Do You Polish the Brass on a Sinking Ship?
Jan 13, 2016 by Joel McDurmon

I had to chuckle a few days ago when I once again read that old premillennialist’s canard, “The world is a sinking Titanic. . . .”

This metaphor was made famous, of course, by the 1950s radio preacher J. Vernon McGee, who warned his listeners with the rhetorical question, “Do you polish brass on a sinking ship?”1 Apparently, McGee used the metaphor often, elsewhere referring to the “sinking ship of civilization.”

The image has always been used to scare Christians away from works of charity and cultural improvement. These are derogated as far secondary to the main “last days” work of soul winning. And when they say the Christian’s job is soul winning, they mean only soul-winning, and winning only souls. Anyone who spends time implementing God’s law in the areas of education, politics, economics, family, business, charity, work, etc., will receive unto themselves the damnation of the dispensationalists. McGee followed his “sinking ship” remark by condemning those Christians who do “polish the brass” as he put it:

if they’re working on setting up new institutions, instead of going out and winning the lost for Christ, then they’re wasting the most valuable time on the planet earth right now, and that is the serious problem.…

The same image recurs today in dispensational denunciations of dominion. As Gary DeMar (ironically, for an article on sinking ships, “DeMar” literally means “of the sea”) quoted the other day, modern-day Israel idolator Jan Markell insists:

The church is not in the business of taking anything away from Satan but the souls of men. The world is a sinking Titanic ripe for judgment, not Garden of Eden perfection. Jesus will take dominion of the cleansed earth. For men to speak of doing that before the judgment of this earth is spiritually arrogant. I encourage you to flee such false teachers.

Logical Problems

Despite its durability, the problems with the “sinking ship” image are numerous, both biblically and strictly logically. For starters, McGee’s question commits more than one informal fallacy of reasoning. It commits the fallacy of “Complex Question” by loading an assumption into it. This is akin to the form, “Does your wife know you’re having an affair?” The question assumes that its target is indeed cheating on his wife. Whether he answers yes or no, he allows the assumption to stand, and thus condemns himself by answering. Instead, he should criticize the question first.

The same thing goes with Dr. McGee’s, “Do you polish the brass on a sinking ship?” The victims of this question should force the presumptive inquisitor first to prove that the ship is indeed sinking. We will press this issue in a minute.

The question also engages in the fallacy of Epithet, which refers to using descriptive words that skew the weight of meaning in the question. By characterizing Christian institution-building as the menial task of “polishing the brass,” McGee essentially demeans the endeavor to begin with. Whether the ship is sinking or not, polishing its brass hardly takes priority of many other matters, for example, navigation or engine maintenance.

Even given that the ship was sinking, we could still find a better metaphor for Christian work in society. While it would be pointless to polish brass on a sinking ship, it may not be unimportant, for example, to repair the breach in the hull. Christian social reconstruction may in fact be a vital job in regard to the ship of society, and if so, should be represented this way by preachers like Dr. McGee.

Additionally, such a possibility demands first an assessment of the nature and degree of the damage. This is another assumption the escapists load into the image: not only is society a sinking ship in their view, it is irrevocably sinking, doomed to be sunk, beyond repair, beyond hope.

Christian Reconstruction, Dominion Theology, etc., sees the picture differently: While soul winning is of extreme importance, it is merely the beginning of Christian life. This New Life is meant to develop into that of a mature Christian, readily conforming to God’s law in every area of life, family, work, church, government, etc.

The “sinking ship” mentality ignores—in fact, condemns—such maturity because that mentality makes fatal assumptions and fallacies up front. It is a presumptuous and fallacious question.

Biblical Problems

But more importantly, this anti-culture “sinking ship” metaphor is simply nowhere found in Scripture.

Has ever a single non-Scriptural piece of pulpit poetry ruled such a large portion of Christian thought for so long (60+ years)?

Think about it. In Scripture, the image is just the opposite—that of an ark which remains afloat despite the greatest of storms and floods. Peter calls upon the image of Noah’s ark in order to assure his persecuted readers and hearers that Jesus has prevailed over the grave (which the flood symbolized, in part) and by His resurrection has saved us, His baptized (“flooded,” so to speak) believers, as well.

Traditionally, therefore, the “pew” or middle-section of a church building has been called the “nave.” The word is brother to our word “navy.” Both derive from the Latin navis, meaning “ship.” The Church in which baptized believers receive God’s Word and Sacraments is, figuratively, the ship, or ark, in which we are saved.

The same Jesus who overcame death has power over the forces of nature. Thus, while the sea-faring disciples despaired as “there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full” (Mark 4:37), Jesus had no concern at all.

But the ship was full of water, about to sink! And what was Jesus doing? He was doing something significantly less productive even than “polishing the brass”—he was sleeping. He was fast asleep, as the text says, “on a pillow” (Mark 4:38).

In other words, he was so far from worried about the ship sinking that he purposefully found a pillow and took a nap, and even snoozed right through the storm.

He did, anyway, until his worried disciples awoke him. Then he rebuked them—not for waking him, of course, but for having no faith in the midst of the storm, and thinking that the ship was sinking (Mark 4:40).

This rebuke serves well for today’s faithless shipmates as well. The premillennialists have convinced themselves that Satan rules the world and that decline in society is inevitable, so any attempt to face the storm, stay the course, endure the swells of secularism before Jesus shows up physically is an exercise in futility. But these have misunderstood the Scripture. This same Jesus expected His disciples to exercise their own faith without needing His physical presence (His spiritual presence is always here anyway). This is the exact message we get from Jesus at the Great Commission:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matt. 28:18–20).

What we learn from just this passage completely blows the “sinking ship” metaphor out of the water (forgive the expression):

First, Satan does not have rights or power over society; Christ has all power in heaven and on earth.

Second, “therefore” means “in light of this fact”—the fact that Jesus has all power. In light of His power over all things, we are to go and make followers of all the nations.

Third, making disciples involves baptizing them. Baptism—a little flood—represents death and New Life in Christ. We are literally to flood the nations and resurrect them in New Life. This is just the opposite of the premillennialists’ view. Rather than secularism and Satanism flooding and sinking the ship of society, Christians are to flood out the secularism by making disciples. It is by the waters of Christian baptism that the ship of society remains afloat.

Fourth, please note that according to Christ, disciple-making involves more than “soul winning.” We are to aim at more than that beginning part of Christ’s message that saves the soul. Rather, we are to train the nations to “observe”—that is, “obey”—all that Jesus has commanded us. This includes all of God’s word; not just the tiny portion that speaks of the souls of men, but also the vast majority which teaches law and wisdom for living, rearing families, learning, doing business, running governments, etc.

Finally, Jesus assures us that in this endeavor, He will be with us. Despite the fact that He soon ascended into heaven out of these very apostles’ sight, He assured them that He would remain with them in the Commission that He gave. In other words, the premillenialists’ insistence that Jesus must be physically present upon earth in order for His kingdom to change society fails to live up to Jesus’ own words. His physical presence here is not needed for this to happen. He has all power in heaven and on earth, and He can calm the storms of earthly society as easily from His throne in heaven as He did from His pillow in Mark 4.

The ship is not in danger of sinking. Jesus is the captain of the ship, and He will not allow it to sink.

Waxing Worse and Worse

Nevertheless, I have said above that victims of the “sinking ship” question should force the presumptive inquisitors first to prove that the ship is indeed sinking. This they believe they can do, and often attempt to do so by pointing to Scriptures that they construe as predicting a decline of society before Jesus returns. One favorite passage of Scripture is 2 Timothy 3, which says,

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.

The premils reason from this passage thusly: How closely this describes our own times! And since it says this will come about “in the last days,” well then, we must be living in the last days.

Our “sinking Titanic” proponent, Ms. Markell herself, uses this very argument against those Christians who would dare try to impact society: “There is no Biblical support for this belief, for the Bible teaches just the opposite. In the end of days, bad things will wax worse and worse.…”

Unfortunately, these reasoners do not make much of the rest of the very passage from which they quote:

Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith. But they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men (2 Tim 3:8–9).

Notice, that despite how bad some people get “in the last days,” they nevertheless do not prosper. “They will not get very far.” Just as Pharaoh’s magicians opposed Moses, so these types of men oppose Christ. And, just as Pharaoh’s magicians were defeated by Moses, so these bad men will be overcome by Christ, and this will happen in a way that is plain to all.

These Last Days

Even more convincing is the biblical usage of the phrase “last days.” For Paul, everything he said about these decadent persons was meant to be immediately instructive to his audience at that time. It is fairly clear even in 2 Timothy that the references pertain to the rise of false teachers that had already come among them then (see 2 Tim. 2:16–17). Thus, his warnings about false teachers in 2 Timothy 3 have reference to problems the church faced already at that time. Thus, “the last days” pertained to them already.

This grows even more clear from other Scripture references to “last days.” Hebrews 1:2 makes it absolutely undeniable that the last days were expiring then, at the time that letter was being written. It in fact not only refers to “last days,” but specifically to “these last days.” While God had spoken at many times and in diverse ways in Old Testament times, the author says, He has now (that is, in the first century while he was writing) spoken definitively “in these last days” through His Son.

This means two things: first, it means that the time in which the writer was writing was the last days. The author of Hebrews makes this clear with the near demonstrative pronoun “these”: “these last days,” refers to the days which that author could call near to him. Second, it means that the time in which Jesus was revealed to the world was the last days. This information comes out again in other places, such as Hebrews 9:6 and 1 Peter 1:20:

But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself (Heb. 9:6).

He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you (1 Pet. 1:20).

Both passages confirm that the time in which Jesus appeared was indeed the last days, or the end of the age.

Peter had affirmed the same, essentially, earlier during his Pentecost sermon. After the Spirit fell, the flames appeared, and the tongues revealed, Peter explained to his audience that “this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh…’” (Acts 2:16–17). For Peter, then, Joel’s “last days” prophecy was fulfilled in the Day of Pentecost event. This means, again, that the apostles and their contemporaries were living “in the last days.”

So it is no wonder that Paul would refer to the false teachers that perturbed Timothy’s church as products of the “last days.” Similarly, Jude addresses the rise of false teachers among his immediate audience by reminding the Church of the words of Jesus and the apostles, that false teachers would come “in the last time” (Jude 17–18). If the predicted false teachers had already come, then Jude was affirming that the last days pertained to his contemporary time.

Why did they understand their days to be the last days? All the apostles and earliest Christians judged the continued clinging to Old Testament forms and structures as apostate and Satanic, ripe for God’s judgment which was, to them, right over the horizon within a generation. Since unbelieving Jewish society had rejected the Messiah and His New Covenant, they had condemned themselves (Matt. 27:25) and their contemporary society was waxing worse and worse toward that Judgment Day. In those last days, the end of that age—the last days of the Old Covenant system, the end of the Old Covenant age—false teachers and godless people were waxing worse and worse, persecuting the Christians and trying to corrupt the fledgling Church.

Jerusalem, the Mother of Prostitutes and Abominations

Jesus had predicted Jerusalem would fall because she was responsible for “all the righteous blood shed upon earth” and that she was “the city that kills the prophets” (Matt. 23:35, 37). From this sweeping condemnation we can learn that the city called “Babylon” in Revelation 17 and 18 is not the Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar, but Jerusalem mystically named Babylon because she had corrupted herself and become like that ancient Empire:

The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet [colors of the chief priest and the Temple], and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality. And on her forehead was written a name of mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations” (Rev. 17:4–5).

And how do we know this blasphemous Babylonian “mystery” whore is indeed Jerusalem? Because she is pronounced guilty of the exclusive crime which Jesus earlier pinned on Jerusalem:

And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.… Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying, So will Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence, and will be found no more.… And in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slain on earth (Rev. 17:6, 18:21, 24).

It is hardly possible that two cities can both be guilty of killing all the prophets and all who have been slain in the earth. Jesus clearly attributed this crime to Jerusalem; so we must conclude that here in Revelation, “Babylon” is a “name of mystery” because it symbolizes what Jerusalem had become.

Thus, it is highly likely that when Peter wrote his first epistle from “Babylon” (1 Pet. 5:13), he was literally writing from Jerusalem, which he had by then already condemned “in these last times” (1 Pet. 1:20) as Babylon. It was not uncommon practice in that window between Christ’s ascension and Jerusalem’s destruction that the New Testament writers symbolized Jerusalem with the names of the great enemies of God’s people down through the ages. Thus, Revelation speaks of “the great city” where the “Lord was crucified”—obviously Jerusalem—“that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt” (Rev. 11:8).

How anti-Semitic of that John! Calling Jerusalem “Sodom” and “Egypt” instead of “praying for her peace” as dispensationalists demand we do. The nerve of him.

Thus it is understandable when Paul compares the false teachers creeping in the church to Pharaoh’s magicians (2 Tim. 3:8–9). Likewise, Matthew 2 presents Jesus as the New Israel fleeing from the new Pharaoh who kills all the male babies. Except the roles are reversed: Jesus’ family has to flee into Egypt in order to avoid this new Pharaoh, who is Herod. Lesson: Israel has become like Egypt, the enemy of God’s people, and Jesus is the true Israel.

Thus it is further understandable that the inspired writers would refer to their persecutors and false brethren in their Church as “them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 2:9).

Conclusion

We are not living in the last days. The writers of the New Testament were living in the last days of the Old Covenant. Thus they could write of “these” last days. The decline of society, false prophets, etc., spoken of as occurring during those last days pertained to the days in which the apostles were writing. Thus, we are not to expect an inevitable and irreversible decline of society which teachers like Ms. Markell claim, certainly not based on 2 Timothy 3.

Besides, even if we should expect a fulfillment of 2 Timothy 3 today, the passage does not conclude that the evil men will completely sink the ship of society. Rather, it says their folly will be clear to all, and that they will not prosper. But since it is so clear from Scripture that the New Testament era was itself the last days, then we can understand the destruction of that Great Whore and Synagogue of Satan, Jerusalem, as that very defeat of God’s enemies that would be so clear to all. The destruction of Jerusalem was the Victory of God’s Church.

Indeed, Paul had promised as much to the Roman church which had been so beset with agitations from false Jews (Rom. 2:25–29). He told them, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom. 16:20). What could he have been referring to that would happen under their feet “soon” (not 2000 years in the distant future for his audience)? I believe he was anticipating the destruction of Jerusalem, which would end the Old Covenant system which had been the source of so much division and strife in the Church.

This is all in our rearview mirror. Thankfully, the ship of society has divine rearview mirrors—the history revealed in Scripture. They lived in the last days. They witnessed the decline, apostasy, and false Christs. They saw God’s judgment fall on the Whore of “Babylon,” just as Jesus predicted in Matthew. They began the Great Commission.

Our job is not to fear the ship will sink, let alone abandon all the necessary work that the Great Ship of Christianity requires to be done. Our job, rather, is to build more ships, encompass more of the world, and spread the glory of Christ from sea to shining sea—every sea in the world.

And if the brass gets polished in that process, then the shining seas will shine all the more. Praise the Lord.

[This essay and many more like it are available in the author’s book Jesus v. Jerusalem: Jesus’ Lawsuit Against Israel.]

  1. Quoted in Gary North, Rapture Fever: Why Dispensationalism is Paralyzed (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1993), 100 []