By Jack Wilkie
I understand the headline is fairly provocative, so I’ll get right to the point I want to make – we put far too much emphasis on our own rightness. Right doctrine that leads to right actions is critically important, but if we’ve come to the place that our rightness outranks Jesus in terms of where we direct our attention (and I believe we have), we have a problem. In his book on modern idols (“Counterfeit Gods”), Tim Keller pointed out this issue by saying, “Idolatry functions widely inside religious communities when doctrinal truth is elevated to the position of a false god. This occurs when people rely on the rightness of their doctrine for their standing with God rather than on God himself and his grace.” We aren’t saved by being right about everything and perfectly understanding the Bible. We’re saved by God’s grace as long as our faith is continually placed in Jesus.
How do we know if this is a problem? What does an over-emphasis on our rightness look like?
It looks like a constant dwelling on the doctrines that set us apart from others, like baptism, music, women’s roles, and the like. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t teach correct doctrine… but congregations filled with baptized people who sing a capella every week don’t need regular sermons on baptism and instruments. And yet without fail baptism and the instrument are regular sermon features. Beyond that, it’s no secret that writing blog posts about these same topics will almost always get more reads and shares than articles on any other topic.
It also looks like condescension toward outsiders who disagree. While we should never condone false doctrine, we also shouldn’t automatically write off as heretics any who disagree with us. What if Apollos had been treated that way (Acts 18:24-28)? Shouldn’t we treat others with gentleness and patience the way Aquila and Priscilla treated Apollos? Unfortunately, mockery and harsh criticism of those who disagree isn’t all that uncommon in the church.
Additionally, it looks like unfriendliness and unwelcomeness toward any who dare to question. The implication is fairly common in the church today that all of the major doctrines (and minor ones, for that matter) were decided once and for all decades ago and we don’t need to revisit or discuss them anymore beyond a memorized defense.
Finally, it looks like an ever-shrinking window of fellowship. The more emphasis we place on rightness, the less room we leave for grace to cover misunderstandings or disagreements on the finest points of the faith. As one of my preaching school instructors joked, “As far as I can tell, the only people who are getting into heaven are me and my wife – and I’m not so sure about her.” The Bible is a thick book with a lot of difficult issues. Making every last issue a “salvation issue” and refusing to fellowship anyone who may believe differently on even the tiniest area of interpretation shows an unhealthy emphasis on our own rightness. Consider that thought – just how tight is your window of fellowship? What (or how much) can a person misunderstand and still be considered a Christian? If the answer to that second question is “nothing” or close to it, consider how much you’ve limited God’s grace and how that applies to you (Matthew 7:2).
Those are a few signs of an over-emphasis on our rightness, and I think that many will agree that each one is fairly common in the church today. Why does it matter, though? Consider three negative effects that show up when we put too much focus on how right we are.
It keeps us shallow. When we’re constantly covering baptism, the instrument, and the other doctrines that set us apart from the denominational world, growth comes to a halt. As Hebrews 5:11-14 discusses, there comes a time when we need to move beyond the fundamentals and onto the meat of the word. When the Bible is reduced to being little more than a reference book filled with proof-texts that back up the doctrines we already believe, our ability to see its application in all areas of life is hindered. Where this is the case, God’s word is used only defensively, to defend the territory we already occupy. But the Bible is a book that should transform us bit by bit every time we open it. If most of our time spent studying the Word together is focused on backing up what we already know, we’ll never move past the milk stage.
It deemphasizes Jesus, which makes us prideful. Let me put it this way – let’s say a football player makes a miraculous, all-time great play to run the ball 99 yards down the field, leaving only inches to go. On the next play, another player takes literally one step forward and scores the touchdown. It would seem pretty out of place if the one-inch run was the one that all the highlight shows and game recaps discussed over and over, right? That would make the touchdown scorer look like the hero when in reality he contributed only a step. So, who comes out looking more important when we spend a huge chunk of our sermons, classes, and articles emphasizing our one inch step into the end zone of salvation? In this way, Jesus is inadvertently de-emphasized. When our sermons, classes, and articles constantly emphasize our role in salvation, the things that make us different, and what others have wrong, it’s only natural that some would become prideful in their standing before God.
Or, it deemphasizes Jesus, which makes us fearful. On the other hand, there are those who are trained in the “rightness” doctrine who constantly question their standing. They realize that if they’re relying on their rightness, they had better not have a blind spot or a misunderstanding when they die. I’ve met plenty of Christians who say things along the lines of, “I sure hope I go to heaven when I die,” or, “I just hope I’m not missing something.” The Bible tells us very clearly that those who seek will find (Matthew 7:7-8) and that we can know that we have eternal life (1 John 5:13). That inability to feel confident that’s caused by an over-emphasis on rightness isn’t how God wants us to live. What does that say to outsiders about His love and grace if even the most faithful Christians can’t be sure? What does that say about the weakness of the cross if we could go to hell for accidentally failing to cross a t or dot an i?
How do we make the change?
We clear the table with regard to Bible study and start from the ground up. Everything must be up for questioning and discussion. Ask yourself – when was the last time I changed my mind about something in the Bible? That doesn’t mean we change just to change, because the goal is still to take the Bible for what it says. But the culture of rightness has brought us to a place where certain subjects can’t be addressed and certain questions can’t be asked, and that’s dangerously close to being denominational.
We keep going back to the Bible, going book by book and letting verses speak in their proper context. Deep, exegetical study and expository preaching will show us our God more clearly and help us rise above the shallow understanding that comes from easy, concordance-based proof-texting.
We talk to more people who don’t believe like us and show them patience as we try to help them see the light – even if they are Christians who we feel should know better.
We pray that God would give us open hearts and minds to see His word as He wants us to see it.
It’s time we turn the spotlight away from where we’re right and others are wrong, and put it back on the cross.
A dangerous trend in the churches of Christ
By Jack Wilkie