On Paul’s second evangelistic tour, he and Silas came to Thessalonica, and for three Sabbath days he reasoned with certain Jews in their synagogue. Some Jews were persuaded, and some were not. Later, those who were not persuaded stirred up trouble because of their jealousy. A crowd gathered, an uproar ensued, and the attempt was made to find Paul and Silas, but it failed. However, Jason and some other brethren were dragged before the rulers of Thessalonica, and the accusation was made: “These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also; whom Jason hath received: and these all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7).
Years and years ago we were taught that the church ought to “turn the world upside down.” The idea at the time seemed good, and the expression could be found in Scripture. And it was an expression that could certainly motivate evangelism. After all, part of the New Testament pattern involved evangelism, didn’t it? So, it seemed to me as a young preacher that our people ought to be doing what the first century saints were doing in turning the world upside down! Many years have passed now since I first heard the “encouraging words” that in confronting the world, we ought to turn it upside down.
It is clearer now, however. The expression is certainly found in Scripture, but it is no part of the pattern of New Testament evangelism. The expression was taken out of its context and unfortunately misapplied to the church. We did ourselves no service in this interpretive mistake.
Think about it: the statement comes from the enemies of the gospel. Sometimes wicked men did tell the truth, however, that was recorded (cf. John 9:3; cf. Prov. 28:9; Mark 7:37). But sometimes they expressed error (John 9:34). So, how can we tell whether the expression is accurate or not here in Acts 17? Were Paul and Silas attempting to turn the world upside down? No. They were trying to spread the gospel for sure, and Paul had a particular assignment to do that very thing (Acts 9:15-16; 1 Cor. 9:15-18). But the assignment did not and could not entail the planned and purposed cause of social disruption. Never!
Remember that any inevitable but sinful fallout of doing good is not the fault (much less the credit) of someone’s obeying God. Was it Jesus’ fault that some Jews fell over him (Isaiah 8:14; Rom. 9:33; 1 Pet. 2:6-8)? No. Is Jesus to be blamed for their sin? No. Is he to be credited with their sin? Of course not.
Jesus encouraged his disciples to be peacemakers (Matt. 5:9). He himself in his ministry, while attempting to make his message known, did so without trying to stir up trouble or to evoke hostility (Matt. 12:19-20). If we would follow in his steps regarding preaching and teaching, we would also—while trying to circulate the message—try hard not to cause social disruption and invite hostility, resentment, and rejection. We need to be “as wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matt. 5:16). And we are never to impose ourselves on others (Matt. 7:6). Whatever happened to “the golden rule” as applied to evangelism (Matt.7:12)? Is this an area where the rule doesn’t apply? Of course not.
Paul did not encourage the riot scene in Ephesus (Acts 19). We can’t blame him for it, either. Jesus had once told his apostles on the “limited commission” to the Jews to shake the dust from their feet when it became apparent that a city did not want the truth preached there (Matt. 10:14). Paul himself practiced this (Acts 13:51). And for public abuse, humiliation, and persecution, Paul did desire an apology from those who abused him (Acts 16:37). But, even in this, he did not attempt to create a scene. On one occasion, after being beaten to or near death, he returned to the city out of which he was taken, but Luke does not tell us why (Acts 14:19-20). Later, Paul was arrested (Acts 21), and before governor Felix denied the charge that he was an insurrectionist or stirring up a crowd (Acts 24:5-13). This was not his mission. It is not ours either. We all really know this, I think, but we sometimes face the fact that our practice is not the same as the principle we preach (like continually telling ourselves that we need to turn the world upside down). We either need to change our practice (and try to cause trouble) or change our principle (that is an encouragement to the causing of trouble)!
Sometimes we preachers have created false impressions because our own impressions were based on ignorance rather than truth. It is a confession I make. All honest preachers are in the same situation I am in, too. At times we have fostered a kind of obligation based on our faulty “understanding” of that alleged and supposed obligation. Trying to encourage brethren to turn the world upside down was one of those.
The picture in the New Testament of the life of any faithful Christian—including preachers—is a life of quietness and peace (1 Tim. 2:1-4)! According to Paul, it is social peace that is conducive to the spread of truth—not riot or turbulence or agitated resistance. So, why would we ever think that the intentional effort to stir up trouble (turn the world upside down) would be Scriptural? Even in the days when the “great commission” was in effect and being carried out, our brethren were still being taught by inspired men to be ambitious to be quiet, to take care of their own business, and to do their own work so as to produce the best effect in community (1 Thess. 4:11-12). Such an obligation was never intended to be an impediment to preaching and teaching the gospel, however (1 Thess. 1:7-8). These two passages from 1 Thessalonians show us that the brethren in the first century were involved in the spreading of the gospel without attempting to cause upheaval in the community and the world. Should error be exposed with truth? Of course (1 Tim. 3:15; 1 Pet. 4:11). Should sin be identified and condemned? Yes (Eph. 5:7-12). However, as the local church supports the truth (1 Tim. 3:15), we at the very same time do so while trying to be at peace with all men as much as possible (Rom. 12:17-18). We are not under obligation to make men angry. If they get mad at us, let it never be a fact that we tried to provoke such.
Honorable controversy (public debate) is, in my judgment, one way of helping people to understand more truth, but I do not ever plan on being a part of a mere fuss or wrangle, and certainly not a violent dispute. In our public services of the church, we still support the truth in our communities. It is not our fault when others do not come because they do not want truth. Men still know how to find the grocery store, the post office, and the hospital. They can find us, too. But, in TV programs, information sent out through the mail, newspaper articles, etc., we can still try to keep truth before a public, interested or not, without imposing ourselves on them. And in other cultures, we can do even more because of their interest in the gospel which is so new to them. Some efforts at evangelism will work in some cultures that will not work in others. But regardless of culture, it is never right to try to cause trouble. We can contend for the faith (Jude 3), and we need always to be ready to give articulated defense of our hope (1 Pet. 3:15), but we do all in love (1 Cor. 16:14). And even when the method for the moment must be sharper (1 Cor. 4:21), the motivation is still to be one of love, and never to be the willed desire that a scene is stirred up.
Finally, remember, it is God who ultimately controls evangelism. He is the only one who can open and close the doors (Rev. 3:7). Only God knows when and where and how the gospel is best spread (Acts 16:6-10).