Great Christians can be wrong.
As a young believer, that was hard for me to accept. It can be embarrassing to go back and read about some of my English theological heroes who defended imperialism from the Bible, or American pastors who were silent on discrimination—or, even worse, accepted a “scriptural” basis for the hierarchy of the races and human slavery. Or Martin Luther who said those awful things about the Jews in his later years.
But it shouldn’t be surprising. Each and every one of us is more deeply shaped by our culture than we probably realize.
The most important thing to take away from the mistakes of our heroes in the past, I believe, is a posture of humility in the present.
By the way—small rabbit trail. This is one of the reasons we should read broadly and listen to different cultures, perspectives, and time periods. Every culture has blind spots and deficiencies, of course, but they tend to have different blind spots and deficiencies. Reading broadly allows thinkers from other cultures to point out some of the ways we have drunk our own culture’s Kool-Aid without even knowing it.
The most important thing to take away from the mistakes of our heroes in the past, I believe, is a posture of humility in the present. Rather than shake our heads in self-righteous dismay (How could they have been so backwards? Thank God we’re so sophisticated and have it figured out!), we should say, “If even those great heroes of faith got some things wrong, I’d be a fool to think I’ve got everything right.” If their sincerity was not enough to keep them from error, can we guarantee that ours will be?
Do we really think our great-grandchildren will look back at us and admire how advanced we were in our thinking, how we got everything right?
My bet is on “nope.”
They likely will look back at us and wonder how we could have been so blind on some issue.
Yet my opinions feel so right, so matter-of-fact to me right now!
We would do well to prepare for that humbling moment by humbling ourselves in advance.
This is not to say, of course, that we should stop applying gospel wisdom to politics or that we should refrain from developing firm convictions. We are responsible to search out Scripture diligently, pray for wisdom, and then apply it the best way we know how. Our advocacy can make a big difference in preserving justice and promoting life. But as we seek to walk the path of gospel wisdom, we have to show restraint and allow for correction and redirection.
Chances are, those on the political right have something to learn from the left.
And those on the political left have something to learn from the right.
And I don’t just mean we can “learn” how stupid those people are and “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” I legitimately mean that we can learn more about applying the gospel to politics. Neither right nor left sees everything clearly. This is not to say we’re both equally right. Just that together we can seek the Scriptures and apply the gospel better as we learn from each other.
When it comes to care for the poor, racial reconciliation, respect for life, freedom, religious liberty, and the dignity of all people, the dividing line in the church should not be between left and right, as if poverty relief is only a concern for those on one side of the political spectrum. The dividing line in the church is between those who care to see the poor empowered and are seeking to make that happen and those who don’t.
A UNITED CHURCH IN A DIVIDED WORLD
As Christians, our primary charge is not to transform political structures.
Our primary charge is to make disciples of all people.
J. D. Greear, Above All: The Gospel Is the Source of the Church’s Renewal (Nashville, TN: B&H Books, 2019).
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