Navigating the Mob

By a ‘mob’, I mean a fickle and indisciplined group of people who rise up to oppose other individuals or groups. Although mobs, and the threat of them, were evident enough in New Testament times and in more recent history, the same waywardness can now be seen online when people become stirred up. The actual live version of a mob is still possible and does occur intermittently in some parts of the world. How can Christians navigate such trouble as and when it occurs?

Fellow Jews in Jesus’ home town of Nazareth pushed Him out and nearly threw Him over a cliff, after He had applied Isaiah chapter 61 to Himself in the local synagogue (Luke 4:14-30). The apostle Paul, and others, fearlessly encountered mob behaviour and narrowly escaped most of their destructive violence, as described in the Book of Acts, in chapters 18 to 22.

In British history, groups of the early methodists (not yet a denomination) led by John and Charles Wesley were attacked by mobs. It is a wonder that only a very few deaths occurred. Those mobs were typically not a spontaneous uprising of bystanders but were groups of riotous men put up to such behaviour by obstructive local people of influence.

It is apparent that the mere possibility of exciting mob behaviour is not an excuse for Christians doing and saying nothing on controversial matters, or for us keeping quiet about the gospel. Some added level of discretion may be appropriate, but that is all. Supporters of Paul had a restraining influence on him at times, in order to help prevent harm coming to him. At other times, Roman laws and direct interventions stopped violence coming at him from mobs.

Once some mob violence had occurred to Paul and his companions, it was deemed prudent to pull out the main focus of the local people’s anger. This might involve Paul moving on to the next town, where he started preaching at least until the troublemakers of the previous town caught up with him. The Romans had an abhorrence of rioting taking place anywhere in their Empire, so the only people favouring mob behaviour were those who started it.

Charles Wesley, who we may tend to think of as a gentle hymn writer, walked forwards at times into troublesome crowds and sought out the ringleaders of a mob. In some cases, he so pacified those people that they became his supporters. Ringleaders who instigate serious trouble can even be converted, as happened to Saul who later became the apostle Paul.

It is not a good idea to pick a verbal fight with opposers, except on those special occasions when matters of gospel importance directly require it. Courage needs to be tempered with the giving of Christ-like responses to opposers, as inspired by the Holy Spirit. The giving of such responses needs some attitudinal practice and forethought, because the whole tone of it is so utterly different from the ways in which most people would respond to heavy opposition.

‘We appeal gently when evil things are said about us’ (1 Cor.4:13a). ‘Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone’ (Rom.12:18, NLT). Is it possible to point or lead a mob leader to Christ? Recognising that there are very likely to be instigators behind any mob of opposition, we can at least try.

Nigel Paterson