Winsomeness, Wisdom, and the Way of Jesus: A Few Reflections on Christ and Culture from John 6

IMG_6015Winsome win(t)-səmgenerally pleasing and engaging often because of a childlike charm and innocence; cheerful, lighthearted.

In the last few weeks, the word winsome has generated lots of discussion as various Christians have considered various ways the church has or has not properly engaged culture.

This all started with Aaron Renn’s article outlining evangelicalism into positive, neutral, and negative worlds. It continued with James Wood’s two posts on his critical appreciation for Tim Keller. And these two articles set off a firestorm of other articles variously critical of Wood. In all of this kerfuffle, I have found Kevin DeYoung’s non-specific and biblical response and Doug Wilson’s earlier appraisal of Renn’s article most helpful. (If you read any of these articles, start with DeYoung’s.)

For my contribution, I simply want to point to the sermon I preached Sunday, which engaged with the word winsome. Admittedly, I overshot many in my congregation in addressing the problems of winsomeness—a good reminder that what happens online does not best capture what happens in real life. As I learned Sunday night, more than a few members of our community group had to look up the word. Clearly, and thankfully(!), they are not attuned to the latest tirade on Twitter.

If I permit myself to offer one defense missing the mark on Sunday, it is this: I did not preach the message on John 6 as an attempt to gainsay the online debate. It was only on Sunday afternoon that I fell down the rabbit hole of the articles listed above. To be most transparent, I was aware of the Wood articles last week, but not the onslaught that followed. And for that, I am thankful.

In the context of the sermon, John 6 is a text where Jesus is dealing with a hostile world and a place where we Jesus’s response is not ostensibly winsome. In fact, as the Gospels teach us, he often responds to situations in counter-intuitive ways. He is compassionate to the Samaritan woman—who I have argued is not immoral, but a true seeker (John 4). He is baffling to Nicodemus, the religious teacher (John 3). And in John 6, he is intentionally provocative, not winsome, as he seeks to expose the unbelief of his audience.

In short, there is no single way to engage culture, and it takes great wisdom to know when and how to speak in a manner that reflects Christ. Perhaps, I’ll write a post on Proverbs that considers the wisdom of being winsome. For now, I will offer the introduction to my sermon, which calls us back to Scripture and to avoid winsomeness, when it is a reaction to the fundamentalist spirit.

In truth, any time we over-correct a previous error—whether that error be personal, or generational, or traditional (i.e., some tradition or coalition in the church)—we are likely to err in the other direction. Third-way-ism, which is considered in the posts above, is correct when it derives its boundaries from Scripture, but when it simply seeks to pull left of the fundamentalists or right of the woke, it will always go too far. Like on the highway, high speed overcorrections lead to accidents.

This is not to say that we don’t do this. All of us are products, and counter-products, of our environments. But if we are to have any chance of engaging the world with gentle and respect (1 Pet. 3:15) and without fear of man (Gal. 1:10), then we must let Scripture be our guide. In this sermon, that is what I am trying to do, in showing how Jesus announcement that he is the Bread of Life stands over against a hostile world. His model invites us to consider the strengths and weaknesses of winsomeness, and to set our gauges not by those other people, but by Jesus Christ himself. To that end let’s consider Jesus in John 6.

A Sermon Introduction on Winsomeness

Over the last decade or so the word winsome has become a well-worn adjective for all things Christian. Consider a few ways that it is emphasized or employed.

  • When it comes to evangelism, we want to be winsome, lest our attitude offend and close opportunities for sharing Christ.
  • When discussing politics we want to be winsome, lest our political convictions interfere with our evangelism and relationships with unbelievers.
  • When church planting or church partnering ,we want to associate ourselves with winsome leaders, lest our connections hinder our witness.

In short, winsome is the way to win the lost, winsome is the way to avoid party politics, and winsome is the way to build coalitions. Yet, for all the positives of being winsome and for the ways it corrects being mean-spirited, winsomeness has weaknesses too.

For instance, over emphasis on winsomeness can elevate friendships over faithfulness, and donor blocks over doctrinal fidelity. Similarly, undo attention to winsomeness can cultivate a fear of man where we care more about the opinions of others than the commands of God. So too, winsomeness can set loose the tone police to correct anyone or anything that appears to be unseemly, harsh, or un-sympathetic. But this is where we should give pause, if we see winsomeness as an unqualified good.

What would the tone police have said to Jesus when he was overturning tables in the temple (John 2:15–16)? Or when Jesus called some political leaders whitewashed tombs and others a brood of vipers—in the same excoriation no less! (Matt. 23:27, 33). Moreover, what would the champions of winsomeness do with Ezekiel as the prophet began talking about horse genitalia (Ezek. 23:20) and the lusts of certain women in Israel (Ezekiel 16, 23).

Clearly, his Twitter account would have been muted and those in Israel would have been warned, “This guy has gone too far and his views are too radical.” Such is the weakness of winsomeness, when we make winsomeness our singular strategy for reaching the lost.

If we return to the Bible, however, we will see how Jesus is tender and tough, gentle and holy, virtuous and vigilant. Indeed, by looking at Jesus in the fullness of his grace and wrath, we find a corrective to our overcorrections. Such a look at Bible is important because of the way that zealous Christians can often seek to correct history without first considering the whole counsel of God.

If you look at the American church over the last hundred years, there have been some bad teachings and some harsh teachers. Often, these harsh teachers are labeled fundamentalists. And the call for winsomeness has sought to correct this error. In fact, many who are doubling down on winsomeness are happy to re-apply the label fundamentalist today.

Yet, whenever we overturn errors by focusing on not being like others, we will always go astray. The photo-negative of bad is still bad. Not repeating the strictness of your parents, or not letting your children go wild like you did in your college years is not the biblical way to godly parenting. And the reason is that whenever the goal is to avoid one ditch, we will always fall into the other. And such is any form of winsomeness that overcorrects against fundamentalism. And vice versa!

Lest we forget, fundamentalism before it was a pejorative label was a commitment to the fundamentals of the faith. The Christians who stood for these fundamentals did so to preserve orthodoxy over against the Protestant liberals of the early twentieth century, men and women who denied God’s Word, God’s Son, and God’s supernatural salvation.

In fact, the word fundamentalism comes from a series of articles published from 1910–1915 called the The Fundamentals. If you read these articles today, most Bible-believing Christians would find most of the doctrines they believe. Sadly, in the years after the Fundamentals were published, there were many “Fundamentalists’ who traded biblical orthodoxy for hard-shelled traditionalism. And the latter shell of fundamentalism is what is seen and avoided today. And hence the calls for winsomeness.

But if winsomeness is nothing more than the avoidance of a fundamentalist spirit, then winsomeness will be just as misleading as the fundamentalist spirit it seeks to avoid. Insert, the Spiderman pointing meme here.

What’s the Point?

In all of this discussion then, we need to come back to the Bible and ask: How did Jesus engage a hostile world? Do we find winsomeness in his approach? Or wrath? Or both?

If we read through the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament, our answer comes back in two words: It depends. And just like any situation we face, it will also depend. And thus we need to give fuller attention to the full counsel of Scripture, while avoiding the shortcut of “not being like those guys!”

Such biblical engagement requires far more than what I offer here, but in this sermon on John 6:41–59, I give one look at the way Jesus responds to a hostile world. And I believe there are more than a few things we can learn in his approach. Indeed, from John 6 we are called to feed on the Bread of Life, so that we can in turn wisely—more than winsomely—proclaim Christ to the world.

To that end, let us hold fast to Christ, as we seek to be Christ-like ambassadors in the world.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds