The Cost of Reputation

This week leading up to Christmas provides opportunity for another reflection – one related to the story and  discussion in Tuesday’s post (Discrimination?).  The sermon this last Sunday at our church was centered on the texts in Isaiah 7 and Matthew 1 … in particular the reaction of Joseph to the discovery that Mary was pregnant.

And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying,” Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. …  And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife

Scot elaborates on this passage in CH 8 of The Jesus Creed, noting that Joseph here puts his reputation on the line, actually gives it up, to obey the commandment of God.

Our reputation (what others think of us) is not as important as our identity (who we really are). Spiritual formation begins when we untangle reputation and identity, and when what God thinks of us is more important than what we think of ourselves or what others think of us. (p. 76)

This isn’t lip service, it is whole-hearted surrender.

Sometimes the implication of listening to the voice of God is that we ruin our reputation in the public square. Loving God, as the Jesus Creed teaches, involves surrendering ourselves to God in heart, soul, mind, strength – and reputation. The minute we turn exclusively to the Lord to find our true identity is the day reputation dies. We learn, as Thomas à Kempis puts it, that when you surrender your reputation, “you won’t care a fig for the wagglings of ten thousand tongues.”  (p. 79)

This also isn’t a matter of religious reputation within the church versus secular reputation in the public square – this is a matter of being true to the calling of God, which quite frankly can get one in trouble on all sides. Joseph was not sacrificing his secular reputation – but rather his reputation within those who strove to be righteous.

Joseph learns that who he is before God (his identity) is more important than who he is in the circle of his pious friends (his reputation). (p. 81)

This leads me back to the post on Tuesday and to the question for discussion.

What role should the fear for reputation and position play in the way we as Christians present ourselves and engage within the public square?

One of the points in the NY Times article is that an internet search brought Dr. Gaskell’s 10 year old lecture to light and contributed to this conflict. Apparently it isn’t so much his church affiliation as that he is on record somewhere as weighing in on the science/faith discussion from a faith perspective. Thinking through the issues he may have used expressions that set warning bells. Given such a document it would make little difference if his thoughts on the issues had matured or changed through the years, he would have been forever suspect.

New technologies and the way the internet can make the most obscure document or lecture immediately and permanently public. This transparency changes the rules of engagement – one must always consider the fact that a  conversation with audience A, say a church group, may be accessed by audience B, say a member of a review panel evaluating research proposals, or a member of a search committee. Anything that can be said, can be misinterpreted or taken out of context. This leads to a need for a level of caution. Regarding this concern a commenter on the last post noted: I’d suspect that many church members would not understand this and might see it as “being ashamed of the gospel” vs. “being a light” or some such false dichotomy. Of course he’s right, there are many who would suggest that this is simply caving in to peer pressure.

This is not all one way of course – with scholars and academics fearing discrimination of the sort alleged by Dr. Gaskell. Christians, both pastors and scholars, often also fear for reputation and livelihood. There is a pressure to be careful with public statements. This is true, for example, of  many who feel that evolutionary creation and Christian faith are compatible, and for some who are simply open to the possibility that they may be compatible and we must explore the evidence.

What do you think? Is it simply a cop-out to be concerned about reputation in the public square?

When is it a measure of wisdom to exercise caution and when is it a measure of cowardice, a failure surrender to God in heart, soul, mind, strength – and reputation?

How would you counsel someone faced with a decision between protecting reputation and taking a public stand?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If you have comments please visit The Cost of Reputation at Jesus Creed

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