I’ve noticed an interesting trend in my online discussions and readings: contempt as a starting point of interaction.
I can only conclude that this issue has always been there, but I’m only newly noticing it. As I think about my own history, I realize that this was often how I approached others for years. So I shouldn’t be surprised by what I’m observing.
A Christian book on marriage that my wife and I once used for leading a small group observed that contempt in a marriage is the number one predictor of divorce. As I study that idea now, I find it widely shared across dozens of other resources, so I really don’t know who originated the idea, or did the initial research, and honestly I have no idea in which particular marriage book I first saw it. But these days the idea seems nearly universal among relationship coaches of all kinds – not just marriage, but business and friend relationships as well.
Lifecoach says “Contempt includes eye-rolling, mocking, name-calling, sneering and belligerence. All are obviously deadly to a happy, healthy, and loving relationship.“
How much of this behavior appears in all of our social media feeds today? And how much is between fellow Christians over points of doctrine?
Just like secular authors, the Bible has a few things to say about contempt.
On one hand, the Bible solidly condemns those who are contemptuous towards their neighbor. For example, Proverbs 11:12 says “One who despises (is contemptuous towards) his neighbor lacks sense, but a person of understanding keeps silent.” Proverbs 18:3 says “When a wicked person comes, contempt also comes, and with dishonor comes taunting.” Jesus also spoke against despising one’s neighbor in Luke 18:9: “Now He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt.” Even Jesus personally experienced this: Mark 9:12 says “How then is it written about the Son of Man that He must suffer many things and be treated with contempt?“
On the other hand, it probably doesn’t help that quite a few Old Testament verses also use the same word (Hebrew būz, Strongs 937) to describe the state of sinners and fools. For example, Daniel 12:2 says “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” And the Lord says in Jeremiah 24:9, “I’ll make them into a horrifying sight to all the kingdoms of the earth; into a cause for contempt, into a byword, into a taunt, and into a curse in all the places to which I drive them.“
I think this leads too many Christians to believe that contempt and despising others who have a different doctrinal understanding, or are somehow seen as deficient in the faith, is a Biblical way to treat them. It creates a belief that doing so will bring them to repentance and restore the integrity of the Church.
The problem is that Romans 14:3 specifically calls out those who are contemptuous towards those who hold a different understanding of the faith: “The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him.“
It’s interesting that all the instances in the Bible that use contempt as a tool for correction are in the Old Testament. Part of the problem, in my sense, is that many Christians tend to view the Old Testament as a source of inspiration for how to mold the world into their doctrinal viewpoint, choosing aspects of God’s handling of the ancient world that enable them to bring fiery wrath on sinners – while conveniently ignoring other parts of the Old Testament that they (rightly) believe have been superseded or fulfilled by Jesus. So in this cherry-picking manner, they adopt hurtful and hateful mannerisms in the mistaken belief that God treats people that way today to accomplish His will on the earth.
In contrast, I believe that the Bible is, in some sense, a careful and progressive unfolding of mankind’s experience with God. Early encounters between God and man incrementally revealed aspects of His nature that they were ready to accept. As time passed He unfolded more and more of His nature, culminating in Jesus’ ministry, where love and grace are the overriding interaction between God and man, and how Jesus commanded us to represent the Father to the world. Those harsh things in the Old Testament are, in my view, not meant to be the model for how we treat others – most especially our fellow believers.
So in the context of social media and personal interactions with others who view the Scriptures differently than us, it seems to me that contempt is just as deadly as in any marriage.
In fact, from a certain viewpoint, it is truly within a marriage that we have to relate. The Church is to be made ready to become the bride of Christ, and in some sense we fellow Christians must relate to each other just as if we were married to each other, not just to Christ. He will be the perfect spouse, but we humans must work out our relationships with each other with just as much fervor and determination as any married couple: loving each other as Christ loved the Church, treating each other with respect despite our differences.
Here’s a controversial thought: it’s almost like being in a massive polygamist marriage, where each individual bride must relate graciously with the others for the entire marriage to function smoothly.
So there’s no room in our interactions with fellow believers for contempt. It’s deadly. The other person may truly be wrong, but that gives us no room to treat them with contempt, as if we’re so much better than them, wiser, more in touch with God, more spiritual. Such treatment of others is roundly condemned by Scripture, even when one is definitely correct and the other is wrong.
Because ultimately, we are called to model love and grace to the world around us, and they see and pay attention to how we treat each other. If we model contempt, we bring contempt on the Lord we claim to represent.
Furthermore, when we see others through a lens of contempt, we puff ourselves up in our own eyes. Paul is pretty firm on the problem of arrogance in believers, such as in 1 Cor 4:6, 1 Cor 4:18-19, 1 Cor 5:2, 1 Cor 8:1, 1 Cor 13:4, and Col 2:18. The practical negative effect of this arrogance is to firmly close our mental doors against learning from each other. This results in cutting off any ability of the Holy Spirit to adjust our thinking or our hearts.
So let’s do better. When we interact with other believers, even when we clearly see the flaws in their position, treat them with love and respect – especially when the world is watching. Remember the image of God in them, and honor God by honoring that piece of Him on display in the earth. The rightness of their belief is not the issue: the presence of God in them is entirely the issue.