How we Address Error: 3 problems, 5 requests

In recent days famous Christians (particularly in the SBC) have been arguing about various issues within the church. Issues range from the nature of the atonement to the role of women in the church to how much poetic license we should allow in worship music. Before you read any further, I have no intention of solving those issues in this blog post. I only want to address the manner in which we are discussing these things. To be clear, I do not always do these things well.

Necessary disclosure: Sovereign Grace Fellowship of Brazoria (the church I serve) is a member of our local SBC Association (the GCBA) and we are a part of the Southern Baptist of Texas Convention (the state convention.) We associated when we planted in 2016 with the confidence that God was leading us to do so and we have not regretted that association. As a church that strives to be a healthy gospel-centered church, we believe this to be a valuable association to enable us to do more Kingdom work than we could accomplish on our own.

But, as of late, I have personally been disappointed by our famous representatives. They have given into snippy argumentation rather than loving engagement with one another. So, in this post, I intend to line out some bad habits we have developed as a Christian culture in America (this is not exhaustive, I promise I’ll keep it brief). Then I’d like to lay out a few ways I hope people would approach me when I write something or preach something that people believe is in error. You can feel free to skim as I put stuff in bold for easy reading. Ready: let’s go!

PROBLEMS:

  1. We lack charity: In response to each other, there has been little charity. Sadly, it has become a rare occasion to grant someone the benefit of the doubt. Rather than asking for clarification, we lash out in twitter-storms at our accusers or post passive-aggressive comments on our social media platforms. This is not helpful. In this way, we are behaving much like junior high students who have yet to learn how to engage in honest, thoughtful dialogue. 1 Corinthians 16:13-14 admonishes us to “stand firm as men” AND to “let all be done in love!” The mark of a Christian is love, or charity, (John 13:35) particularly “agape” love – love that is self-sacrificing. We must consider what we say and do in the context of this defining marker.
  2. We’ve embraced sound bites: Much of what has been spoken is based on hearsay and short comments captured in sound bite formats. This should not surprise us as our culture thrives on the sound bite. Our news is boiled down to 145 characters and much of our opinions are formulated on the basis of short pithy phrases caught on cell phone video. The problem with this is that sound-bites lack clarity. 1 Peter 3:15 admonishes us to “be ready to give an answer for the hope that is in us!” The word here for “answer” can be rendered defense or the classical definition – apology. It implies a well thought out response. Sound-bites are rarely well thought out.
  3. We don’t finish books: One of the most troubling realities I have witnessed in my work as a pastor is that most leaders do not finish the books they start. This is troubling in the sense that it indicates a lack of full engagement with the author’s ideas. Most pastors I know have copious books on their shelves and seldom finish or read all of them. In the same way, our Christian culture seldom investigates the sound bites in a thorough manner. Yet Paul exhorts Timothy to “consider all that I am saying, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Tim 2:7). The exhortation to “consider ALL” seems to indicate that you should listen to the full argument before formulating your response. In our culture, however, the sound bite is accepted as if it is the complete and authoritative response of the speaker. This leads to tragic misunderstandings and demonization of ideas. Finish the book!

How I would like people to respond to me (take note- each of these assume that I have communicated poorly or I am actually wrong. I am placing myself as the errant brother in these examples.) –

  1. Assume that I am simply not clear enough or that I did not mean to express heresy. I have yet to meet a Christian teacher who purposely accepts heresy. The genuine believers that I know are trying their best to teach well. More often than not, if they are shown in Scripture where the error of their teaching is, they often do a 180. If you ever catch me in error, please assume that I did not intentionally venture into error. I may be utterly convinced that I am right, but I also may have just failed to communicate clearly.
  2. Ask for clarification: As a pastor, clarity is something that is extremely important and I am sad to say that I am not always clear. Sometimes that is because I don’t have the grasp that I should on linguistic nuance. Sometimes it is because I have not been able to crystallize the concept in my head. Sometimes it is because I am wrong. But, it is NEVER because I am intentionally trying to be false. Ask me to clarify the position I am taking and then go from there.
  3. Grant that I can be a Christ-follower and be wrong. Christians don’t always get everything right. Peter had to be confronted by Paul in Galatians 2, Paul had to be confronted by Barnabas in Acts 15, and even Timothy required some admonition from Paul! Christians do not always do what is right and they do not always get everything correct. I can be devoted to Jesus and still get some things wrong. Please consider this before condemning me as anathema.
  4. Present to me a thorough argument from Scripture and trust the Spirit to open my eyes if I’m wrong. Being a pastor invites critique from theologically minded brothers. Indeed, often people who have started to study at a deep level are quick to critique the pastor’s work and sermons. When you need to challenge something I say, please do so thoroughly. Many people ask a question with a larger/underlying question hidden behind the first. (Example: one man asks, “what do you think about famous Christian X?” Famous Christian X just wrote an article endorsing avocados. What they really want to know is what you think about avocados. But they didn’t ask about avocados, they asked about famous person X, who just endorsed Avocados… their real question is about avocados but I have no way of knowing that.) Give the entire context of your argument and grant me the privilege of struggling with a complete discussion.
  5. Be willing to accept that I may not be ready to go where you are yet. I may be the weaker brother in this discussion (as I have assumed I am for all these examples). Please grant me grace and recognize that I am still growing in Christ. I may not be ready to accept your position as viable or Biblical. If your view is correct, then the Spirit will work in me (potentially through your discussions) to correct my error. Be patient, I may not be where you are, but we’re following the same King and He will lead us.

Are there anythings you would add? How would you want someone to confront you if you were errant?

Photo by Frida Bredesen on Unsplash

Galatians 2:15-16; Brief Thoughts

15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

Tribal identification offers a certain level of confidence for the average person. It allows us to create a division between those we deem “less than” and ourselves. Labels and distinctions are often methods we use to form identities for ourselves and they provide tools by which we can categorize others. These tribal identifications can be useful when the definitions are clear and universally accepted. They can also be dangerous when they are misunderstood or given too much credence.

Paul is a Jew. That is his tribal identification. A people group that was selected by God from all the nations of the earth, led by His voice and Law throughout their history, provided for by His miraculous hand and used as His representatives on the earth. Quite a pedigree indeed! There is a great deal to be proud of in this tribal identification. Paul states, “we are Jews.” In stating this identification, Paul is asserting his own superior pedigree above the “Gentile sinners” mentioned next. Indeed, the Jewish people were given the Law and the prophets (Romans 3:1-2). The Jews are the people who have been given the Law of God and are His chosen people.

Further, note that Paul says, “We ourselves are Jews BY BIRTH.” He did not join Judaism by choice. He was born into it. He also was favored to be Jewish from the moment he came into existence. Unlike the “Gentile sinner,” Paul and his brothers were chosen as Jews. While there are numerous benefits to tribal identity, there are also some requirements. For the Jew, circumcision is required. A man must be circumcised to be a Jew. It is the identifying act given to Abraham in Genesis 17 and a part of the law that the Jews were handed down in the desert in Leviticus 12:3. So important was this identifying mark that Exodus 12 commands that the slaves of the household and those who are merely interested in observing the Passover ought to be circumcised as well.  Paul’s identity as a Jew demanded that he obey and observe certain parts of the law, for the law is for the Jews. Gentiles do not have the law. They are sinners, lawless and separated from the people of God.

What a terrifying identity to live in – one who is deemed a “Gentile sinner” before the judgment throne of God. A Gentile sinner has no hope of being accepted by God. He must become a Jew and even then he is only allowed admittance as a second class citizen and must obey the Law completely in order to be made righteous in God’s sight! In stark contrast to the Jew by birth, the Gentile sinner must accomplish an impossible task – they must become righteous after having been born unrighteous! This would be a horrific state indeed were it not for the next verse.

No tribal identification can make someone righteous. Righteousness is not achieved by the works of the law. Being a Jew, Paul had great confidence in the law and the works of the law, yet he was acutely aware of the truth that the law cannot and does not save a person. The only thing that does save a person is faith in Jesus Christ. Oh friend, can you not see that no amount of work can justify you before God!? He is holy and perfect. He has no fault within His being or actions. You stand before Him, a rebel to His perfection. What can you do to remedy such a sorry state? You can’t fulfill the law because you have already broken it in one place or another. You have one recourse of action. Throw yourself upon the mercy of Christ and trust Him to save you! Believe that Jesus, the Son of God: lived a perfect life, died on the cross to cover your sins, and rose again to bring life eternal to all who will trust Him! Salvation is at hand, just believe. No one is justified by works of the Law. Your tribal identity cannot save you. Your only hope is in Christ’s atoning work on the cross!

Paul recognized that salvation was beyond Judaism. Salvation comes from Christ and Christ is something more than Judaism. The law cannot save. Judaism and the religious systems and identities to which we cling so tightly offer no hope of salvation. While they may offer some enjoyment and understanding of how to live in this life, they offer no salvation. Only a complete surrender of identity to Christ will bring justification. “He must increase, and I must decrease” (John 3:30). Your own righteous deeds in obedience to the law cannot save. Being a Jew cannot save. Only Christ and His life will save!

Repent and believe, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!

Galatians 2:11-15; brief thoughts

11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

Conformity is a common unspoken demand of any society. When someone joins a community that community has a defining set of social norms. Sometimes those norms are explained and clearly articulated. More often those expectations are unspoken and are not so clearly defined. In order to truly integrate into the community, the adherent must submit to these demands in order to be considered a legitimate member.

As in any group, Christianity demands a conformity of sorts. The problem is that sin often corrupts our ability to discern the difference between what Christ demands and what we demand. As a result of sin, we demand that people conform to us. We have an unwritten expectation that people who come to share in Christ must behave and look as we do. They must submit to the same societal norms in which we have been immersed. When we insist on such an ethnocentric legalistic expression of Christianity, we miss the Gospel. The Gospel reaches across cultural and societal norms to establish life through the pursuit of God and His life! Indeed, Jesus does not require the Pharisees to surrender their religious customs of hand and foot washing when he goes to have a meal with them. Neither does Jesus require his fishing buddies and tax collecting friends behave as the Pharisees. He opens His arms to both groups and rescues any who will believe. He lays no additional law upon His followers.

In obedience to the Gospel, the early church opened her arms to anyone who would trust in Christ for righteousness. Peter and the disciples spoke a variety of tongues at Pentecost. They did not demand everyone learn Hebrew. God showed Peter that the Gentile, Cornelius, was admitted to the Kingdom, giving Peter a vision that defied the dietary restrictions of the Jew. He did not demand Cornelius become a Jew. Further, the model we have from Paul and the apostles at the Jerusalem counsel is one of reasoning together to understand overt Scriptural commands and exercising freedom where Scripture is silent.

Still, Peter and the apostles were just men and, even they, fall to hypocrisy at times. When Peter was worshiping with the gentile brothers at Antioch, there came a moment of such weakness. The “Circumcision party” came to join in the worship and Paul witnessed the shaming of the gospel message. Peter, desiring to be approved by these brothers, withdrew from the gentile believers.

Why did Peter withdraw? It is not common to see this particular apostle seek to accommodate the whims of men. He has a reputation as headstrong and often taking the leadership role. Perhaps Peter thought he could win over these Jews to the Gospel by showing himself to be disciplined in religious affection as they. Perhaps he was simply afraid that he would lose his prestige among the Jews, maybe even rationalizing that a loss of prestige for him would be the same as a loss for the gospel. Whatever his reasoning, Peter shows favoritism and Paul addresses him directly.

Paul’s response to Peter seems brazen and very confrontational. Indeed, Paul addresses Peter “to his face,” but he does so only because “he stood condemned!” Paul’s response to Peter was bold and forward for three obvious reasons. First, Peter was obviously in contradiction to the gospel and was in danger of God’s discipline. Paul states that Peter “stood condemned.” In saying this, Paul is framing the scene as one in which Peter is in danger of God’s intervention. He is guilty of wrongdoing and it is an act of mercy to confront him. Confronting Peter as an errant brother spares him from being disciplined as a disobedient son. Second, Peter was leading others away from gospel community. Gospel community includes ALL tribes, tongues, and nations. It is not restricted to Jewish people alone but includes gentiles as well. When Peter showed favoritism to the Jewish brothers, he was acting in contradiction to the gospel message itself. So Paul publically addressed Peter in an effort to clarify and defend the gospel witness as he states, “their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel.” Third, Paul is concerned with defending the reputation of his brothers in Christ. When Paul saw that Peter and the brothers were living in hypocrisy, he recognized a need to preserve them through a minor error that could have massive implications. Hypocrisy is a dangerous poison that can damage the testimony of even the most devout believer.

Through Paul’s example, we can see the proper way to confront one another in gospel community. As we strive to walk in gospel obedience together we must first check our motives. Paul confronts Peter because of a gospel motivation. He does not desire power, he seeks to honor the gospel and preserve his brother’s integrity. We must consider the implications of what is being confronted. Paul addresses Peter publically because multiple people were actually being addressed. He recognized that his true target was a large group of believing brothers who needed to be corrected. Finally, when we approach each other we must strive to pose the question, and not simply demand correction. Questions allow for introspection and self-examination. Paul challenges Peter and poses the question, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” His point is well made. Yet, in posing it as a question he leaves room for rebuttal. Pose your confrontation in the form of a question and you are offering grace to the person you are challenging.

Oh, that we would always confront one another with such grace!