The Doctrine of Grace vs. the Disposition of Grace

The way you hold a position is oftentimes just as important as the position you hold.

David Zahl / 3.23.21

The way you hold a position is oftentimes just as important as the position you hold.

My brother John said that to me recently in reference to what he’d learned from 20 years of public ministry. I’ve heard myself repeating it ever since. And not just as it relates to religion.

His words reminded me of a hot July day ten years ago, sitting in stand-still traffic outside New York City and watching in amazement as a church van a few lanes over decided to “redeem the time” by getting out a megaphone and reciting scripture to the rest of us. As you might imagine, there were no sudden conversions or hallelujahs; people were annoyed and, this being New York, they made their feelings known in a colorful way.

The lesson I took from it was that you cannot communicate the gospel confrontationally, i.e., you cannot convey a message of grace in a non-gracious or overbearing way. Just like you cannot talk about justice in an unjust manner. The meaning does not compute — not on Twitter and not when someone corners you with advice offline. The circuits simply don’t match up. This is not a matter of “should” or “shouldn’t” but “can’t,” not dissimilar to what Marilynne Robinson meant when she quipped that “Nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense.”

It was something far more unassuming than a megaphone that converted the evangelist John Wimber. A musician at the time — and flat broke — he was looking for money from his drug-dealing friend. On his way to the meet up, he passed a man wearing an odd sign. The front read “I’m a fool for Christ” with “whose fool are you?” on the back. This guy wasn’t shouting or berating people to repent. He just stood there, looking foolish. Years later, Wimber would point to that placard as the start of his conversion and eventual ministry.

What brought these instances to mind was columnist David French’s recent piece on The Dispatch, “Cruelty Is Apostasy,” about popular Bible teacher Beth Moore leaving the Southern Baptist Convention. In his view, the reasons for her departure had as much to do with the cruelty to which she was subjected by members of her former denomination as it did with any actual theological divergence.

I don’t know the in’s and out’s of that situation, but I cannot imagine he’s too far off base. Again, as per James K. A. Smith’s essay a few weeks ago, spiritual traffic flows through the heart before it reaches the head.

French puts it this way:

The truly important emerging divisions in the Evangelical church [and wider world] aren’t just theological or ideological. They’re also dispositional and temperamental … In evaluating the reality of the last five years, what has been more salient and relevant to the daily lives of so many American Christians, the fact of disagreement with brothers and sisters or the manner of disagreement with brothers and sisters?

There is a tremendous, yawning difference between humble and kind members of competing Evangelical factions and cruel and self-righteous gladiators in the public square. It’s not merely or mainly the ideological differences that tear apart friendships, it’s the knowledge… that every word from your mouth “will lead to psychological warfare.”[…]

There is no single church faction or ideological side that has a monopoly on cruelty. The spirit of the age declares that if you get the “big” things correct then cruelty and self-righteousness in the pursuit of those goals are either minor flaws (“bad manners”) or outright virtues (after all, didn’t Jesus drive the money-changers from the temple with a whip?) …

It’s as if kindness to your opponents is somehow seen as evidence of insufficient devotion to your righteous cause.

These dynamics apply far beyond intra-Evangelical stone-throwing, obvi; as far as I can tell they characterize the vast majority of online discourse of any kind. As the Onion reported, “‘We Can Have Differences Of Opinion And Still Respect Each Other,’ Says Betrayer Of The One True Cause.” Vegan YouTubers, eat your hearts out.

Fundie attitudes are notoriously adaptable. The same guy who used to rock the megaphone at youth group is now promoting his ex-vangelical TikTok account in a similarly shrill manner. He had a change of mind but not of heart.

French himself has drawn significant blowback (confirmation?) from fellow Christians for espousing a magnanimous approach to culture war concerns. Pundits who favor a more antagonistic approach have denounced his geniality as a luxury that can no longer be afforded. He’s far too nice, in other words.

Yet when I read his commentary, “nice” isn’t the first word I think of (though there is a generosity that’s refreshing and increasingly rare when it comes to the intersection of politics and religion). He just doesn’t come off as particularly angry or aggrieved. Even when I disagree with his point of view, French seems, well, reasonable.

But maybe that’s my own bias coming through; doubtless those who he and Moore have publicly condemned these past few years wouldn’t concur.

Still, to those who would claim it is cowardly or convenient to err on the side of grace in public discourse, just try it. It is SO much harder to pull off an irenic attitude for any period of time than it is to succumb to gut instinct, blame, and scorn. Especially when the internet so clearly favors (and rewards!) the latter.

While disposition may not be the whole loaf, it explains a lot more than ideology on its own. I was talking to some college students recently, and they were complaining about a group of peers who had taken it upon themselves to report anyone violating the university’s protocols for gathering. As they described the “narcs” in question, I couldn’t help but chuckle. When I was in college, conservatives were the ones perceived as being anti-fun. The group they described was composed almost exclusively of progressives. The motivating convictions were different, but the finger-wagging, power-happy disposition was the same. That disposition has a way of attaching itself to authority, whatever the ideological underpinning.

Steer clear, I urged them, as it seldom ends well with such folks. You will transgress eventually.

On the flip side, stick close to those who exude a gracious disposition, both in life and in church, even if their professed theology (or politics) seems lacking. The Spirit seldom checks the boxes we require. This is a refrain we repeated so much in the Church episode of The Brothers Zahl that I had to edit out three mentions of it.

When it comes to houses of worship, the beliefs a church espouses on their website are only one part of discerning whether to attend. Disposition is a separate and highly underrated factor.

Ideally you find a place that both preaches and embodies grace, but if you can only find one, go with the latter (and listen to sermons online). Because a gracious disposition can convey in non-verbal terms what the sermon lacks. The reverse is not true, sadly. It doesn’t mean the doctrine of grace itself isn’t essential – in fact, you could say it’s a measure of just how essential it is!

Jesus might have thrown out the money changers, but when marshaled in defense of being uncharitable to one’s “enemies,” the appeal strikes me as particularly rich. Because the money changers in our online discourse are not those with whom we disagree. Or even those who oppose the cause we hold dear. The money changers are the cynics profiting from our devotion. And nothing generates more cash for the gatekeepers in Silicon Valley — and keeps us temple-goers spiritually impoverished — than a steady stream of righteous-sounding vitriol directed at our neighbors. That’s what keeps us clicking and escalating, engaged and enraged.

When Jesus drove the money changers out, he was dismantling the hierarchy of merit — both moral and financial — when it came to God. He was not giving us an excuse to line their pockets even more heavily.

All this to say, brother John Z was right: the way you hold a position is very often as important as the position you hold. But it’s especially important when that position begins with the acknowledgment that all of us have significant blind-spots, and that no one ever changes their mind by sheer accusation. Antagonism antagonizes. And yet, as French writes, “human beings need forgiveness and kindness like we need oxygen.” Amen.

Of course, the position John had in mind also entails that no one will communicate it 100% correctly, that the Spirit can use pretty much any means it desires. As long as we’re placing our hope in the Christian’s ability to be kind, rather than the Christ’s sacrificial kindness toward those who deserve anything but, we’re lost.

There is a stark mismatch between our near-infinite ability to talk about kindness (or whatever moral value we cherish at the moment) and our ability to actually embody it. The starting point for human charity, come to find out, isn’t being sufficiently lectured about it, but the receipt of charity when you’re least disposed to expect it.

Which is a long-winded way of saying, I’m grateful that God’s grace is more than a position or a posture. It’s a person.

Now, where’s my megaphone?! Cause someone really ought to start a denomination.