In his new book, the Rev. Tullian Tchividjian connects the Book of Jonah with the religious right. And with recent events at his Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church.
"Instead of the gospel, we've communicated moralism," the pastor of the Fort Lauderdale congregation says. "Somewhere along the way, Christians have communicated that Christianity is for good people, keeping rules, maintaining standards, doing what's right."
Not a standard lesson for the biblical story of a man swallowed by a "great fish." The slim book, titled "Surprised by Grace," (Crossway, 192 pp., $18.99) probes the motives and fate of the prophet who fled God rather than help an evil city repent.
The Jonah story was not mainly about being swallowed alive, Tchividjian says.
The prophet, who probably lived in the eighth century B.C., was called to pronounce doom on the Assyrian capital of Nineveh. Instead, he took a ship in the opposite direction. That's why he was ingested by the sea creature.
After it vomited him ashore, Jonah finally went to prophesy against Nineveh. The terrified Ninevites then repented, and God spared the city -- which angered Jonah, Tchividjian notes. "He should be happy, but he thinks he deserves grace and they don't."
The lesson for modern America, and Christian conservative activism, is the need for mercy, not just judgment, Tchividjian suggests.
"So much of the religious right over the last 25 years has done good things, but it's also done real damage to the reputation of the church. It's been more outspoken about what it's against than what it's for.
"Christians who genuinely understand God's grace always point a finger at themselves before pointing it at other people."
Jonah was the subject of a sermon series by Tchividjian last year, after he became Coral Ridge pastor. Many of the congregants -- accustomed to straightforward salvation messages and crusades against perceived social ills -- first protested his leadership, then pushed for his removal. When they failed, they founded the breakaway New Presbyterian Church in Pompano Beach.
Tchividjian believes they left because he preached that church people build "idols" and need grace as much as those outside. Such idols include pride, self-righteousness, even tradition and patriotism, according to the minister.
"I was amazed at how many people were offended," he says. "People in church think all the bad stuff happens out there. But [ John] Calvin said our hearts are idol-making factories. The gospel is always the only antidote for sin. And it's the medicine we must take every day."
A spokesman for New Presbyterian Church agrees with Tchividjian's assessment -- to a point, of course.
"I totally agree that we all need God's grace," says the Rev. Jerry Newcombe, New Presbyterian's volunteer minister for the cultural mandate. "We'll never reclaim our culture if we don't reclaim ourselves."
But Christians need to right wrongs in society as well, adds Newcombe, also senior producer at the conservative-aligned Coral Ridge Ministries. Such wrongs, in his view, include abortion and divorce – inside and outside church circles.
"It's not either-or. It's both-and," Newcombe says. "People need to repent for the idols they've built -- and they need to be involved in the culture. At least, [they need] not to be a part of the problem."
Even people who don't attend church can draw a lesson from the Jonah story, Tchividjian suggests.
"I've never met someone, Christian or non, who didn't have a longing for forgiveness, for cleansing from guilt and shame. No matter what you've done or where you've been, you can never outrun God's willingness to forgive. It is infinitely greater than our capacity to sin."
James D. Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 954-356-4730.