“What do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14).
Up until the 20th Century, the Russian language had no word for the concept of “compromise.” The idea of two sides each giving in a little and coming together in the middle never occurred to them. Instead, there was a winner and there was a loser. Today the Russian language has simply borrowed the English word for its own. But the absence of the idea in Russian language and culture for so long helps to explain why it was so difficult to deal with the Soviet Union back in the days of the Cold War. Arms races, communist expansion, individual liberties—progress on these issues was difficult in a large part because of Soviet unwillingness to compromise.
Compromise is important for many areas of life, especially politics. Doing the most good for the most people depends on two sides being willing to give a little away to get what they need. Without compromise much of business and government would grind to a halt.
But we also recognize there are times and issues for which compromise is the wrong path. Compromise with Hitler prior to World War II only strengthened his position and made him bold to invade more countries. We generally don’t compromise with terrorists or hostage takers lest we encourage them to more acts of violence.
God’s people recognize that compromise is inappropriate on issues settled by God’s Word. We can give in on matters of personal taste. Certain cultural practices are open for change. But compromise on faith or morals only gets God’s people into trouble. It is not enough to follow most of what God wants. We see it in the Bible again and again: it is the one thing in which someone departs from God’s way that leads to disaster.
In 1 Samuel 13, God commands Saul to wait for Samuel to come and offer a sacrifice before he goes to war against the Philistines. When Samuel was late in coming, Saul offered the sacrifice himself and went to battle. It wasn’t exactly what God said, but it hardly seems like serious contradiction of the whole faith. It’s just a little matter of who and when. How did the Lord respond? “Now your kingdom will not endure; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command” (1 Sam. 13:14).
The Christians in Galatia believed that Jesus had died to save them from their sins. But they were also beginning to accept the idea that they needed to be circumcised in addition to Jesus’ work to be saved. They weren’t denying that Jesus’ work was important, even necessary. No one was saying, “Jesus did not die for your sins.” There was a departure from the full truth of the gospel, but much of the gospel still appeared to be there. What did Paul tell them? “Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all….You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:2,4).
On the other hand, refusal to compromise often wins us the disapproval of the world around us. John the Baptist was not willing to compromise his faith and let King Herod’s adulterous relationship with his brother’s wife go on without public comment. What did he get? “When John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison” (Luke 3:20).
As we celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation of the Church, we appreciate Martin Luther’s uncompromising stand on the truth. “They tell us that one is not to quarrel so violently over one article and disrupt Christian love because of it. Nor should we consign one another to the devil because of it. But, they say, one might well yield and surrender a bit and keep up fraternal and Christian unity and fellowship with those who err in an unimportant point—as long as one agrees with them otherwise. No, my good man, for me none of that peace and unity one gains by the loss of God’s Word! For in that case eternal life and everything else would already be lost. In this matter we dare not budge or concede anything to please you or any man; but all things must yield to the Word, be they friendly or hostile.”
It takes courage and integrity to refuse to compromise God’s Word in a world that believes the only truth is that there is no absolute truth. More than anything else, it requires a sincere love for the gospel. May God preserve the preaching of that gospel, without compromise, among us.