“One of my biggest tasks as a pastor right now is to challenge my people and keep them from contempt.”

That’s what a pastor told me earlier this year, a man serving his church faithfully in the Deep South. He loves Jesus and he loves his congregation, and that’s why he’s on guard these days against something he called the “silent spiritual killer”—a sin that hinders Christian witness and destroys Christian love.

It’s the sin of contempt, of looking at the person across the aisle from you and thinking, The world would be better without you in it. It’s more than disagreement; it’s disgust, rooted in the inability to see the image of God in your opponent. It’s the attitude Jesus warned about in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:21–22).

Power of Contempt

Why is contempt a big deal right now? Because it’s lucrative. It works.

In politics, being united by disdain and contempt for the other side is what mobilizes your own. An inspiring vision is one way of rallying a base, yes, but a much faster and easier approach is to unite around a common despising of the other side. And culturally these days, with tribal forces at work, going public with contemptuous words toward the opposition is how you prove your purity and loyalty.

John Newton warned about this attitude hundreds of years ago: “Whatever it be that makes us trust in ourselves that we are comparatively wise or good, so as to treat those with contempt who do not subscribe to our doctrines, or follow our party, is a proof and fruit of a self-righteous spirit.”

Everywhere we turn we find avenues for inflaming that self-righteous spirit. Contempt for MAGA or for the woke, the “forty-nine percent” or the “basket of deplorables”—politicians frequently resort to sneering disdain as a sign of their ideological purity. Cable news channels feed the beast with segments designed to attract eyeballs and lead to outrage.

The Church in an Age of Contempt

The church isn’t immune to these cultural forces. Like it or not, we live in a world where contempt is excused or sometimes expected. Even worse, sometimes church leaders are tempted to justify or further inflame feelings of contempt as a strategy for showing the congregation they’re on the right side. As long as it’s clear who you’re supposed to love and who you’re supposed to hate, everything goes smoothly.

But contempt is the silent killer of Christian charity. It has no place in the heart of a follower of Jesus. It kills the passion of seeing others converted and replaces evangelistic zeal with the quest for zero-sum victories, smackdowns, and “destroying”—such that the zealousness to win over someone becomes the zealousness to win.

A. W. Tozer wrote,

“Contempt for a human being is an affront to God almost as grave as idolatry, for while idolatry is disrespect for God Himself, contempt is disrespect for the being He made in His own image. Contempt says of a man, ‘Raca! This fellow is of no worth. I attach to his person no value whatsoever.’ The man guilty of thus appraising a human being is thoroughly bad.”

My pastor friend was right to recognize the signs of contempt in his congregation and to gently but firmly push back against the tendency to allow hatred to well up in the human heart. He is doing the Lord’s work.

Fighting Contempt

A striking feature of nearly every book I’ve read about the leaders and foot soldiers in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and ’60s was how much and how often they fought against contempt. They knew the power of hatred because they’d felt it from their neighbors, and when the signs of reciprocal hatred showed up in their hearts, they worked to root out those feelings and replace them with love. This is one of the ways they overcame, not merely in political or cultural victories but through the determination to treat with dignity the very people who would deny such dignity to them.

Dark impulses that from a worldly perspective seem justifiable are off-limits to those who follow in the steps of a crucified Lord. When your King responds to sneers and mockery by breathing out forgiveness . . . when your Lord tells you to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you and then does so, in fulfillment of his own law of love . . . when your Savior, stripped of dignity and pinned up on a cross like an insect, refuses to dehumanize the dehumanizers . . . how can you harbor contempt in your heart?

Here is Tozer again:

“Religion that is not purified by penitence, humility and love, will lead to a feeling of contempt for the irreligious and the morally degraded. And since contempt implies a judgment of no worth made against a human brother, the contemptuous man comes under the displeasure of God and proves himself to lie in danger of hell fire.”

Perhaps the test of faithfulness in a day of moral degradation will be our love for people across chasms of difference. Faithfulness isn’t in showy displays that we hate all the right people. Faithfulness isn’t in adopting a contemptuous posture toward the current president or the former one. The way of the cross rejects the path of sneers and jeers, whether in the form of elite condescension or populist passion.

We must not call a noisy gong “boldness” or a clanging cymbal “courage.” Instead, we must stand out from such worldliness and cultivate the church as an oasis of quiet kindness, a respite from the sin Jesus says will lead us to hell.

If you would like my future articles sent to your email, as well as a curated list of books, podcasts, and helpful links I find online, enter your address.