Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Bad Ideas and Good People

A bad idea never once walked into your church on its own. Ideas don’t have legs.

No, bad ideas have carriers, much like the flu; infected people who transport them from location to location to allow them to spread. The carriers have smiles and good qualities and apparent wisdom in other areas of life. They have histories of service to God’s people, kids who are friends with yours, and wives who are sometimes even nicer than they are. They invite you out for meals, they volunteer to run the youth group, or they are found in the basement of the church building of a Saturday with plunger or mop in hand, cleaning assiduously.

Okay, I’ll concede that last one only happens with certain types of ideas ...

Going Viral

Carriers can be both witting and unwitting, but there are always carriers. It is the carriers that make bad ideas so hard to get rid of.

Scripture confirms this observation. The “destructive heresies” to which the apostle Peter refers came from “false teachers among you”. The men and women ruining the Corinthian Lord’s supper were also “among you”. The initiator of controversies about whom Paul warns Titus was inside the church in Crete. He was not merely passing through. The men who tried to undermine Paul’s authority in Corinth were cleverly disguised as “apostles of Christ” and “servants of righteousness”. The Judaizers in Galatia were “secretly brought in”. They were literally spies.

Not all bad ideas sink to the level of heresy, but all bad ideas get carried in.

Ideas with Legs

Big or small, practical or theological, ideas on their own might be easily rebutted, corrected, modified or savaged with impunity. But ideas attached to people are much harder to weed out, because people have friends and family. People take things personally. People get hurt when you challenge their ideas — or learn to fake it convincingly — adopting the wounded demeanor of martyrs on their way to the wall or the big eyes of a doe with its hind leg in the jaws of a lion. This is true whether you are pointing out that their new plan for the midweek meeting won’t work because it’s been tried and failed miserably just two years ago, or pointing out that their particular twist on the hypostatic union has been considered heretical by most Christian churches going on two millennia.

Ideas also have histories. Most local churches have founders and respected men who have contributed much. The ideas of such worthies about how things should be done in the church, both good and bad, live on in hearts and minds long after the carriers themselves are taken home to glory. Bring up the possibility of tweaking the Sunday School curriculum, the nursery schedule, the choice of hymns or the location of the bulletin board — let alone the idea of rethinking “letters of commendation” or reinvigorating a dying prayer meeting — and you may find the status quo has roots and associations going back decades that make it almost impossible to extricate. “John wouldn’t like that,” say the old guard, ignoring the fact that John has been gone for a decade and, had he lived, might well have modified his views in the last ten years, just as he was inclined to do in life.

Unfortunately, his memory is now locked down like a shoeprint in old concrete, and your church’s defaults are whatever the godly old fellow is thought to have espoused in his day.

Distinguishing Ideas from People Who Hold Them

For those of us trying to get things done among the people of God, it is important to keep ideas distinct from the men and women who hold them; to recognize that our fellow believers often take our objections, suggestions or critiques much more personally than we intend. We need to make it as clear as possible that we are not attacking them, their worth, their character, their wisdom, their other (better) ideas or their legacy; rather, we are holding up every aspect of our faith and practice to the light of the word of God in the hope of honoring the Lord and presenting him to the world and to his church more faithfully.

Good luck with that bit. I still struggle with getting that across.

(The exception here, of course, is when the idea and the man are so webbed together that there is no practical distinction to be made, hard as we may try to separate the two. When, for instance, the heresy is coming from a heretic; when the false, divisive doctrine is not a bug, it is a feature. When that happens, “have nothing more to do with him,” Paul says.)

Complete in Christ

What we can do, however, is ensure that WE don’t allow our relationships with others to lock us into tacitly agreeing with things about which we are not fully convicted by the Spirit of God. We can also refuse to permit ourselves to associate the acceptance of our ideas with our own personal worth. We can reject that creeping sense of personal injury that swells up inside us when someone points out that something we have taught or practiced might be in some small way less than perfectly optimal, and give some thought to whether the critics might actually have a point.

That’s easy if our identity and value is complete in Christ. It’s not so easy if we have constructed a sense of self that turns on the memories of what we have done, the success of what we are currently doing, or how we are perceived by others.

And if our sense of self depends on never being wrong about anything, we’re bound to run into major trouble.

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