How we deal with disagreement is crucial for the social well-being of our community, its unity, and reflects on the second great commandment, that we love one another as we love ourselves.
A long time back, I remember a young brother telling me that as Christadelphians, we are not “Seekers of Truth,” but “Preservers of Truth.” It sounded like something he’d gotten second-hand, one of those comfortable sorts of maxims that gets taken on board without too much thought. There was something jarring about it, and the memory of the conversation has stuck with me.
On one hand, I know what he meant. We are blessed to have a clear view of the Bible’s message, unencumbered by the traditions of men. We’ve met brothers and sisters who learned the Truth and expressed such relief to know that there is no fallen angel devil insidiously tempting us to do evil.
We’ve met brothers and sisters who were so grateful to no longer have to reconcile the notion of eternal torments with that of a merciful God. All of us are grateful to know that the “distress of nations, with perplexity” will end (Luke 21:25); that the evils of sin in all its manifestations will come to an end; that oppression, pollution, war and godlessness will end when “the earth [is] filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.” (Hab 2:14).
These are truths to be treasured, kept and shared. We are and must be preservers of such truth. On the other hand, there was something about that saying that didn’t sit quite right with me. Perhaps a bit of smugness, the sort that can lead to laziness.
More importantly, there seemed to be something rather limiting to the expression. There’s a difference between “little-t” truths (1+1=2, Wellington is the capital of New Zealand) and the “big-T” Truth: “You shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32).
We wouldn’t claim to know all of the “little-t” truth (American readers: Is Wellington really the capital of New Zealand?), so might it not be a bit presumptuous to assert that we’ve got the “big-T” Truth all tidily tucked away?
A bit more about “seeking truth.” In Jeremiah 5, God challenges the prophet and his audience to
Abraham had asked God if Sodom could be spared if 50 righteous could be found; then, if 45, 40, 30, 20, or even 10. Righteous Lot was there, but the city was not spared.
In Jeremiah’s time, the search wasn’t for 10, but for a single person, and the indication was that none could be found. What would it mean for them to “seek truth”? God said, “though they say, ‘The LORD liveth’; surely they swear falsely.” (v. 2). Seeking truth was more than mouthing the right words. Jeremiah says, “O LORD, do not your eyes look for truth?” (v. 3). As with Jesus’ saying, so with Jeremiah’s: there’s more to truth than factual correctness.
This special issue of the Tidings magazine focuses on our attitude toward truth and on the way we deal with sensitive topics. Without mentioning specifics, the topics we are thinking of are matters not covered by our Statement of Faith, or by our “Doctrines to be Rejected.”1
They may, nevertheless, be very important: our views on them may influence our outreach, and they may affect the quality of our worship. They may be matters where society’s standards and practices have changed over time, perhaps moving away from godly standards. Or they may be challenges to cultural and traditional practices with which we are comfortable, but which really don’t matter in the eyes of God.
How we deal with these things is significant because we want to see things from God’s perspective so that we may honor Him. We also must be aware of their bearing on our relations with our brothers and sisters. These two reasons comprise “the first and great commandment” and the “second [which] is like it.” (Matt 22:38-39).
The first and greatest commandment, said Jesus, is to
“love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Matt 22:37-38; Mark 12:29-30).
Seeking wisdom and understanding can mean asking uncomfortable questions, risking disagreement.
Note that Jesus adds “mind” to “heart, soul, and strength” in Deuteronomy 6:5. A mind trained in godly thinking is a natural consequence of Moses’ ordinance. Our service to God is a reasoned service based on a transformed mind (Rom 12:1-2).2 The way we think is an important manifestation of our love of The Lord God and our desire to obtain His favor. Wisdom cries out to us in Proverbs, concluding with this appeal:
Seeking wisdom and understanding can mean asking uncomfortable questions, risking disagreement. Disagreement can lead to disunity. Biblical calls for unity among believers are so numerous that we must surely take them seriously, or risk hearing the Master say, “Have ye not read?”
Yet there is something in our nature–in our flesh, that is–which makes us willing to neglect unity over quibbles. Paul addressed this explicitly in his Pastoral Epistles, warning us to “avoid foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they generate strife.” (2 Tim 2:23, see context 2:14-26; also 1 Tim 6:3-5, Titus 3:8-11). How we deal with disagreement is crucial for the social well-being of our community, its unity, and reflects on the second great commandment, that we love one another as we love ourselves.
Our motivation in presenting this special edition of the Tidings magazine is to encourage earnest and careful watching for Wisdom, seeking Truth in the sense of Jesus’ and Jeremiah’s words. It is crucial that we seek Truth, and that we do so in the right spirit, carefully discerning things that matter more from things that matter less.
Paradoxically, one of the challenges we face in discussing sensitive topics has to do with our love of the truth. As a community, we value understanding. We are deeply grateful to understand God’s purpose with the earth, to understand the sacrifice of Christ. The Truth is beautiful, and we are grateful.
We admire the Apostle Paul, who described himself as imprisoned “for the defense of the gospel.” (Phil 1:16-17). We want to “defend the Truth,” and that spirit can somehow, sometimes, make us unwilling to admit uncertainty or to challenge our thinking. This is no new phenomenon.
In 1898 Robert Roberts wrote: “There are general principles as to which there can be no compromise: but there are also unrevealed applications of these principles in detail which cannot be determined with certainty, and which every man must be allowed to judge for himself without any challenge of his right to fellowship. To insist on uniformity of opinion on those uncertain details is an excess of zeal which may be forgiven, but which meanwhile inflicts harm and distress without just cause.”3
Our goal in these articles is to promote understanding, to promote good and critical thinking—even on difficult or sensitive topics—unencumbered thinking, guided solely by the Word of God and its principles. Already in this article, I have used the phrase “the Truth” in a way that is almost a Christadelphian colloquialism.
Surely it is a lovely thing to describe our brothers and sisters as “in the Truth,” if by this we mean that they are in Christ, in the Way of Life. But there is some drift in the meaning of “in the Truth” in our usage—it becomes a shorthand for being a Christadelphian in good standing.4
The truth embodied in our Statement of Faith is precious and not to be compromised. But the Truth that is in Christ is more profound. We may have a thorough knowledge of basic Christadelphian teachings but still ought to have the humility to see ourselves as seekers of Truth. Consider the humility of spirit evidenced by the Apostle Paul in his quest to know Jesus:
These were not the words of a new convert, doubting his understanding of facts. When he wrote Philippians, Paul was ready and willing to face death for his faith (Phil 1:20-23). He was not expressing uncertainty about whether he would be in the resurrection, but about whether he has been conformed to the “likeness of his resurrection.” (Rom 6:5ff). His life was dedicated to seeking the knowledge of Christ, “that I may know Him.” Our hope in presenting this new feature is that we will stir up such eager desire to grow in Christ.
OVERCOMING DANGERS AND CHALLENGES
We need to ask ourselves if we are seekers of truth, and we need to keep on asking. There are dangers to be faced and challenges to overcome. Fear or embarrassment over uncertainty. We might regard expressions of uncertainty as weakness.
We need to ask ourselves if we are seekers of truth, and we need to keep on asking.
The result might be to seize on wrong explanations, perhaps because they’ve been offered confidently by someone respected. Uncertainty is okay as long as it’s not an excuse for a lazy mind; indeed, if we cannot accept uncertainty, we cannot learn. At the end of an essay on distinguishing “the certain, the probable, and the possible” in expositions of prophecy, Brother A. D. Norris wrote this:
“In any case, if anyone is disposed to be superior about the weakness of saying, ‘I do not yet know,’ it is well to look back on the records of those who thought they did know, and to a greater or lesser degree have been proved to be wrong. Jesus did not return in the mid1800s as the Millerites thought he would; he did not return in 1914, as the Russellites thought he would.
“He has not returned in any of the times when our own associates, and perhaps we ourselves (?) thought he would. Current events have not conformed precisely with the detailed predictions of any interpreter we know. This is not a reason for refusing to try to find the solution of the problem ourselves: it is very good reason for not being over-confident that we are right, and for asking for kindly treatment when we are wrong!”5
Potted thinking. The first danger to be confronted is complacency. The phrase “potted thinking” seems to have been coined by a British philosopher, L. Susan Stebbing (1885-1943), in her 1939 book on purposeful thinking (“potted” is an old fashioned and primarily British description for what we would call “canned,” like canned soup or sardines):
“Few true statements about a complicated state of affairs can be expressed in a single sentence. Our need to have definite beliefs to hold on to is great; the difficulty in mastering the evidence upon which such beliefs ought to be based is burdensome; consequently, we easily fall into the habit of accepting compressed statements which save us from the trouble of thinking. Thus arises what I shall call ‘Potted Thinking.’ This metaphor seems to me to be appropriate, because potted thinking is easily accepted, is concentrated in form, and has lost the vitamins essential to mental nourishment.”6
Pontius Pilate syndrome. Jesus said,
Pontius Pilate replied with the facile and lazy response “What is truth?” (v. 38). We may have heard friends and associates make similar statements, excusing themselves from inquiry, because “truth is beyond us, so why bother trying.”
We experience societal pressure to be broad-minded, to the point where we may be reluctant to seek convictions. Certainty creep. Ideas put forward as possibilities sometimes morph into probabilities, then later into certainties, simply because they’ve aged and been oft repeated. We need to fact check that “note in my Bible’s margin” occasionally.
These are but a few of the obstacles we face to clear thinking and being seekers after Truth. Can the reader supply more? We hope that this special issue will stir us up to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength.
1 This is not to suggest that the documents defining our community need to be further expanded.
2 The Greek word used for our “reasonable” service (Rom 12:1) occurs in only one other New Testament passage. This is in 1Peter 2:2 where we are exhorted to desire the “sincere” (reasonable) milk of the Word. The word of God nourishes our minds, and our actions reflect a changed mind.
3 “True Principles and Uncertain Details or The Danger of Going Too Far in Our Demands on Fellow-Believers.” The Christadelphian, May 1898.
4 It should give us pause to reflect that Jehovah’s Witnesses use the phrase “in the Truth” in precisely this manner.
5 A.D. Norris (1981). Apocalypse for Everyman. Chapter 6, excursus
6. 6 L.S. Stebbing (1939). Thinking to Some Purpose. Chapter 6. Penguin Books, NY.