Thursday, July 27, 2017

Disclaimers Anonymous

More and more as I observe the life and conduct of the Lord Jesus, I want to say less and say it better.

We Christians have, I think, a tendency to over-explain things, especially our own thoughts and motivations, and especially what we DON’T mean by this or that. We disclaim for good reasons and we disclaim for bad ones.

You’ve done it, I’ve done it, everybody does it. And usually it doesn’t help one bit.

Courtesy, one of my very favourite over-the-top disclaimers:
The disclaimer disclaimer
Many of these posts contain disclaimers. This is in the hopes of avoiding misunderstandings. Because many of these items are somewhat controversial, a reader’s first reaction might be to jump to a conclusion about what is being said. Disclaimers have been added in an effort to reduce such conclusion jumping. If you read something that bothers you, I’m happy to hear from you. But first re-read the post. There might be a disclaimer that addresses [your] concern. [Disclaimer: I’m not actually naive enough to think this disclaimer will help much.]
(Please note that the writer’s tongue is firmly planted in his cheek.)

The Explanatory Disclaimer

There are at least two sorts of disclaimers, and this is the first sort: the explanatory disclaimer. Its purpose is to keep the reader or listener from going off the rails and misunderstanding the point you are trying to make. It is targeted at illuminating content. It anticipates possible misreadings and attempts to correct for these in advance.

After all, as JR points out, people don’t read or listen carefully, and often start reacting before they have even taken in a quarter of what you have to say. In Internet-land, this leads to blog commentary and social media threads full of half-baked replies that have almost nothing to do with the original post, or that are full of obvious questions the author has already gone to great pains to answer. They’ve read your post or listened to your sermon ... and they’ve totally missed your point.

All the disclaimers in the world can’t help you communicate with people who don’t read or listen attentively. Still, attempting to get your point across for the benefit of others is a perfectly valid, unselfish reason for over-explaining, and sometimes we feel compelled to attempt it even when it seems unlikely to succeed, if only to cover all the bases.

But there’s another, less pure-hearted sort of disclaimer.

The Virtue-Signaling Disclaimer

You know what I mean, right? The sort of statement that starts with, “I don’t like everything he’s written, and I don’t agree with the way he treated his first wife, and I wish he didn’t play that awful rock-n-roll music, and his Reformed theology is out to lunch and he’s way off on the purpose of baptism, BUT I REALLY LIKE THIS SIX-WORD QUOTE FROM HIM ABOUT C.S. LEWIS ...”

Here the concern is not illuminating content, but rather our own intent. And who knows, when we do it perhaps we are just being extra-careful not to condemn ourselves by what we approve. I can’t say for sure.

But I am coming to realize that when I do this, all I’m really saying is, “Please don’t associate me with this guy in any way that’ll make me look bad. Because, of course, I’m much better than him in all the many ways I have just listed above. Thanks.”

Such a disclaimer says a great deal more about the person doing the disclaiming than it does about the person being disclaimed.

Unnecessary Roughness

Where the first sort of disclaimer is well-intentioned and often futile, this sort is simply unnecessary. Nobody really thinks for a second that we all agree in every single respect with every person we might quote on occasion. Nobody truly imagines that when you hum a particular Prince song you are slyly endorsing drug use. When you wear your Tom Brady jersey, logic does not dictate that you’re doing it to signal solidarity with couples who conceive children out of wedlock. Likewise, my vocal enthusiasm for President Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment is not a thumbs-up to boorishness or exaggeration. The issues are unrelated, and any sane, thinking person already knows that.

The world does not need us to announce these things. Unless people are being deliberately obtuse, they already know.

All these sorts of disclaimers do is provide us with a convenient way of letting our audience know how very spiritually discerning we are, and how we would never do those terrible, awful things this or that guy did — which may or may not be the case at all if push came to shove: most of us are poor judges of the intensity and frequency of other people’s temptations.

Hedging and Qualifying

I’m trying to picture the Lord doing this sort of hedging and qualifying, and I’m really not seeing it:

“David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord — you know, assuming you can get past that whole Bathsheba incident ...”

“Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise — though we’re wise not to read too much into some of their less mature pronouncements ...”

“If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did — except, um, for lying about his wife in Egypt and conceiving Ishmael with Hagar ...

These do not seem to me the sorts of things the Lord would have said, not least because the truth or falsehood of what a person says or does in any given moment is almost always entirely unrelated to the public mistakes they may have made 20 years ago, or five years ago, or even yesterday. It is also frequently unrelated to the incorrect, unspiritual thought processes that might complicate their views of other areas of theology. And it is really, really unrelated to whether we instinctively like them or not.

And on some level, I think we all know that.

Secretly Leaning Reformed

Anyway, I’m checking myself into Disclaimers Anonymous. I’m going to really try harder to do just a little less huffing and puffing and disassociating myself from people who haven’t got everything quite as right as I do. Because you know what the Bible says about a multitude of words, especially when they’re primarily being used to justify ourselves.

So if you find yourself unable to resist speculating that I’m quoting John Piper because I have a soft spot for Calvinist theology, or riffing on R.C. Sproul because I’m secretly leaning Reformed, feel free to ask away in the comments. I promise to answer honestly.

And as briefly as possible.


  1. Most Christians? Hmm, since most don't write and try to explain as much as some, this may be a hyperbole :-). Some translation may be helpful but not necessary to this blogger. At a pace of one large commentary a day this may simply have been lack of material and an attempt to fill that blank spot? Disclaimer, I might be back because I got bored?

    1. Regardless, we're always glad to have your company.