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Conflict is inevitable. Even if you’re the kind of person who goes out of their way to never say or do anything provocative or contrary, you’ll find yourself in a confrontation. Maturity comes in learning to navigate it, and more importantly, in learning not to avoid it.

Jesus says it this way, “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you . . .” (Lk. 6:26) It’s not a sign that you’re on the right track. In fact, it probably means that you’re not. Jesus finishes the statement this way, “so their fathers did to the false prophets.” The implication is that being aligned with truth will create friction with people around you. If there’s no friction, there’s probably little substance.

Winston Churchill agrees:

“You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”—Winston Churchill

The whole New Testament promises that followers of Jesus will find themselves at odds with their culture. John tells us not to be surprised that the world hates us (1 Jn 3:13).

Being hated by the right people for the right reasons

But here’s the thing I think every time I see someone share this Winston Churchill quote: just because someone’s mad at you doesn’t mean you’re standing up for truth. The truth is that you might just be a jerk. If I had a nickel for every time someone used “I’m just telling you the truth” as a pretext for being insufferable, I’d be on Creflo Dollar’s fundraising email list.

One of the biggest problems with Christianity’s public image is that too many Christians are perfectly happy picking fights with anyone. Because they see “standing up for their faith” as a virtue, they judge their faithfulness by conflict.

There’s no question that conflict is unavoidable, and that people serious about Christ’s message are going to find themselves in contention with others. The question we need to be asking is, “are we in conflict with the right people for the right reasons?”

Who would Jesus piss off?

Christianity’s message doesn’t change . . . and I don’t think the institutions and people challenged by it do either. Jesus encourages us to take up our cross and follow him. Obviously we’re following him to a crucifixion. We just need to make sure we’re willing to die on the right hill.

Who was challenged by Jesus? Who did he come into conflict with? Who was willing to have him killed? We need to answer these questions to know whether or not we’re engaging our culture in a way that honors the Gospel. So if we’re truly like Jesus, who are going to be pissing off?

1. The powerful

Jesus wasn’t even potty trained before he found himself in the crosshairs of the establishment. Herod was willing to kill a town full of children to ensure that his authority wasn’t challenged. His power came from his religious affiliation, and he was going to kill the messiah in order to maintain the status quo.

Jesus didn’t fair much better with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the governing body of the Sanhedrin.

It’s important to point out that it wasn’t because he was inciting rebellion against authority figures. He was still encouraging people to submit to their authority (Matt. 23:2–3). But all the while he was undermining the control they exerted through shame and religious intimidation.

You can’t get around the fact that when Jesus’ did come into direct conflict with authority, it was on behalf of people. Whether he was standing between a woman caught adultery (John 8)—a woman who orthodoxy would say should have been killed (Lev. 20:10), or turning over tables in the temple, he stood firmly on the side of broken humanity.

I can hear my detractors saying, “Well, Jesus did tell the woman to go and sin no more.” Yeah, after he put his life on the line to protect her from the mob. His willingness to be counted among society’s less desirable individuals gave him tremendous influence. And we don’t know the tone of voice that was used. I imagine it to be kind and said with concern. Most people who think they’re in a “culture war” imagine it was said through gritted teeth.

Jesus spoke truth to power, and power got butthurt.

2. The orthodox

Trigger warning: If you are uncomfortable with ambiguity, you might want to skip this section. It’s only going to make you break a molar or write me mean emails.

First-century Jewish culture had scrolls inspired by God. These scrolls were copied and interpreted by priests and lawyers—and the life that they prescribed from their analysis of Scripture wasn’t ideal. It wasn’t just that they were wrong at points, it’s that when they were right, they extrapolated truth in ways that hurt people.

Purity was a huge element of religious culture which means one couldn’t associate with the wrong element. An orthodox gentleman better avoid women (let alone prostitutes), Samaritans, tax gatherers, the demonized, etc. Understand, this wasn’t just a different choice, it was an affront to conventional Judaism and the Jewish understanding of holiness.

One of my favorite moments in the gospels centers around Jesus taking up a Pharisee on his offer to dine with him. A woman of ill repute, likely a prostitute, comes in and starts carrying on and weeping, anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive oil, washing them with her tears and wiping them with her hair. The Pharisee remarks with a scoff that, “if Jesus was really a prophet, he wouldn’t let this woman near him because she’s a sinner.” He says this because obviously everyone at the table subscribes to the same image-oriented view of righteousness. Needless to say, Jesus takes this guy to task (Lk. 7).

Christ’s frustration with the Pharisees was that their orthodoxy was used to control others, and not to liberate them. Ultimately, their orthodoxy was pretense (Matt. 23:2). They did the visible things that made them look devout, and neglected the true acts of devotion (which no one would see).

As Jesus points out in his parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9–14), the temptation of orthodoxy is self-righteousness—defining your closeness to God by how right you are, and not be how zealous you are to be close to God. Orthodoxy too easily becomes tribalism and exclusivity. And while the tax-gatherer is probably closer to God because of his contrite spirit and desire for reconciliation, the Pharisee wears his righteousness like a badge.

Don’t get me wrong. I think we should all be striving to get as close to theological accuracy as possible. I am in no way advocating for having no doctrines or right practices. I’m saying Jesus would be against us finding our value or worth in them, or using them to exclude others. Every sect has it’s own flavor of orthodoxy, and that should humble and not embolden us.

You might pride yourself on all the visible religious elements: how often you attend church, your understanding of Calvinism (or some other “ism”), or the fact that you don’t swear. What is true about your relationship to God will not be seen by anyone else. These secret acts of devotion: prayer, charity, kindness, Bible reading for personal edification—these are the identifiers of a submitted heart.

If our orthodoxy is simply a convenient boundary between us and those that are unwelcome, you can guarantee that we’ll find ourselves on the receiving end of Jesus’ contempt.

Choosing the right side

We are not at war with our culture. We are at war with every boundary erected between common people and the Gospel. Too often this is a religious culture that wants to align itself with power in order to legislate holiness. Jesus was willing to be at odds with the power structures in order to build relationships with the people who needed an advocate.

If you’re getting pats on the back for “telling the truth” to sinners or standing up to them because of your values, you might just be aligning yourself against Jesus.