There is a common idea in the contemporary Presbyterian Church in America that our people should be winsome, particularly in their polemics and intra-denominational disagreements. Thus we find, for example, two Covenant College professors lauding a controversial figure in the denomination as winsome in the course of a recent review of one of his books at The Gospel Coalition.
Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines winsome as meaning “sweetly or innocently charming; winning; engaging”. Perhaps that is the first thing we should note: if the author in view were truly “winning” or “innocently charming”, he would not be, as the reviewers themselves admit, a source of much controversy.
But more importantly, this notion that it is desirable to be winsome is contradicted by the testimony of Scripture and by that of church history. If you are inclined to doubt that, try this little test: ask whether the figures of faith were winsome in the great events of redemptive history.
Was Moses winsome when he appeared before Pharaoh demanding Israel’s release and was ignored time and again (Ex. 10:11, 28; comp. 7:3-4)? Was he winsome when he ruled the people of Israel in the wilderness and they grumbled against him (Ex. 15:24; 16:2-3; 17:2-7), or when he told the Levites to slay their wayward kin and neighbours without hesitation (32:25-28)? Were the Judges winsome in their difficult dealings with foreigners and fellow Jews alike (Judges 7:28-30; 12:1-4; 15:11-13)?
Was David winsome? Why then did he have so many enemies, his own father in law trying to murder him (1 Sam. 8:11) and his own wife despising him (2 Sam. 6:16), his own sons rising against him (ch. 15) and his subjects cursing him (16:5-8), his own counsellors abandoning him (vv. 20-23) and many others troubling him? Why then did the people celebrate him for his “tens of thousands” of slain enemies (1 Sam. 18:7), and why are so many of his psalms cries of anguish amidst the persecutions of men?
Was Solomon winsome? At first glance it would seem so, for how else could he have attracted the Queen of Sheba from afar and been associated with something such as the Song of Solomon? Yet what was the end of it? The wail of Ecclesiastes that all is vanity (1:2) and that the days of darkness would be many (11:8), and the revolt of the people against his son because of their displeasure with the heavy yoke of Solomon’s reign (1 Kgs. 12:4). His was not a reign of winsome persuasion, but of whips (12:11), forced labour (5:13-14), slavery (9:20-21; Ecc. 2:7), bureaucracy (1 Kgs. 9:22-23), opulence (Ecc. 2:4-10), oppression (4:1) and corruption (4:8), and he himself seems to have often loathed it (2:17-18).
What then of the prophets? Were they winsome? When Micaiah ministered during the reign of Ahab how did that sovereign describe him? “I hate him, for he never prophesies good concerning me, but evil” (1 Kgs. 22:8; comp. v. 27). Jeremiah was not winsome, and so hated was he that his own people sought to censor and destroy him (11:21; 12:6). So also did Amos fail to win his audience, for he irritated the priesthood and was falsely accused of conspiring against the monarchy (Amos 7:10-17). Elijah provoked Jezebel to wrath and fled the kingdom (1 Kgs. 19), such was his winsomeness. Time would fail to tell of Elisha and the irreverent youths (2 Kgs. 2:23-24) or of the other prophets. Let us rather remember the words of our Lord, who bewailed Jerusalem as “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (Matt. 23:37), and of Stephen, who asked the Jews “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute?” (Acts 7:52).
Proceeding from the monarchy to Israel’s later history, was Nehemiah winsome when he drove men from the gates of Jerusalem (Neh. 13:21), or when he beat and cursed the faithless and pulled the hair of their beards (v. 25)? Was John the Baptist winsome when he ministered in the wilderness in rough garments of camel’s hair and ate locusts (Matt. 3:1, 4), or when he called the scribes vipers and spoke plainly of the wrath to come (v. 7)? Was he so when he provoked Herod by condemning his incestuous marriage and was imprisoned and murdered as a result (Matt. 14:3-5)? Was our Lord winsome when he pronounced his woes upon the Pharisees and lawyers (Lk. 11:39-44; comp. vv. 45 -52, especially v. 45), or when he made a whip of cords and drove men from the temple (Jn. 2:15)?
Were the apostles winsome when they publicly confronted each other (Gal. 2:14-16), or when they wished their opponents would castrate themselves (5:12), or when they were embroiled in controversies with false teachers, or when they called men dogs (Phil. 3:2) and blemishes (2 Pet. 2:13) and told them their money could perish with them (Acts 8:20)? Was it not rather the astonishment of their opponents that they were uneducated commoners (Acts 4:13), and was it not the most educated of them of whom his opponents could say “his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account” (2 Cor. 10:10)? Winsome men are not martyred, yet all of the apostles except John met that fate, and he was so charming that men put him in exile on a tiny Mediterranean island. Or what of Stephen? We are told that he was full of the Spirit and grace (Acts 6:5), yet he said the Jews were stiff-necked and wicked (v. 51) and so provoked them that they “cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him” (v. 57) and “cast him out of the city and stoned him” (v. 58).
If we move from the testimony of Scripture to that of later church history, we find the same things. So effulgently winsome were many of the early believers that Nero is said to have illumined his gardens with their flaming corpses. So winsome was Polycarp that a stadium full of pagans screamed at him the slanderous charge “away with the atheists” as they called for his immolation. So winsome was Athanasius that he was exiled five times and left us his legacy as Athanasius contra mundum. The “winsomeness” of Luther needs no comment, and as for Calvin, such was his winsomeness that he was thrown out of Geneva after his first tenure there and that his critics slandered him as the “Pope of Geneva”. So winsome were the Puritans that a royal edict expelled all of them from their pulpits in the Church of England in 1662, and all manner of laws were passed to suppress them.
In light of these things, who can doubt that the notion that we are to be winsome is a contemporary falsehood, one of those lies told by conventional worldly wisdom by which men so often live their lives? No, we are not to be winsome. We are to strive to live at peace with all men in so far as it depends upon us (Rom. 12:18); we are to be peaceable, gentle, loving, fair, and kind (Gal. 5:22-23; Eph. 4:2; Col. 3:12; Tit. 3:2; 2 Tim. 2:24-25; Jas. 3:17); we are to give no needless offence (1 Cor. 10:32).
Yet these things are different from winsomeness. Honesty, charity, peaceableness and the like are timeless principles of conduct. What qualifies as winsome varies between people and groups. What is winsome to a northerner might offend a southerner, and what is winsome to an urban stockbroker might find little favour with a Midwestern farmer. Then too, the contemporary American notion of winsomeness seems to entail being clean, respectable, nice, aesthetically attractive in one’s demeanour and appearance, and generally inoffensive in one’s opinions. It is a notion of personality and deportment that comes rather from the corporate world of sales and marketing than from God’s word or the history of the church.
God did not build his church upon suave, charming, likeable men. He built it upon a man of sorrows who was rejected by men and acquainted with grief (Isa. 53:3), and upon irascible fishermen who lopped off someone’s ear (Jn. 18:10), and upon other men who were not wise or attractive by worldly standards (Acts 4:13; comp. 1 Cor. 1:27).
Who sows the wind will reap the whirlwind (Hos. 8:7). Who strives after a changing and disputable trait like winsomeness shall have no reward for preferring it to true virtues.
Reader, if you have been in the habit of speaking of being winsome as a desirable or necessary trait for our ministers and people, lay your hand upon your mouth and repent your sin forthwith. Urge men to tell the truth (Ex. 20:16; Eph. 4:25), to be impartial (Lev. 19:17; Prov. 24:23), and to be fair and virtuous (Jn. 7:24; 2 Pet. 1:5-8).
Bear true testimony yourself, regardless of whether it means praising or criticizing men. But do not seek after virtues which are no such thing, nor insist that others do the same.
And if you find two professors at our denomination’s college praising someone for being winsome, chalk it up to the gentlemen speaking unworthily of their position and task and pray they exercise better taste in judgment in future; for “a servant is not greater than his master” (Jn. 15:20), and our Lord did not “come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34).
Tom Hervey is a member of Woodruff Road Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Simpsonville, South Carolina.