December 15, 2022

Christian Word of the Year: Winsome

So here’s me choosing my Christian Word Of The Year.

Drum roll please, “The Christian word of the year is WINSOME!” Taa-dah!

That’s right, winsome! It’s everywhere you look at the moment. So please step forward “winsome” and take a bow. You’ve been over-used, over-realised, under-appreciated, over-stated, undered and overed, and whatever else can happen to a poor old lonesome winsome word in these topsy turvy times.

The big take away for 2022 is how Christians can engage in the public square in a way that is winsome. And if that is even possible. And of course the big question: Is winsome a strategy or a stance? We haven’t decided yet. We haven’t decided what winsome actually means. Does it mean speaking the truth in love? And when we’re told that certain truths that Christians hold can’t be loving in the first place, then we’re being told that we’re masking hate in love language. Where does winsome land in all of that?

As the culture wars roll on, (and on and on) and Christians find themselves in the firing line on ethical matters, is winsome is our ticket out of this? That’s a great question to ask, if only we could decide what winsome actually looks like.

So exhibit A was a great article I read in the New York Times last week by an orthodox Anglican priest in the US, Tish Harrison Warren, who called for respect from both sides of the marriage debate in the US. It was a thoughtful piece from a woman who is very clear about her view that marriage is between a man and a woman, God ordained, and unchangeable in bedrock definition irrespective of government intervention.

Yet at the same time she explored that because the law of the land has changed the definition of marriage legally, then both sides in this issue must find a way to get along with living side by side and respect each other’s differences. Without that ability then it’s going to be tricky to live in the same nation, let alone suburb, with those we deeply disagree with.

She told the story of her gay friend and his “husband” and her hope that he would support her religious school’s right to promote its view of marriage without fear of funding loss, just as she recognised but did not agree with him. He laughed and said, yes. I thought it was a useful article given the times we live in.

Tish Harrison Warren seems an impressive woman. As an egalitarian in the church she even recognises and affirms complementarians and refuses the trope (sadly even found increasingly among brothers and sisters in Christ) that it’s simply a mask for patriarchy. She states this:

Pluralism is not the same as relativism — we don’t have to pretend that there is no right or wrong or that beliefs don’t matter. It is instead a commitment to form a society where individuals and groups who hold profoundly different and mutually opposed beliefs are welcome at the table of public life. It is rooted in love of neighbour and asks us to extend the same freedoms to others that we ourselves want to enjoy. Without a commitment to pluralism, we are left with a society that either forces conformity or splinters and falls apart.

It was a totally winsome article from a woman who holds to a biblical orthodox view of marriage, but who is not looking for some sort of Christian nationalism that will enforce that view on everyone else. She’s nothing if not a realist. And nothing if not winsome.

And what was the response in the comments section of The New York Times? She was shredded. Absolutely shredded. Here I was thinking, “Wow, that’s the type of response we should be able to articulate, and that’s the way we should articulate it” and the general tenor of the comments was along the lines of “bigot, hypocrite, liar, abuser”, etc, etc, etc, including “equivalent of Jim Crow racist”.

Now granted it is The New York Times, which wouldn’t recognised a Hunter Biden laptop if it tripped over it. But winsome went right to the source, with a piece that was as Winsome McWinsomeface as you could get, and still the vast bulk of well over one thousand comments were in the “shred” category.

Which is all a way of saying, if we’re going to have a conversation around winsome (and something tells me it may well be word of the year for Christians in 2023, cos this debate is only getting started), then we’d better have a clear understanding of what we mean by winsome. And by that I mean determining who gets to define whether we are being winsome or not.

That’s the point isn’t it? Is the word defined by the “winsomer” or the “winsomee”? And Christians, well-meaning Christians, who want to be viewed as winsome in the public square, and are reading through their notes carefully before they go up to the public podium, are finding that their problem is not in their delivery, it’s not in their word choice, it’s not even in their body language. No, it’s in their actual beliefs.

The problem is that the Christian perspective on marriage is viewed as hateful. And our winsomeness is being viewed as a mask, a get-out-of-jail-free card for ideas that should be banged up in solitary confinement. That’s the problem right there. And the more words you say, words like “love”, “tolerance”, “acceptance”, “pluralism” are simply seen as special pleading. They are being used by the losers in the culture war to try and carve out a city of refuge to which they can flee for safety.

In an article commenting on the Tish Harrison Warren’s piece in the New York Times, Bethel McGrew, writing in conservative Christian journal WORLD, nails the issue:

What does a better alternative look like for how Christians should speak in public? Obviously, the Bible doesn’t instruct us to be “jerks for Jesus.” If all “winsomeness” means is delivering truth in a thoughtful and compassionate way, everyone can aim for that goal. The question is, how do we define “compassion?”

So there’s the question right? Is that all “winsomeness” means? That’s the conversation we’re going to have to have, because that’s where the issue lies. McGrew is right. We shouldn’t be “jerks for Jesus”. But she goes on to call Christians to at least have the confidence to articulate what they do believe, even if that confidence is misconstrued. Winsome and confidence can go hand in hand.

McGrew is right to wade into this issue. As I see it there are two extremes. First, a whole bunch of Christians have lost patience with the cultural craziness and have just thrown up their hands and are becoming jerks for Jesus. And that’s not helpful. Something deeply ungodly is going on there.

But there’s another worry too. It’s not helpful – and it’s not biblically faithful – to flip it completely in the other direction and allow the culture to define “compassion”, and then, and only then, determine what “winsomeness” means. In other words the culture is hell-bent on refusing Christians first bite at defining compassion and then working winsome into that definition.

The culture is saying “No – that’s not compassion, no matter how you dress it up.” The Christian conundrum is that we no longer live in a setting in which we are permitted to have compassion for someone whilst disagreeing with the life choices they are making. We lost the “I love you but not what you do” argument a long time ago. Long before, incidentally, apologists and pastors were making good coin telling us how to employ that term.

But it’s not simply about disagreeing with the lifestyle choices that others are making. As far as I am concerned there are other groups to feel compassion towards than simply the group that the secular culture currently deems worthy of it. Christian brothers and sisters for one.

As a Christian leader I have deep compassion for the generation of younger Christians coming through the ranks who want to be biblically faithful and godly in their understanding and practice of sexuality, at a time when the New York Times comments section is pretty much what they get from their friends all of the time. I’m going to get off lightly compared to them.

That’s if they even want to let their friends know what they think. If my compassion doesn’t start with these brave young souls, and figuring out ways to equip them to live faithful and courageous lives in an increasingly hostile setting, then I have failed them. If my compassion doesn’t start with them, then it probably won’t extend to them.

There’s a whole bunch of young Christians looking for a lead in this area and they don’t just want to hear “be winsome”, they actually want to know what that means. If a sophisticated, warm, intellectually robust and pluralistically-rich piece like Tish Harrison Warren gets shredded, what hope do they have in the workplace? Let’s not set them up for a fall by giving them the impression that they can “out-winsome” the culture in such a way that their views on sexual ethics will somehow be respected and considered rational and reasonable in the 21st century.

If in my mind my first audience is those who have no time or place for the Christian viewpoint no matter how winsome I am, then perhaps I am in danger of losing true Christian compassion. According to Scripture the last days will be filled with lovers of self, and lovers of pleasure. And as such they will be those who redefine the term “love” in order to justify their behaviour. Whatever else we think of the modern celebration of same sex relationships, it’s a disordered love that – along with all other disordered loves – is a feature of the last days between the resurrection and return of King Jesus.

And if that comment shocks you, or perhaps indicts me as someone who is unable to be winsome in the public square, then you’d better re-read a whole chunk of the New Testament letters.

Of course the New Testament letters are for the churches, so those statements about lovers of self etc, are for Christians to read. But if your first instinct as a Christian leader is not to have compassion for the sheep that you lead by refusing to take the blows of truth-telling yourself from a hostile public square, even as you do so winsomely, then you are not the type of leader the church needs in the 21st century West.

But that’s my point. We need to go into the winsome arguments in the public square knowing that the primary problem we face is not a lack of knowledge, as if our interlocutors somehow don’t know what we believe and it’s our job to show how deftly and carefully we can navigate the public fact/private opinion divide. No, the primary problem we face is not a lack of knowledge, but the presence of godlessness. Lovers of self will be haters of God. And haters of his people. And haters of his truth.

Christians in the public square who think that somehow taking a winsome stance whilst stating orthodox Christian belief will be applauded, are still ensconced in Christendom thinking. They assume that the Christian perspective has cultural cachet and respectability. It doesn’t.

And that’s okay. That’s no reason not to be winsome. But in the end if winsome is to mean anything at all for Christians going into 2023 (and I assume these matters are not going to go away and another Essendon-esque drama will unfold, and be played out before a baying media), it has to mean clarity about what you belief.

Winsome must mean clearly articulating what you belief in a non-angry, non-sneering manner, all the while refusing the dog-whistle of the hard-right that demands you go hard or go home on the one hand, or the dog-biscuit of the left that demands you chance your views if you wish to be accepted. And that takes time. It takes work. It takes more thought than is generally afforded the pastor or Christian leader who gets door-stopped over a sermon or a comment they supposedly made.

The point that McGrew is making is that the trend is clear: winsome is going to get called out as special pleading and a mask for evil. We need to go into public debate knowing what winsome actually means.

And as for Tish Harrison Warren? Let’s revisit that last line of her quote above:

Without a commitment to pluralism, we are left with a society that either forces conformity or splinters and falls apart.

Given the responses to her article, and given the general direction of governments in the West who signal their celebration of an array of post-Christian views on human rights, I think the “commitment to pluralism” boat has already sailed. Our laws are showing that in the West we are societies that are either forcing conformity or splintering and falling apart. There are few secular voices in the public square arguing for the Christian perspective on marriage, or even campaigning to have that perspective viewed as somehow noble or equally true and equally protected as part of our public truth.

That simply means it’s going to be harder and harder to be winsome according to our terms in the public square. And therefore it’s going to be easier and easier to redefine winsome away, if the result we want at the end of it all is the approval of the public square.

As McGrew says in her piece in WORLD:

Confidence may not win us many new friends, but neither will timidity. No matter how gently our “private religious convictions” are articulated, no matter how padded about with qualifications and concessions, they will be virulently hated, as Guy Mason and Tish Warren have discovered.

Perhaps in 2023 the Christian word of the year can be “Confidence” and we can get busy defining what that means.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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