Last week I wrote of marriage and its potential to convey an essential distinction in the way we in the church can practically demonstrate the witness-bearing love for one another of which Jesus speaks. The issue of marriage within the church must be taken seriously if we want to be faithful to the gospel mission.
I hope my article served to stimulate some to action, to raise questions within your respective churches—such as, “What are we doing to promote and preserve marriages in our church?” and “Have we become indifferent to divorce?” or “Do we really understand marriage from a biblical perspective?” I hope some pastors were challenged to consider teaching on the subject beyond the popular topical level and instead address the sin and selfishness that leads to divorce. I hope others have grasped that teaching the saints about marriage serves the Great Commission by making disciples.
I now want to take up Paul’s charge that “love believes all things.” Once again, Paul is speaking about our relationships within the body of Christ. Paul is not calling for a foolish gullibility. However, being guarded against the possibility of being taken advantage of is not correct either. If love believes all things and love is our motivation, then suspicion has no place. If one has a need and we are able to meet that need, we do so without any expectation (see Matthew 5:41). You may be taken advantage of; you may suffer a loss. You may even look foolish to the world for doing so. So what? We serve one another without qualification in obedience to Christ.
Furthermore, this passage means that we begin from a position in which we think the best of each other, rather than assuming the worst or judging another’s unspoken thoughts and motivations. I can think of no other attribute more lacking in the church today than this.
I have received many e-mails over the years from people who want me to “take on” this Christian leader or another whom they are convinced is “destroying the faith.” Often these positions against one another are political issues common to the culture wars more so than doctrinal issues. For example, such-and-such doesn’t share our emphasis (i.e., conservative) on same-sex marriage, politics, or the culture in general, so some feel justified to publicly attack because they have elevated these political positions to essentials of the Christian faith. Recent reactions to Rick Warren are an excellent example of this.
I myself have received personal attacks, such as one recently from a woman who charged me with “leading millions astray” because, according to her, I was “emphasizing relationships and community over being obedient to the Scriptures.”
I think I am actually “emphasizing relationships and community in obedience to the Scriptures,” but nonetheless, her correspondence was anything but an attempt to believe the best about me. She wrote, “You have forgotten what the Scriptures say and you have replaced it with this unbiblical mumbo jumbo … You have strayed from the path and you are dragging many people with you … you should be ashamed of yourself …. You and people like you are the single biggest reason we are ‘losing the culture war!’” Those are pretty strong words from one who claims to be my sister in Christ.
Does this mean you can’t disagree with me or any other Christian for that matter? Certainly not! Anyone who is mildly familiar with church history would see that orthodox Christians have, throughout the centuries, held differing views on a multitude of important political and theological issues. It was at the height of such controversy that the Puritan writer Richard Baxter (1615–91) issued his famous appeal: “In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.” Baxter was appealing to the principles laid out in 1 Corinthians 13.
I am called to teach and preach and the Lord in his providence has afforded me the privilege to do so, but I do not think for a moment that I speak “in the name of the Lord.” I can be wrong in my efforts to process and understand the mysteries of God, and so can we all. You can hold a different opinion about this or that theological matter and we can both remain Christian. The church is filled with various and opposing interpretations of biblical doctrine that remain well within the pale of orthodoxy! Christians can clearly be wrong about some things and still be Christian. Recall Apollos who, “being fervent in the spirit,” required Priscilla and Aquila to explain “the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26). This would be expected among people who are saved by grace and not by knowledge, wouldn’t it?
How many times have you heard the phrase “doctrine divides?” In response, I would say it isn’t doctrine that divides us but rather epistemology. In other words, it’s what we think we know with certainty that divides us. Such certitude is presumptuous and arrogant, the height of hubris when measured against the humility of Paul, who in the same chapter on love conceded the presence of mystery when he wrote, “Now I know in part” (1 Corinthians 13:12). If the apostle Paul did not know the truth completely, then neither do you or I. The consequence of this fact should be a more humble epistemology that is more inclined to listen, to process and ponder, rather than critique and attack.
If one brother disagrees with another he can express that disagreement in a way that preserves the love and unity that Christ speaks of. Thankfully, I hear from some of these as well, such as a pastor who recently sought clarification and better understanding (very graciously) of my thesis before drawing his conclusions. As one who challenges the church to think and question our most common assumptions in the light of Scripture, I am always deeply grateful for such brothers and sisters. They express a rare spiritual maturity and openness. The pastor and I corresponded, dialogued, and he was satisfied that his initial perception was not entirely accurate. You see, this brother began by thinking the best of me, as 1 Corinthians 13 commands, rather than the worst. We were able to dialogue, exchange ideas, and expand each other’s perspective—and not only was unity preserved but a relationship formed.
How often do we find ourselves being critical of others, judging others in order to feel better about ourselves? Jesus addressed this very issue in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (see Luke 18:9-14). The question we must ask ourselves is this: Am I like the Pharisee who elevates himself above other believers, thinking “I’m the true Christian” ready to condemn those with whom I disagree? Or do I see myself as the tax collector, an undeserving sinner who humbly pleads for God’s mercy? The former is self-righteous, contentious, and divisive, displeasing to God; while the latter is “justified,” a man who is humble, judging only himself.
If we spent more time judging ourselves, critiquing our own faith, knowing the truth of our own condition, we would inevitably be a people who could not help but believe the best of one another.
© 2009 by S. Michael Craven
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S. Michael Craven is the President of the Center for Christ & Culture and the author of Uncompromised Faith: Overcoming Our Culturalized Christianity (Navpress, 2009). Michael's ministry is dedicated to equipping the church to engage the culture with the redemptive mission of Christ. For more information on the Center for Christ & Culture, the teaching ministry of S. Michael Craven, visit: www.battlefortruth.org
Michael lives in the Dallas area with his wife Carol and their three children.