Compel Them to Come In, But How?


[Note to readers: Other than this note and minor edits this is the third post from a short-lived, now-defunct blog from 2011.  The first two are here and here, and this one builds from those.  I’m considering adding in some similar work to the new site – let me know what you think!]


Luke 14:23 “Then the master said to the servant, ‘Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.”

This verse is part of a larger parable about how the master invited many, but many of those declined the invitation.  So, the master, wanting a full house, asks the servant to go outside the original invitation list and bring in whoever will come.  However, the use of the word “compel” has led members of the church over the centuries to use the verse as justification for the use of violence to bring people into the church.

Observing the methods of the state and other Christian sects of his day, even Saint Augustine – one of the most influential writers in all of Christian history – used this verse and other “proof texts” to justify force.  Augustine argued that Christ used force to compel Saul (who became the Apostle Paul) to believe in and follow Him and therefore provided a precedent (text here).  Augustine’s arguments were copied in defense of the Spanish Inquisition and other blemishes on the historical record of the church.  Essentially, this verse has been used to justify the means toward an end.

Critics of Christianity have, of course, jumped on the opportunity.  Christopher Hitchens, one of the “New Atheists”, makes statements like “The real axis of evil is Christianity, Judaism, and Islam”, and that religion is “the main source of hatred in the world”.  The evidence comes from well-known historical events, and incidentally these arguments have helped sell a lot of books.

However, is “Christianity” the culprit, or are people the problem?  Did some followers of Christ get the wrong message?  Could Augustine have been wrong?  Are all those who claim to act for Christ really being faithful to Him?  Is it logical, or even responsible, to blame the actions of a group of people on a person they claim to follow, even if the one would clearly disapprove of them?

Isn’t lumping all Christians, Muslims, and Jews in with the most violent examples of people who claim those faiths like lumping all atheists in with Stalin or Mao?  Because some practice a perverse form of the original philosophy, does that make the whole philosophy rotten?  Is the philosophy at fault?

The Bible is very clear that there is a distinction between those who call themselves Christian and those who actually are – a distinction that many who criticize “the church” ignore.  Matthew 7:21-23 says: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.  Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’  And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’”

The Bible is also very clear that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  Nobody’s perfect, or even close.  Most of the Bible is the story of the failures of people who can’t follow the will of God, but that God loves and accepts them anyway.  More failures should not be a surprise, and the church would be wrong to ignore them – but instead these are evidence that man needs help, and that God’s capacity for forgiveness is vast.

Apparently the “New Atheists” find themselves in an interesting position.  They are actually in agreement with Jesus, who saved his harshest words for those who used the church for its own purposes and twisted His commands.  He hated hypocrisy, and called out hypocrites in public quite often, calling them a “den of thieves”, and a “brood of vipers”, among other names.  From this perspective, “Christianity” is not the culprit of these crimes, but some people calling themselves “Christian” are the culprit.  Or, another perspective: Christopher Hitchens’ “hypocrite” or “demon” is Martin Luther’s doctrine of “Simul justus et peccator” (simultaneously righteous yet still a sinner).

So, what does all this mean for the modern church?

A better interpretation (unless you are an Inquisitor or a New Atheist) of “compel them to come in” is found in Matthew Henry’s commentary on Luke 14:23, which says “compel them to come in, not by force of arms, but by force of arguments.  Be earnest with them; for in this case, it will be necessary to convince them that the invitation is sincere and not a banter; they will be shy and modest and will hardly believe that they shall be welcome.”

In Jesus’ day, a Gentile would have been shocked to be invited into a Jewish community, and likely would have been apprehensive or suspicious.  As I wrote earlier, the people who were not on the original guest list might need some convincing.  After all, Jehovah had always been the God of the Jews, and there was a good degree of history between the two groups.  Would an outsider need a compelling reason to come in, or would a simple hello suffice?

Exactly what these compelling reasons are is too large an issue for this post, but I’ll say that if force or reason (alone) is the method of compulsion, the church will likely be full of people like the man who follows Jesus because his neighbor was struck by lightning (see my last post).  Their brain is convinced, or they are afraid to say no, but they aren’t really committed.  A church full of these people is not likely to be “compelling” to the next generation of churchgoers.

The larger issue is the pressure the church has always faced to increase membership, and if the results don’t come, there’s a big temptation to find a way.  After all, if hell is a terrible place, and we don’t want people to go there, don’t the ends justify the means?  However, God supplies the means, and ignoring them shows a lack of faith, not a strength of conviction.  The Inquisitor is not a hero of the church, but a villain.  God tells us how He wants the church to witness to the world, and it does not involve violence.

In our desire for “results”, we often become like the disciples in Mark 9:14-29.  Unable to drive out a spirit, the disciples became agitated.  The problem?  Jesus reminds them: “This kind can come out only by prayer”.   Disciples of God are supposed to accomplish God’s ends by God’s means.

God’s chosen means do not depend on reasoned arguments and force of strength, “But God chose what the world considers nonsense to put wise people to shame. God chose what the world considers weak to put what is strong to shame.”  (1 Cor 1:27) When preaching to the Corinthians, Paul “didn’t use intellectual arguments. That would have made the cross of Christ lose its meaning.” (1 Cor 1:17) This is, of course, the same Paul that Augustine says is the precedent for conversion by force.

The church has sometimes pursued an end by force cannot be achieved by reason or forceful compulsion, but must be catalyzed by God Himself.  As I pointed out in my first post, if being witness to incredible supernatural events cannot compel belief, why would so many believe that logic or force could compel belief?

“For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”  (1 Cor 1:25)

Poor in Spirit #5: No Confidence in the Flesh


Finally, here is the last post in a 5-part series on the first Beatitude from Matthew 5:3 – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  If you want to catch up, here are links to the previous posts in the series: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday.


Today’s thought begins with how the Apostle Paul, who met Jesus on the road to Damascus[1], emphasized how being “poor in spirit” is universal across all demographic characteristics:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” – Galatians 3:28
“Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is call, and in all.” – Colossians 3:11

Paul wrote these verses differently, meaning they are not comprehensive.  He simply couldn’t include every possible example of the ways Christ eliminates barriers, but provided examples of the main point, which is “all.”  Prior to these verses, he writes that “in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Galatians 3:27) and that we “have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” (Colossians 3:10) This “new self” is the new identity, which is the only one that matters, that we are “sons of God”.

What does this have to do with “Blessed are the poor in spirit”?

Paul knows that Jesus provides – in full – the only way for salvation on the cross and through His resurrection.  What we think are accomplishments “in the flesh” do not make us “rich” in spirit, and in fact may make us worse off.  Paul expands on this in Philippians 3:4-7, discarding any confidence he has in the flesh as “loss”:

“Though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.”

Adding some more modern terminology, Paul is saying that his obedience to the ceremonial law of the Old Testament, his genealogy, his denomination, his nationality, and his recognition as a religious expert provided no value, in fact negative value (“loss”), toward his salvation in Christ.  From the earlier verses we can add gender and economic status to the list. His “identity” in earthly terms is a negative whenever it gets in the way of his “identity” in Christ.  When he counted on these things for salvation, they only clouded his view of what was really needed and were in the way of accepting it.  They were a distraction, wasted time.  This applies to anyone: religious pedigree, ethnicity, nationality, or any other accomplishment is at best a zero contribution, and at worst a negative one if it causes someone to refuse His free offer of His righteousness.

It also affects how we present Christ to others.  If our own definition of “poor in spirit” includes a complete lack of faith in our “flesh”, it becomes easier to offer the gospel to “all” others, to approach them in love, and therefore to reflect the kingdom of heaven.  To love our neighbor includes not limiting who our neighbor is.  In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the person beaten and abandoned on the side of the road is only identified as “a man.”[2]  If we know that our identity also did not matter in our salvation, that it may have made us even poorer in spirit, the identity of our neighbor will not matter either.  The unity and outreach of the church depend on the idea that all are equally “poor in spirit.”

Pray, or even beg, for Christ to enable you to embrace your new identity, your new Spirit, and provide new motivation to be a more faithful subject in His kingdom.

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” – Matthew 6:14-15
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:3


Post Script
I imagine that every Babel – every attempt at building a system of righteousness other than that provided by God – begins with a small clique of people who think: “If I bring together enough people (like-minded people like me, of course), we can do this better.”  However, one of the ways they “do it better” is by shrinking the definition of neighbor – right at the beginning of the process.  In Philippians 3 above, Paul says that he formerly saw persecution of his enemies as part of righteousness.  When you believe your identity brings you closer to righteousness, the necessity of coercing others to become like you may seem like a rational conclusion.  But “rational” is not the objective.

Also, when anyone thinks “earthly characteristics we have in common” are a shortcut to righteousness, they may end up surrounded with others who in reality are poor in spirit but are less likely to realize it because everyone around them is affirming their earthly identity.  Instead, defining “us” as all of humanity in desperate need of a righteousness beyond what they can accomplish results in a very different dynamic, where both compassion and spiritual growth are easier to come by.  Iron only sharpens iron when there is a bit of healthy diversity and disagreement.


This post continues a series on the Beatitudes. To start at the beginning, click here, and for the next post click here


[1] Acts 9:3-9
[2] Luke 10:30

Reflections on Philippians #4: Be an Example


“Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” – Philippians 3:17

At the time of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the gospels of Mark and John probably weren’t written yet, and the other two may not have been broadly available. New Christians couldn’t easily read about Christ, so Paul recommends learning about Him through His other followers.

Today, most will not search the Bible for God. What can people learn about Christ from you and I on our blogs and elsewhere?

Reflections on Philippians #3: Pressing On


“Brothers, I do not consider that I have made [Christs righteousness] my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 3:13-14

In the life of the Apostle Paul, author of Philippians, “what lies behind” includes overseeing the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:57-58), and “ravaging the church, and entering house after house, [dragging] off men and women and committ[ing] them to prison.” (Acts 8:3) We all have different shameful things in our past, but God forgets them. His purpose is to always make us more like Christ, so we press on and strain to move forward. The prize is worth it.

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