Kill the Messenger

By Tom M. Roberts

In ancient Oriental kingdoms, messengers who brought a monarch bad news often suffered the penalty of death. Woe to the messenger who had to tell the king that his army had suffered defeat at the hands of the enemy, that a beloved family member had died, that affairs of state were in turmoil. Absolute monarchs answered to no one for their actions and messengers could, and sometimes were, dispatched on the spot for being the bearer of bad tidings. Of course, killing the messenger did not change the message, but it gave the king an outlet for his fury.

Such events are not unknown in biblical accounts. Upon hearing that Saul and Jonathan were dead, David slew the messenger who brought the news. Of course, the extenuating circumstance on this occasion was that the messenger was an Amelakite who lied, claiming to have slain Saul at Saul’s request. It infuriated David that a pagan had dared to deal so with King Saul, saying, “How wast thou not afraid to stretch forth thine hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?” (2 Sam. 1:14). The messenger paid with his life.

King Herod likewise cut off the head of John the Baptizer since John had boldly opposed the sinful marriage of Herod to Herodias, Philip’s wife. John stated: “It is not lawful for thee to have her” (Matt. 14:4). Though Herodias and her daughter were implicated in the plot to kill John, the ultimate power was Herod’s and he slew the messenger of God who condemned his sin. Again, killing John did not change the truth that he declared, but he was effectively silenced because of the message he delivered; the messenger paid with his life.

We Don’t Kill Messengers Today

Of course, we live in “kinder and gentler” days and messengers are not slain today when they deliver bad news. But messengers are not immune to ill treatment when a communication carries unfavorable tidings. There are more subtle, albeit effective, ways to vent one’s displeasure. These “civilized” methods of dispatching unwelcome messengers are even found among members of the church who do not like the truth of God. Gospel preachers have some-times been on the receiving end of this “kinder and gentler” method of dealing with the messenger: fire the preacher, cut off his support, throw him out of the preacher’s house, haul him over the coals in a business meeting. Paul was no stranger to ill-treatment by brethren, raising the question, “Have I become your enemy by telling you the truth?” (Gal. 4:16). He stated that he had been in “perils often,” even among “false brethren” (2 Cor. 11:26). Paul under-stood the danger of being the bearer of bad news.

Institutional History Continues the Pattern

The wrath of the guilty against the messenger who ex-poses his guilt is still a viable force to be reckoned with in our time. No, those who preach the truth aren’t beheaded, thrust through with spears or stoned to death in the public square. But let us not be so naive as to believe that the anger of the evil-doer cannot find its outlet against the messenger in the twentieth (or twenty-first) century. During the institutional controversy of the 50s, the “yellow flag of quarantine” was an effective tool against many of God’s messengers. Meetings were canceled, whisper campaigns were conducted, reputations were ruined by name-calling (some charged as “orphan haters,” “church splitters,” and such). Many who did not study the issues were influenced against truth by those who assassinated characters as readily as Herodias demanded the head of John. All of this was done “in the spirit of Jesus” of course!

Messages and Messengers Today

That Face Opposition

Every generation faces its own issues, its own controversies, its own forces of iniquity. In one generation it is called Gnosticism, in another institutionalism, in another unity-in-diversity. However the titles are changed, the battle remains the same. The battle is truth versus error, law versus iniquity, right versus wrong. The actors on the stage change with each succeeding generation, but the plot remains the same. And one constant that is still with us is, “Kill the messenger.” Diotrephes threw some out of the church that received John’s letters (3 John 9-10). John was exiled (Rev. 1:9). We don’t have the custom of beheading people in our times and no one has been stoned to death like Stephen in centuries (Acts 7:58). But don’t think mod-em iniquity hasn’t developed effective means of dealing with those who preach the truth when it is “out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2).

The overwhelming iniquity of our age is that of compromise, of unity-in-diversity, by which the unforgivable sin is to have conviction and stand opposed to error. It is a little recognized fact that unity-in-diversity, earlier taught by Carl Ketcherside and Leroy Garrett, and considered so radical at the time, has come of age and is quite acceptable among “sound” brethren today. Some brethren mistakenly believed that Carl Ketcherside was isolated, ridiculed, and put to flight before he died. Nothing could be further from the truth! The New Hermeneutic Movement today is Carl’s unity-in-diversity gone up-town. A doctrine that was once scorned by many as illiterate has become the darling of the sophisticates as they use their Master’s and Doctorates from “brotherhood colleges” to encourage fellowship with denominations.

But compromise is not restricted to the ultra-liberals. New ammunition has been found “among us” by those who are turning a misuse of Romans 14 into a breeding ground for-unity-in diversity. Used at the first to embrace those who would accept the “alien who would come to God” in unlawful marriages, Romans 14 is quickly being expanded to allow sinful beliefs and doctrines of every sort. Compromise with sin is the order of the day and woe to the messenger who has the conviction to speak out. Kill the messenger? Of course not. But please don’t think that just as effective methods are not available to silence those who would “preach the word.”

It is possible for the voice of gospel preachers to be stilled just as effectively (and politely) as in the days of the institutional apostasy. The “good of boy” system is still effective by which whispers and innuendoes ruin the reputation of faithful preachers. Brethren are quarantined today by inclusive, unpublished lists which, at the same time, exclude unwanted preachers. Those who raise the voice of opposition are ignored as they appeal to brethren for Bible studies. Careful and studious articles are condemned as “rash,” “shoot from the hip,” “knee-jerk” attacks by the very ones who refuse to meet and study issues. It is considered bad taste at the best and sinful at the worst to call names and identify those who advocate compromise. Tape recorders are outlawed from study sessions where compromise is taught lest some “troubler of Israel” get an insight to the material presented. Some are obliquely labeled as factional because their stand for truth is too open, too plain, too uncompromising.

The tongue can be as effective as a sword in such controversies. Faithful messengers of the word have had their characters assailed as “brotherhood watchdogs,” “meddlers in other men’s matters,” and “guardians of truth” so many times that even the innocent and naive are led to believe the lie. Such barbed comments are smilingly pronounced against brethren while they decry the mean spirit of the “name callers” and “busybodies.” Even while those who teach error are militant in their spread of compromise, they berate those who oppose them as “too militant.” Those who travel across continents to teach error attack those who write in papers such as this one as desiring to direct.

Kill the messenger in the church today? Oh, we are much too polite for that. But this approach is just as deadly, lethal to a fault, and has the advantage of shedding no blood. And, sad to say, it is effective. Those who are guilty can stand in shocked dismay and claim innocence while they continue to spread error and refuse to study. They are the ones with the sweet spirit, who rise above controversy, who refuse to sully their hands in debate. Meanwhile error continues its destructive march and compromise eats away at the heart of conviction.

The Message Is Not Changed by

Killing the Messenger

Stephen told those who were to stone him to death: “Ye stiff necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do al-ways resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers: Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it” (Acts 7:51-53). These words will face his murderers at the judgment.

Herod must still hear the haunting echo of John saying, “It is not lawful for you to have her.”

The splash of the water could not wash away the guilt of Pilate even as he consented to the death of Jesus. Pilate is gone but the gospel remains.

And so will it be in our generation. If by character assassination, ignoring the truth, condemning as factional, or in some other way, the message of faithful men is silenced, it doesn’t change the truth of the gospel. Unity-in-diversity is still compromise no matter if every voice of opposition is stilled. It remains comforting to know, even as Jesus said, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away” (Matt 24:35). You may kill the messenger, but you can’t stop the message.

Guardian of Truth XL: No. 20, p. 21-23
October 17, 1996