I’ve been thinking about truth telling.
Our son is a writer. He’s also a cicerone. A cicerone is to beer as a sommelier is to wine. So Joshua is a certified, card-carrying beer expert. When it comes to beer, he really knows his stuff. To sum up, our son is a writing cicerone (Google “Josh Ruffin Paste” to read some of his beer articles. You’ll be entertained, even if you don’t drink beer.)
Joshua once wrote an article about a particular challenge he faces as a cicerone who works in an establishment that sells a lot of different beers. He said that he has to walk a line between his responsibility as a cicerone to educate people about beer and his responsibility as a customer service person to accept it if someone wants to restrict their choice to what she’s always drunk. He must balance his calling to expand people’s beer perspective and experience with the requirement that he give the customer what he wants. He wants to give folks the wide, wide world of beer, but he has to respect their choice to stay in their little lager corner.
Joshua said he faces another, more personal challenge on top of that one: he really doesn’t want to come across as a know-it-all, which is hard to do, given that he is likely to know more about beer than anybody else in the room, unless he happens to be at a cicerone convention. The challenge, then, is one of truth-telling. If someone says that Budweiser is the best beer in the world, he knows that’s not true and he needs to say so. But, if that person’s experience and worldview keeps them locked into that opinion, he has to be wise enough to back off, or at least to present his counter-arguments with tact and subtlety.
I have a similar struggle in trying to tell the truth about God, about Jesus, about the Bible, and about Christianity.
I’m an expert, you see.
I’ve been a Christian minister for forty years. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Religion from a fine university. I earned a Master of Divinity degree and a Doctor of Philosophy Degree from an excellent seminary. I have worked as a scholar for thirty years in various roles: pastor, professor, writer, and editor. The study of the Bible and the practice of the Christian faith have consumed me for most of my life.
So most of the time, I know more about the Bible and about the Christian faith than anyone else in the room. That’s no brag. It’s just fact.
I find myself facing the same challenges with the Christian faith that Joshua does with beer. I know the difference between good Christian practice and bad Christian practice and between good biblical interpretation and bad biblical interpretation. I know there are better ways to live out the Christian faith and to read the Bible than the ways lots of Christians are following. But people know what they know, they’ve experienced what they’ve experienced, they’re accustomed to what they’re accustomed to, and they like what they like.
On the one hand, my reflex is to leave people alone and not upset their spiritual equilibrium. On the other hand, I have a responsibility to bear witness to the best truth I know.
I don’t want to come across as a know-it-all. I do not in fact know it all. But I have the privilege of knowing quite a lot about the Bible and about Christian faith and practice. All these years of study have been a great blessing from God of which I’ve taken advantage as best I can. I don’t believe that God gave me that gift just for my benefit. What’s the point in knowing stuff if I don’t share it?
I remember what my seminary professor the late Dr. Page Kelley told me one day in his office. We were discussing some of the struggles over the Bible that were then taking place in the Southern Baptist Convention. He told me that much of the blame had to be laid at the feet of seminary graduates who accepted what they learned about the Bible but who then didn’t tell the churches they served what they had learned.
Don’t I have an obligation to tell the truth that I know?
When I was a young minister, I heard about a pastor who said that people should look to their pastor like they look to other professionals in their life. So, if they have a medical issue, they consult and listen to their doctor. If they have a legal issue, they follow the advice of their lawyer. And, he said, if they have a spiritual issue, they should seek and follow the advice of their pastor.
I recoiled at what he said. After all, I took seriously the priesthood of every believer. I believed in deciding by consensus because we all have access to the Spirit of God.
I still believe that.
As time went by, however, there were many times when I wished that people would just listen to me. There were times when folks were just wrong in the way they read the Bible. What I ran into most often was a failure to read the Bible through the lens of Jesus. So many people follow what my mentor the late Dr. Howard Giddens called the “flat Bible approach,” by which he meant that they gave Leviticus the same weight as John. My particular spin on that is that all of the Bible should be read through the witness of Jesus. Proof-texting is therefore out. As Christians, we need to read the whole Bible in light of God’s ultimate revelation in Jesus. So, for example, while there are places in the Bible that advocate an eye for an eye, I must see those verses in light of the Savior who told me to turn the other cheek and who prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” as they were crucifying him.
There is this, though: one does not have to be formally educated in holy things to know God. I have known some people in my life who, while they had none of the academic training that I have, knew God much better than I did. That’s a fact.
But that doesn’t change the facts that I know what I know and that I often—usually, even—know more about the Bible and Christian practice than anyone else in the conversation.
I want to share it. I want people to hear it.
Mainly, though, I want to say what I say with grace and in love. And I want to be heard in the same way.
I know you like Pabst Blue Ribbon.
But look, I have this really nice Sweetwater ...