As I grew up in evangelical culture—youth groups, Baptist church revivals, Newsboys concerts, etc.—one of the many mantras that I often heard had to do with “not compromising.”
“We are not ashamed, and we do not compromise!”
“If you compromise your faith, you compromise your future!”
“The world wants you to compromise, but God wants you to stand firm!”
Not long ago, I heard someone make another version of this statement. He said (with tremendous confidence in his voice), “Jesus was one hundred percent compassion and zero percent compromise!”
I mean, it sounds good because of the alliteration and all, but I thought a lot about it, and I don’t think this statement is actually true.
What the guy was trying to say (I think) is that Jesus possessed a perfectly-honed moral compass, and that he never betrayed his own values, even though he was “one hundred percent” compassionate. But that's a little more nuanced and a little less ready-made for a fill-in-the-blank church outline.
So does this sound bite-worthy statement about zero percent compromise hold up? Let’s have a look, shall we?
First of all, what does the word “compromise” mean? It’s not a word from the Bible, so we can only look at the English definition. So in pure valedictory-speech fashion, I will quote from Mirriam-Webster’s dictionary: “Compromise” means the following:
“a way of reaching agreement in which each person or group gives up something that was wanted in order to end an argument or dispute”
Here’s a secondary definition:
“a change that makes something worse and that is not done for a good reason”
So in considering what a compromise is, we see that it the act of “giving up something” in order to serve a greater purpose or changing something “for no good reason.” Of course, since we believe that Jesus was God, it would be difficult to argue that he did anything “for no good reason,” so I will concede the point on the second definition.
But that leaves us with the first definition, which raises the question, Did Jesus sacrifice (i.e., "concede" or "compromise") anything in order to bring harmony?
I would argue that yes, that’s exactly what Jesus did.
Jesus was a Jewish rabbi, which means his core values would have included all 613 of the commandments from Jewish law. One of these core values would certainly have been to keep the Sabbath day holy (it is one of the Ten Commandments, after all, so it stands to reason that Jesus would have taken this commandment rather seriously). However, there are times when Jesus “compromises” his reverence for the Sabbath in order to heal a person who is in pain (e.g., Mark 3:1-6, Luke 13:10-17, John 5:1-18, etc.). So here, Jesus compromises one value in order to hold up a higher value, which is to show compassion to another person. So Jesus compromises in the name of compassion.
In the book of Luke, Jesus tells a story about a man who is attacked by robbers. When a priest and a Levite (two holy people in the Jewish community) see the beaten man, they choose not to help him because to help a man who is naked and bloody would be to “compromise” their own ritual cleanliness (they were coming from Jerusalem, which suggests that they had been maintaining their sacred cleanliness for their period of service in the Temple). In the story, only a Samaritan is willing to become unclean in order to help the beaten man. So the two people in the story who do not compromise are the ones who are seen as missing the point (Luke 10:25-37). The hero in Jesus’ story is the one who compromises in the name of compassion.
In Matthew 26, Jesus is arrested by an angry mob. When one of Jesus’ companions tries to fight back, Jesus tells his friend to put his sword away. Jesus allows himself to be arrested and killed—he compromises his own well-being and his own power in the name of compassion toward all humanity. In fact, one could argue that the crucifixion was the ultimate act of compromise.
In the book of Ephesians, the writer Paul instructs people to “submit to one another” (Ephesians 5:21). To submit to someone else is to offer a concession—or a compromise—for the benefit of the other person and the health of the relationship. And to everyone in the community of Jesus followers, Paul says, Offer concessions to one another, because that will make you better and strengthen your relationships.
So the old youth ministry cliché of “no compromise” may sound nice, but it doesn’t really reflect the nuance of the human soul, nor does it provide a healthy place for human relationships to exist. On top of that, it doesn’t reflect the life and teachings of Jesus.
Was there anything that Jesus did hold a “no compromise” position on? Sure. There was one. When someone asked Jesus what the most important commandment in the Law was, Jesus replied like this-
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
In other words, the way you love other people is directly connected to the way you love God. They are inseparable.
So when Jesus compromises his commitment to the Law, he is somehow fulfilling the Law at the exact same time. To violate the Sabbath in order to heal someone is to love one’s neighbor as yourself. So the Sabbath is broken out of a need for compromise, yet the spirit of the Law remains intact, because the Sabbath was broken for an act of love.
All of Jesus’ “compromises” occurred out of service toward others.
When we think of “compromise,” we think of something that is ultimately self-serving: We compromise our ideals in order to make more money, or we compromise our integrity in order to win one battle or another. Admittedly, these are compromises that can lead us into dark places.
However, whenever Jesus—or Paul—compromises, it is always for the benefit of someone else. And this is our calling: to submit to one another and help other people feel loved and safe and hopeful.
One cannot be “One hundred percent compassion and zero percent compromise,” simply because compassion requires compromise—concession and submission to another.
There is a kind of compromise that builds bridges and gives new life.
There are people in this world who have been the victims of Christian bullying done in the name of “Zero percent compromise” or (even worse) “Love the sinner, hate the sin” (if you want to read a terrific piece on this phrase, take a look at Micah J. Murray’s piece here).
But when we choose to compromise our own right-ness or dogma in deference to another person’s humanity, something new comes to life. We become like the Jesus who heals on the Sabbath.
And so we make room in our churches for people who have been made to feel unwanted because they hold different opinions than we do. We provide a safe place instead of electing ourselves to be the moral police. We offer love, comfort, and support to those whom other Christians have condemned, written off, or protested against.
In short, we compromise for one another. We submit. We concede our role as the moral authority in the lives of others, and we simply offer love, hope, and faith.
In our acts of compromise toward one another, we actually fulfill our greatest calling.