicting, and more inspiring speech. Part of it goes:
I have a dream today! I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today! I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”
Now, his critics would have said, “Hey Luther, not everyone in Alabama is a racist. You are using all-inclusive language here which is just not helpful. You should have said ‘some racists’ etc.” Yes he could have toned everything down to assuage these bothersome critics, but no one would remember such a speech today, and blacks might still be second class citizens in America.
And also notice the biblical text he uses – that too is loaded with such inclusive and all-encompassing language. Will every hill indeed be made low? Or is this yet another example of biblical rhetorical language? Such rhetorical devices are found all throughout Scripture of course, with the prophets, Jesus and the disciples all using them frequently.
Let me give just a few examples of this utilising just a few of these all-inclusive words: always and never. How often are these words used by the prophets and others?
-Jeremiah 8:5: Why then have these people turned away? Why does Jerusalem always turn away? They cling to deceit; they refuse to return.
-Acts 7:51: “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit!
Always? Without any exceptions?
-Isaiah 56:11: They are dogs with mighty appetites; they never have enough. They are shepherds who lack understanding; they all turn to their own way, they seek their own gain.
-Matthew 13:14: In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.”
Never? Without any exceptions?
In these examples and plenty others like them we find the use of exaggeration or over-generalisation to make a point. So it is a very common and well accepted rhetorical device which I am also happy to often use. And plenty of times I do offer a rider to what I am saying. Often I will use words of qualification as well, such as: most, many, often, usually, etc.
And many times in my articles I will make these obvious disclaimers, such as:
-of course there are some good churches around
-fortunately not all pastors have lost the plot
-thankfully we still have some Bible colleges standing strong
But it is to have an effect that such rhetorical devices are used by me and others. Great men of God have also used such rhetorical devices. Consider just a few. George Whitefield could say: “The Christian world is in a deep sleep and nothing but a loud voice can waken them out of it.”
A. W. Tozer used this device constantly:
“The ‘deeper life’ is deeper only because the average Christian life is tragically shallow.”
“Never has there been more activity in religious circles and, I confidently believe, never has there been so little of God and so much of the flesh.”
“I have preached myself off of every Bible Conference platform in the country.”
“The Holy Spirit is not necessary to the church; we have arranged it so that he is not required. He has been displaced by what we call ‘programming’ and by social activity.”
Leonard Ravenhill said things like this:
“The Church used to be a lifeboat rescuing the perishing. Now she is a cruise ship recruiting the promising.”
“We have an all-time high in church attendance with a corresponding all-time low in spirituality.”
“I get calls from all over the world, everyone wants my anointing and mantle… but nobody wants my sackcloth and ashes.”
In each case (and there are plenty more like them) the use of stereotypical, exaggerated or all-inclusive language is being used – and with powerful effect. Sure, to appease the many critics, Tozer could have offered us mealy-mouthed statements like this:
“The Holy Spirit is often not very necessary in some parts of the church; we quite often have arranged it so that he is not required. He has often been displaced by what we call ‘programming’ and by social activity. Sure, this is not true of every church, and I don’t want to be seen as judgmental here.”
Um, I know which version I prefer. I know which one carries Holy Ghost power and authority. Yet the critics will just not get it. They will offer their silly criticisms about not being nuanced enough or being too broad-brushed. I can just imagine the same critics who just don’t get it condemning Jesus for also making such strong and absolute statements.
Take just one text – Mark 7:6-8: He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”
‘But Jesus – and Isaiah – you are being too intolerant here, and too absolute. Surely not everyone is like this. Surely not all people deserve this rebuke!’ As I say, they miss the point doubly: they do not recognise the use of rhetorical language to make a point, and they are proud and arrogant, refusing to let God’s word first soak into their own hearts.
I of course do not claim to be a Jesus or a Isaiah or a Tozer. But I do have a burning desire to encourage, exhort and stir up the entire body of Christ to be fully sold out to Christ and the Kingdom. And I include myself in such exhortations. I too desperately need to hear what has been said.
So I will keep using such rhetorical devices, just as the biblical writers and the saints of God have always done. Those who don’t like it may just have to go elsewhere I am afraid.