Capitulate no more

May 11, 2011 | Viewpoints | Number 10
By Phil Wagler |

Capitulation is tantalizing. Tucking our tails is tempting. This is why stories of the persevering human spirit are so inspirational. Those who overcome the black hole of capitulation surprise us by their tenacity. Mark Twain, with whimsical honesty, captures our capitulating nature: “Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it a thousand times.” This “giving up” is so easy to do. Long-suffering is in short supply. Given the opportunity or faced with trial, we will retreat. The magnetic pull toward desertion is strong—even logical. Just ask Judas.

The church has always wrestled with what to do with those who give up. The third century Novatianist controversy raged over what to do with baptized believers who offered pagan sacrifices when faced with persecution. Anabaptists suffered because they were deemed traitors in the sixteenth century European milieu. These same Anabaptists then had to figure out what to do with their own who surrendered to capitulation. Desertion is such a kick in the gut that human beings always need to do something about it.

Apart from the Holy Spirit—whom Jesus said would empower disciples in the hour of testing—we will throw in the towel. The Spirit gives strength to stand when our knees knock. However, we can wrongly think we’re standing firm when relying solely on human wisdom and self-justifying religiosity. Capitulation is disastrous, but capitulation that speaks with a forked tongue is insidious.

Believers are called to long-suffering faithfulness rooted in this Good News: Jesus Christ came as God in human flesh. He suffered and died because sin demanded payment and he would not give up despite his very human desire to do so. He was buried, seemingly capitulating to those who would not give up their cultural and religious thrones, but he rose from the dead and lives today as Deliverer, Saviour and Lord of a new Kingdom that is on a mission of love and transformation in a treasonous world. Everything Christians are to be about is sourced in this just and loving act of God on our behalf. Jude urges us to contend for this faith, despite those who would appeal to our human tendency to give up (Jude 3-4).

The pressure on the church to capitulate comes in two forms: First, from cultural forces that see the cross as foolishness. Second, from religious forces that look at the cross as a stumbling block (I Corinthians 1:23). This second pressure is the most dangerous. External pressure tends to galvanize zeal. To build upon Twain’s metaphor, a diagnosis of cancer can often muster up the nerve to finally give up smoking. Conversely, the internal craving for a smoke can actually trump the confessed risks of inhaling poison. Likewise, the internal pressure to redefine or stumble over the uniqueness of Christ and his cross of judgment and grace is much more destructive because it normalizes and even rewards capitulation. Ever wondered why Scripture saves some of its harshest words, not for external persecutors, but the internal false teacher?  

So, does the church take capitulation seriously? How do we—even against the clear teaching of The Book—minimize and even glamorize false teaching? It is easy to do. It sells and feels good. It keeps the peace. It is philosophically sexy. It avoids the risks of making the mistakes of the past, all the while making the greatest mistake of all. To deny the Gospel of a loving and just God made flesh, crucified because of sin, and risen from the dead as Victor and Lord of all is to capitulate either to cultural trending or religious self-justification. And, this giving up becomes another sad footnote in the annals of church history littered with tales of regrettable capitulation.

Phil Wagler is married to an amazing woman named Jen, parent to five, and a pastor with those learning not to capitulate. He is author of Kingdom Culture: Growing the Missional Church (

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