I wish there was a seminary course called “Overturning Tables in the Church: When and How to Do It.”
The Christian leader, after all, is more than a teacher. He is a soldier, and he must know how and when to fight (2 Tim 2:3-4). He must know when, and how, to turn over tables.
My graduate and post-graduate training in expository preaching and biblical counseling included courses on a plethora of theological topics. But there’s a reason why formal theological education, though essential to ministerial training, is not comprehensive. Certain skills can only be learned in the trenches of church ministry and leadership experience. And while there isn’t a seminary course on how to overturn tables, the topic is crucial, for unless a leader knows when and how to fight, he cannot be a leader.
Most Tables are not Worth Overturning
The majority of tables are not worth overturning. A Christian leader who makes a living from overturning tables is no noble soldier, but a pugnacious and quarrelsome individual who fails to walk by the Spirit (Gal 5:20), exhibit love (1 Cor 13:5), and is unqualified for spiritual leadership (1 Tim 3:3). The problem I’ve observed with many in positions of authority is that they attempt to wield authority where authority need not to be wielded. I’ve encountered many who desire leadership because of their desire to voice and push for their strong opinions and preferences over matters that, quite frankly, aren’t worth fussing over. To constantly and habitually press one’s way in matters of preference doesn’t earn one credibility, but rather puts one’s competence into question. Mature spiritual leaders are masters of appropriate deference, characteristically putting the interests of others before theirs (Phil 2:3-4).
Some Tables must be Overturned
But Christians—particularly leaders—are called soldiers for good reason (2 Tim 2:3-4). The difference between a soldier and a civilian is that, during times of warfare, soldiers carry the responsibility of battle while civilians do not. A soldier who refuses to fight to protect his country cannot serve as a soldier. A Christian who abstains from all forms of combat and confrontation cannot serve as a leader.
There are times when the Christian leader must get angry (Eph 4:26), and when such righteous anger must be expressed. When Jesus entered into the temple in Jerusalem and saw his Father’s house turned into a den of robbers (John 2:13-17), he didn’t privately pull aside the religious leaders to diplomatically converse with them. He didn’t kindly escort people to the exit door. Instead, he pulled out a whip. He poured out coins on the temple floor. He overturned tables. He drove people out. Zeal for his Father’s glory consumed him. While this kind of action wasn’t a regular occurrence in his ministry, he didn’t hesitate when the occasion demanded it.
There were other occasions when Christ confronted people with strong verbal denunciations and rebukes—to friends and enemies alike. A few days before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus publicly denounced the Pharisees as hypocrites (Matt 23:13-33). He rebuked Peter before the other apostles, saying “Get behind Me, Satan!” (Matt 16:23). Such physical and verbal expressions by Christ were exhibited not out of fleshly impulse, but fully under the influence of the Holy Spirit. The example of our Lord shows that such expression of righteous anger and disapproval is at times necessary, because fighting, at times, is necessary. Fighting the good fight of faith involves more than just battling personal lusts: it involves contending for the ministry of Christ’s gospel, the growth of Christ’s church, and the furtherance of Christ’s kingdom for the glory of Christ and the good of his people.
There is a time, then, to overturn tables. Christian leaders need to know when that time is, and how to respond appropriately.
Discerning Which Tables Must be Overturned
The question is not whether there is ever a place to overturn tables, but rather which tables must be overturned. Christian leaders must pick their battles with godly discernment. The solution to this is not a philosophical one or even a practical one—it is a biblical one, founded empirically in the example of Jesus as well as prescriptively from the New Testament epistles. There are at least three occasions when God calls his normally peaceable and mellow minister to contend and contend valiantly. There may be more than the three listed below, but never less than these three.
Occasion #1: When the Truth and Integrity of the Gospel Message is at Stake
When the truth and integrity of the gospel message is at stake, the Christian leader must overturn tables. It’s true that neophyte theology students love to fight over doctrinal issues that, quite frankly, aren’t hills worth losing one’s job or relationships over. Healthy debate has its place, but fighting to the point of division is not necessary over the timing of the rapture or the baptism of babies. But Paul makes it clear in Galatians 1:6-9 that those who preach another gospel must be accursed. Christian leaders must fight for the integrity of the gospel proclamation, and courageously confront those in the church who are perverting it. It is for this reason that Jude says that we must contend earnestly for the faith which was once and for all handed down to the saints (Jude 3).
Occasion #2: When Hypocrisy is Present Among Gospel Ministers and Leaders
This can be tricky, and so tread with great wisdom and discernment. Christians, after all, are commissioned primarily as disciple-makers, not hypocrisy-hunters. But when blatant hypocrisy is exhibited amongst formal ministers of the gospel and spiritual leaders, those leaders must be confronted. As discussed earlier, Jesus forthrightly and even physically confronted the so-called religious leaders of his time because of their hypocrisy. The Pharisees were not making errors in the realm of wisdom. They were not making honest mistakes due to zeal without knowledge. They were hypocrites, and hypocrisy needs to be confronted, even if the confrontation undermines the authority and credibility of the leader who is guilty of it.
Such treatment is not reserved for false teachers alone. Paul confronted Peter for refusing to eat with the Gentiles because such action was hypocritical to the very gospel message that Peter preached (Gal 2:11-14). The confrontation wasn’t done privately, but publicly in the presence of all. Was Paul guilty of undermining Peter’s apostolic authority before the presence of the church? Apparently such concerns were irrelevant on this occasion. For Christ made it clear that Christians need clarity when it comes to the morality and righteousness of their teachers (see Matt 16:6; 23:1-3). Therefore, Jesus told his disciples publicly regarding the Pharisees, “all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them,” (Matt 23:3). God’s people need to be clear regarding which leaders are morally sound and which ones are morally perverted. The discernment of good and evil (Heb 5:14) is of greater priority than the cultivation of trust toward our leaders. Because of this, those in positions of spiritual authority who are exhibiting blatant hypocrisy must be confronted publicly, because the failure to do so brings confusion to the flock and leaves God’s people susceptible to deception and disillusionment.
Occasion #3: When the Spiritual Health of Vulnerable People is Being Harmed
Christian leaders must defend the weak and the defenseless. One of the reasons why God judged the Northern Kingdom of Israel so severely is because of the way the defenseless were exploited (see the book of Amos). If someone insults my personal dignity, I may confront them privately or even overlook it. But if the spiritual welfare of a person—especially those in positions of weakness or who are defenseless—is in jeopardy, the Christian must speak up and stand up. When Jesus publicly confronted the Pharisees during the Sabbath in their synagogues, it was always to defend the weak—be it a man with a withered hand (Luke 6:6-11) or a woman with a bent back (Luke 13:10-17). Recall, also, how Jesus was angry with his disciples when they rebuked children for coming to him (Mark 10:13-16). Such public confrontations were necessary, because of the impact that authority figures have on those under their subjects. Spiritual leaders at times don’t understand just how much authority and influence God has entrusted to them, and how detrimental their actions—whether they act purposefully or inadvertently—can have on the souls of people. Some leaders are unaware of the long-term effects that their words and actions can have on people, and thus need to be held to stricter judgment (James 3:1).
Jesus never violently defended himself when he was being attacked, but he did put his foot down and courageously defended the defenseless when they were attacked and targeted. Every harmful blow inflicted on the soul of a saint can be healed by the courageous defense of their shepherd. For as damaging as spiritual abuse is to people, it is equally damaging to see those who were in positions of authority and influence remain silent and refuse to stand up for them.
There is a time to overturn tables. And you and I—gentle as lambs but bold as lions—must learn when and how to do it.