In September of 1541 John Calvin had to write a hard letter to a friend and fellow minister, William Farel. It was in response to the way in which Farel had handled a situation of pastoral discipline. Calvin, who had struggled himself with hot-headedness in his younger years, was seeking to help Farel remain uncompromising in his message but wiser in how he approached thing. He wrote:
When you have Satan to combat, and you fight under Christ’s banner he who puts on your armour and draws you into the battle will give you the victory. But . . . a good cause also requires a good instrument. . . .
We only earnestly desire that insofar as your duty permits you will accommodate yourself more to the people.
There are, as you know, two kinds of popularity:
the one, when we seek favour from motives of ambition and the desire of pleasing;
the other, when, by fairness and moderation, we gain their esteem so as to make them teachable by us.
You must forgive us if we deal rather freely with you. . . . You are aware how much we love and revere you. . . . We desire that in those remarkable endowments which the Lord has conferred upon you, no spot or blemish may be found for the malevolent to find fault with, or even to carp at.
Tim Keller picks up on this distinction and explains the two very different motivations that can exist for adapting and accommodating a message to the sensibilities of a particular people:
The first motive is ‘”ambition”—we do it for our sake, for our own glory and approval. The other reason we may accommodate people is for their sake, so that we can gradually win their trust until they become open to the truth they need so much.
The first motive will so control us that we will never offend people. The second motive will help us choose our battles and not offend people unnecessarily.
Keller goes on to contrast Calvin’s perspective with some of what we see today:
The Farels of the world cannot see any such distinction—they believe any effort to be judicious and prudent is a cowardly “sell-out.” But Calvin wisely recognized that his friend’s constant, intemperate denunciations often stemmed not from a selfless courage, but rather from the opposite—pride. . . .
There’s a reason for gaining people’s esteem that is not vain-glorious, and, at the same time, there’s a motivation for boldly speaking the truth that is vain-glorious.
May God give us wisdom to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” because Christ sends us out “as sheep in the midst of wolves” (Matt. 10:16).