Of Snakes and Doves


On 10 May 1940 German troops invaded The Netherlands. Four days later German bombers, in what came to be known as Blitzkrieg (lightning war), flattened the heart of Rotterdam whereby thousands of Dutch civilians died. When the Nazis

NETHERLANDS: The Dutch port city of Rotterdam was heavily bombed by the German Luftwaffe. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

threatened to bomb another big city, Utrecht, the Dutch capitulated. For five years the Dutch suffered greatly and lived in constant fear of their lives, especially if they hid Jews or worked in the underground resistance. More than 100,000 Dutch Jews were killed, mostly in death camps. Many men were sent to work in German factories. And there was extreme hunger and cold. In that situation various leaders in the church found it convenient to reinterpret some Scriptural passages in a way that would lessen the danger. One of these passages was Matthew 10: 16: “Therefore, be cautious as snakes and upright as doves.” With an appeal to this text, elders would warn their minister to tone down their writing, or their preaching if a suspected Nazi-sympathiser was sitting in church. Were such elders right?

If you measure the outcome by results you might say, yes. A number of ministers who ignored the advice found themselves nabbed by the Gestapo and put in prison. The first was Dr K. Schilder, imprisoned for warning the church members against the dangers of the Nazis’ National Socialism. He was released after some months because the Germans, at first, wanted to curry favour with the Dutch people. But then the Nazis’ attitude hardened and a number of reformed ministers (e.g., Revs Sietsema, Knoop, Kapteyn and Tunderman) were sent to the infamous prison at Dachau. Of these, only Rev. Knoop survived. So, was the quote about snakes and doves a reason for modifying the preaching so as not to give offence and endanger one’s life? If we measure by physical results, we would conclude that the warnings were justified.

However, we are not to measure by outcomes but by the Word of God. That was a point Rev. J. Kapteyn, who perished in Dachau, made. He was very open and frank in proclaiming the gospel and could have avoided imprisonment by heeding the warnings that there were NSB (Nazi) spies in church. But Rev Kapteyn responded that he was there to preach God’s Word and would do so whether or not there were Nazi spies in church. He did not agree with church members who used Matthew 10:16 to silence him from doing his duty. Explaining this text, he said:

“Many think that this text supports them when they say that in these dangerous war years you need to be somewhat careful in what you say. They refer to this text about being as ‘shrewd as snakes’ and ‘innocent as doves’ and say: see, Jesus even commanded us to be careful in what you say; so, if you speak in a way that brings you into danger, you are sinning.

But that’s not what this text means. Christ’s words mean something radically different. He says as it were: be on your guard against all those who recommend a new truth, who proclaim a new gospel. In that way the Synod of 1936 was on guard when it branded the Nazis’ National Socialism as a huge danger for the church. To be as ‘shrewd as snakes’ here means, be on your guard against false teachings. And to be as ‘innocent as doves’ means to be honest and upright in saying what the true situation is. People need to know exactly where they stand with us and with the church. [i]

Kapteyn’s explanation fits the context of Matthew 10. For Jesus was speaking to his disciples, saying: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Those ‘wolves’ held to different ‘gospels’, different world views. Consequently the disciples, as they proclaimed the gospel of Christ, were going to face a lot of opposition, be punished, and hauled before councils and rulers. But they needed to be ‘innocent’ of wrongdoing and upright in speaking the truth openly and frankly.

That’s precisely what the apostles did. They spoke the true gospel and exposed the false ‘gospels’. They were flogged, put in prison, hauled before councils and rulers. They did not water down the truth to make it more palatable but openly proclaimed the truth of God’s Word.

Like Rev. J Kapteyn, Rev. H. Knoop (who survived Dachau) also engaged with this issue.[ii] He explains how Matthew 10 records the sending out of the 12 disciples with the command to go out and preach the coming of God’s Kingdom. They were given power to cast out unclean spirits and to heal the sick. But the Saviour adds that they will be like sheep in the midst of wolves. And since wolves are ferocious devouring animals, particularly when they hunt in packs, the disciples are to beware. And that’s precisely what the disciples do when they are as cautious as snakes and upright as doves. Says Rev Knoop:

“Now you can see that this ‘caution’ cannot mean that we must in any form soft-pedal or adjust the confession of Christ to suit circumstances …  The word ‘cautious’ in the text means that everyone who confesses Jesus Christ and acknowledges Him as Lord must take very careful account of the condition in which he lives because of this confession. But just as a snake in danger reveals a wide-awake presence of mind, is fully on guard and alert to everything that looks suspicious, does not carelessly venture without inspecting and discerning its surroundings carefully, and will not for a moment be caught off-guard or misled, thus also the church and believers must live and move in the midst of wolves.”

Applying this text to today

Now we might argue that we’re not in a war zone. We haven’t been overrun by the enemy. So, has this text a message for us? Rev Knoop says it applies just as much after the war because, although we might not be facing physical dangers, we continue to live among wolves.

“Our surroundings are hostile. It is a world with spiritual wickedness in the air. This world approaches the Christian with the temptation to weaken the confession of Christ and threatens us with dire consequences if we do not. In opposition to this, we must now stand our ground and not let ourselves be moved even an inch from the stand we have taken, and we must carefully note that dangerous temptations are threatening us.”

To link it back to the quoted text: that is to be our ‘caution’.

“This caution will lead us to the highest activity in word and deed: persevering through faith in the face of dangerous temptations and life-threats, in order to remain in the faith, to stand unmovably firm, not yielding an inch; persevering to confess the absolute Lordship of Christ over all of human life and living.”

What about the reference to doves? How are we to be ‘as upright as doves? It means, says Rev Knoop:

“Being upright in our purposes as confessors of Christ means that we will have no ulterior motives. Our sole purpose is to confess Him, and we do that as innocently as doves. Then we will have nothing secretive, nothing stealthy … we are open and aboveboard. Nothing is kept hidden or secret, all is transparent. We are upright as doves.”

So this text’s instruction for us today is never to weaken or to make vague our confession about the sole Lordship of Christ.

“We must, with eyes open for the dangers that are truly threatening, never turn aside from the way on which He has called us to bear that testimony, but we must persevere even though the wolves may threaten. We must do that uprightly and devoutly.”

To be sure, when we are open and frank about what we believe and confess, life won’t be a bed of roses. “When we do this, we will surely not enjoy ease in this world, but we are not here for our ‘comfort’ but are sent as sheep among the wolves.

Thus we will be a blessing to life, more than we can surmise. Only they who by faith have the combination – the combination of the caution of snakes and the uprightness of doves – bring blessing to life.”

Similarly, Rev. J. A. Vink also explains this text for the Church members of all time:

“The word ‘shrewd’ [cautious] in Matthew 10:16 means that those who confess Jesus Christ and believe in His name and acknowledge Him as their Lord must be keenly aware of the situation in which they find themselves.  They must be in their right mind and have the presence of mind to be able to see just what is going on around them. When a serpent [snake] is in danger, it does not easily let itself be fooled, for it is on the lookout in every direction. This is the shrewdness Jesus is talking about. The situation is that the Church community, made up of those who confess Christ, finds that it is surrounded on all sides by enemies.

The Church finds herself facing temptations, and also opposition. She must now manifest the proper presence of mind and be on her guard. She must be on the lookout in all directions to see what is tempting her and what is opposing her. She must not allow herself to ‘get off track’. Such is the ‘shrewdness’ of the Church. She works out her shrewdness not by being passive but, on the contrary, by being active, in order to be able to persevere in faith when facing the dangers of temptation.” [iii]

We are caught up in a great spiritual battle in which Christ our Lord and King calls His followers to show their colours and confess His lordship. A soft, cautious approach for fear of consequences may keep His soldiers out of trouble but is not likely to endear them to their Saviour who, through the tensions of the spiritual warfare in which we are caught up, is preparing world history for the big showdown at His return.


[i] Quoted in Rudolf van Reest, Een Bloedgetuige der kerk: het Leven en Sterven van Johannes Kapteyn (A Martyr of the Church: the life and death of Johannes Kapteyn), E A de Jager, Groningen, 1946, pp. 31-32.
[ii] Hermanus Knoop, “The Caution of Serpents and Uprightness of Doves” in A Theatre in Dachau, Inheritance Publications, Neerlandia, 2001, pp. 62-67.
[iii] J. A. Vink, quoted in Rudolf van Reest, Schilder’s Struggle for the Unity of the Church, Inheritance Publications, Neerlandia, 1990, p. 242.