In her heartbreaking book, Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, Jill Leovy unveils for the reading public the harsh realities of crime in inner-city L.A. Following the story of John Skaggs, an LAPD detective and the book’s main protagonist, Leovy describes in detail the nature of homicide investigation in a city that records an average of 280 murders a year.
Work in this environment is, as one could imagine, particularly demanding. One of the challenges of the job is overcoming fear of reprisal so that you are able to conduct your investigations without bias. Leovy describes a situation where Doreen Hudson, a civilian who ran the DNA lab for the LAPD, was actually disturbed by the recent positive progress her team had made in a homicide case.
Hudson listened, frowning. It might seem strange that she did not rejoice upon learning that Coughlin’s seized revolver was the murder weapon. But hunting for a killer is frightening, the more so as a case advances. Enforcing criminal law against violent offenders is one of the most dangerous tasks a state can perform, and for frontline workers, the danger is visceral. Skaggs speculated that some of his underperforming colleagues were held back by subconscious fear. Each step toward an arrest increased the pressure; not catching a killer could feel safer. When Hudson learned of Rubin’s match, she felt not triumph but dread and anxiety.Ghettoside, 145-46
When retaliation from a convicted murder’s family, friends, or fellow gang members becomes a possibility, it’s not far-fetched to surmise that those directly involved in investigating the case may be a little hesitant to actually solve it. Even relatives of murder victims were known to be hesitant, if not downright resistant, to cooperating with police out of fear of retribution. It’s no wonder that Skaggs hypothesized that the fear of reprisal was hindering his fellow investigators from drawing sharp conclusions about the evidence.
The Fear of Man Lays a Snare
The fear of man is powerful. I don’t pretend to know the weight that these investigators and the family members of murder victims feel as they are confronted with the possibility of lethal retribution for contributing vital information to the case. But I do know the temptation to pump the breaks when I get close to a theological conviction that may bring about undesirable circumstances in my life.
When faced with monetary loss, career instability, relational fracture, public disdain, or lethal reprisal due to what we believe, we may be tempted to back off from certain conclusions about what the Bible really teaches and take a broader, more pleasant path. This path, though initially more agreeable, usually contains dangers worse than the ones we first sought to avoid (Prov 29:25).
But if we desire to persevere in our walk with Christ and develop clear convictions about what Scripture teaches and how to apply it to our lives and the broader culture, we must begin in the right place. If the initial starting point is off, the trajectory will be askew, and the drift only gets worse over time.
A Rugged Commitment to (Only) Please Christ
The apostle Paul was no stranger to opposition. His unwavering commitment to Christ and the truth of the gospel garnered many enemies. Despite the opposition, Paul maintained a steady course and remained faithful to Christ until the end of his life (2 Tim 4:7). How did he do it?
There are many factors that played into Paul’s steadfast walk with Christ. The bedrock of his faith was God’s work to uphold him in the midst of an exceedingly difficult and dangerous ministry (Rom 8:32-39; 2 Cor 3:5). From a human perspective, however, Paul had taken an approach to life that enabled him to navigate even the most mind-bending circumstances.
It wasn’t that Paul never experienced the temptation to fear people; it is that he had determined that in every circumstance, he would seek to please Christ rather than man. We get a glimpse into the power of this commitment in the first two chapters of Galatians.
The churches in the Galatian region were beginning to succumb to the legalistic onslaughts of a group of Judaizers—people who claimed the name of Christ but who also required following Old Covenant practices (e.g., circumcision) in order to secure one’s relationship with God. Having added to the free grace of Christ, these false teachers had corrupted the good news and endangered the souls of those who believed their pseudo-gospel. Sadly, the Galatian churches had started to drink from this poisoned well.
It was essential, therefore, that Paul address this problem immediately. Early in the apostle’s letter we read these stern words:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.Galatians 1:6-9
In light of the goodness of God’s grace in Christ, Paul was beside himself how a people who had tasted the gospel could start to cozy up to legalistic false teachers. He reorients the Galatians back to the message they had originally heard, implying, of course, that there was an objective set of truths about Christ that had to be believed in order to experience genuine salvation. Anyone who tinkered with that original message—even if they had apostolic credentials—was worthy of an eternal curse.
Paul recognized that in saying such things he would reap the reproach of a host of crafty yet unorthodox teachers circling the Galatian churches. But he was also aware that his courage had to encompass more than just rebuking the obvious heretics: he couldn’t allow any man, outsider or insider, to derail his commitment to Christ and the gospel.
For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.Galatians 1:10
When it came to defending the truth of the gospel, Paul fixed it in his mind that he wouldn’t seek the approval of anyone except Christ and Christ alone, come what may.
Not Seeking the Approval of those Outside or Inside
Many of us, I suspect, would give Paul a hearty pat on the back for his unwillingness to yield to the false teachers. But how many of us recognize that Paul’s commitment to please only Christ also drew him into conflict with someone with whom he had gospel agreement? Not only does an unwavering resolve to defend the gospel bring you into opposition with false teachers, it may, at times, bring you into opposition with those from whom you are the most tempted to curry favor.
Peter was the apostle of the apostles, a leader among leaders, a disciple of Jesus himself and a regenerate believer before Paul was on the scene. But position, authority, prestige among the community of faith, and even Peter’s degree from Jesus Seminary didn’t divert Paul’s commitment from the truth (Gal 2:6).
When Peter’s partiality toward ethnic Jews ostracized Gentile Christians and compromised the universality of the gospel message, Paul took immediate action and confronted the erring apostle. It didn’t matter who the person was, where they had come from, with whom they associated, or the reputation they enjoyed among other Christians; Paul’s determination to please Christ and Christ alone led him to oppose those on the outside and those on the inside when either group departed from the gospel.
Importantly, Paul’s report of his episode with Peter reveals that Peter’s lapse in judgment had stemmed from the fear of man.
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.Galatians 2:11-12
Prior to a visit from some influential Jews (i.e., “the circumcision party”), Peter had been enjoying meals with his Gentile brothers in Christ. The gospel of justification by faith alone in Christ alone had removed all divisions between ethnic Jews and Gentiles because both groups stood under the same condemnation and received the same salvation in the same way (Gal 2:16; 3:23). Spiritually, they were equals: children of God and siblings of one another.
But when some important people with a few key differences in their biblical interpretations arrived, Peter pushed back from the Gentile table and joined the Jews so he wouldn’t have to bear the scorn of his countrymen. This, as Paul observed, was hypocrisy because it was insincere and contrary to what Peter really believed and the way he had previously conducted himself. Peter’s conduct also undermined the gospel because it implied that the grace of Christ was only for a certain class of people. Peter’s hypocrisy even influenced other leaders (Gal 2:13).
Paul’s determination to please only Christ and resist the fear of man is contrasted with Peter’s lack of resolve at this very point. That’s not to suggest that Peter was a habitual man-pleaser; this was an isolated incident and uncharacteristic of post-Pentecost Peter (see Acts 2:14ff.). But the comparison between these two on this issue of the fear of man is evident. Forever fixed in Scripture is Peter’s cowardly lack of resolve set in juxtaposition with the courageous boldness of Paul who had determined to please Christ and only Christ in each and every scenario.
Intellectual Fog or Theological Clarity?
The application for us should be evident. If we are going to remain steadfast in our walk with Christ and maintain sharp, unswerving biblical convictions, we must determine that when it comes to the truth of the gospel and obedience to the Word of God, we will seek, above all else, to please Christ rather than men.
If we fail to imprint this commitment on our hearts, we will find ourselves disabled from embracing hard biblical truths that may cost us relationally, financially, or socially. We must ask ourselves: Is our hesitation to come to a conclusion about an important biblical teaching and its application due to our need for more study and growth in knowledge, or is our fear of man creating an intellectual fog and lack of theological clarity?
We must also be aware of the temptation to fear those with whom we might have much agreement. It is easy to justify seeking the approval of our theological cohorts because they are our spiritual siblings and we share Christ in common with them. But trying to impress our brothers or sisters in Christ is just another form of man-pleasing. Like Paul, we must be willing to hold fast to Christ and his truth, even if it means going against the grain of our theological tribe.
Certainly, this is not an encouragement to become proud and unteachable or to mistake sinful obstinance for godly boldness. It’s quite possible to seek the glory of being known for how many people you oppose. Nevertheless, it is a reminder that the sharpness of our convictions will depend in large measure on our willingness to seek the approval of Christ above all else, and bear the reproach for walking in accord with the truth.