I had just finished preaching a sermon during advent when, instead of congratulating me on another great sermon (okay, maybe it wasn’t great), I was greeted with this question: Why did you have to ruin our manger scene?
What I had noted, as most NT scholars would affirm, is that Jesus was not born in a cave out away from everyone (as most manger scenes depict), but that He was born in a home.
The “guest room” (kataluma) or “inn” of older translations, in Luke 2:7 was likely a portion of the main house, which was divided by a curtain. This was done to accommodate visitors since it was against the cultural practices for a man to sleep in the same room as another man’s wife.
When it came time for the baby to be born, however, there was “not enough room” in the portioned off “guest room” (kataluma), so Mary was moved to the main room of the house (i.e., the other side of the room), which may have butted up against a stable.
My point in noting this in a sermon was to affirm that Jesus was born in the midst of everyone; in the midst of the community. God entered humanity by coming in the midst of us. I concluded that we too are meant to take the gospel into the midst of our communities.
One of those listening to my sermon that week was upset because I had ruined the manger scene that he had grown up with. That is, instead of wrestling with what I presented and its implications for missional living, he rejected it because it didn’t conform to what he had always been taught.
This is a minor example of a mindset that is too often found in churches.
Jesus is Lord but not over everything?
What I have been trying to communicate in this series of posts is that one of the primary aims of the Christian life is to pursue the truth: not just what we like, or what makes me comfortable.
After all, if Jesus is the Truth, then all truth will point us to Christ. If the goal of the Christian life is to grow in the likeness of Christ, as I argued in the first post in this series, who is the Truth, then we must make truth our goal. As we do so, we will grow more in the likeness of Christ.
I am grieved when I hear Christians say, “I don’t care, I chose to believe ‘x’.” Really? Are we willing to accept what God says, or we are so arrogant that we must stick to our convictions regardless?
If I am not mistaken, repentance is the first act one does to become a Christian. In repentance, we acknowledge that Jesus is Lord and that we are not.
It seems as though for many Christians there are limits on what Jesus is Lord over. When someone says, “I refuse to change my beliefs or actions with regard to ‘x,’ what we are saying is that Jesus is Lord, but not of everything!
The truth will set you free
Jesus said, “and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). This means that following the truth will be freeing! Why then are we so afraid to determine the truth?
Problem: Truth and behavior
One reason is the truth often means that I may have to change my ways. To which I say: “so be it!” Ultimately, it will make you freer!
If we are unwilling to change our behavior, then what we are saying is that Jesus is not really Lord in this area of our lives! Our habits and way of life are more important than Jesus.
The problem with truth and convictions
In addition, the truth may mean that I have to change my convictions. But, if I cannot change my convictions, then what I am saying is that Jesus is not really Lord in this area of my life! My pride is more important than Jesus.
The reality is that at some point you may need to admit that you were wrong and that your annoying uncle, who passionately hates Christianity, was right.
Truth and our witness
My question is: what do you think would happen to your witness if you admitted to your annoying uncle that he was right about something?
Maybe such a display of integrity would open the door for him to be more willing to admit that he was wrong about Christ.
As long as we are never willing to admit we are wrong, then it is less likely that our annoying uncle will do so.
We need to consider that there may well be genuine convictions that your uncle holds to which in his mind makes Christianity unreasonable. If you suddenly acknowledge that you were wrong on an issue and have found a way to reconcile your new-found convictions with your faith, maybe it will make it feasible for your uncle to do so as well.
The church has been wrong before
If it makes you feel any better, it might be encouraging to be reminded that the church has been wrong before. As I noted in the first post in this series, the church argued for years that the earth was the center of the universe.
There are far more egregious examples as well. Many wrongly used the Bible to promote slavery. In this instance, such beliefs were not merely wrong, they were immoral.
The fact that the church has been wrong before should make us more cautious as we move forward.
What I am not saying
I am not saying that we compromise matters that are both essential to the Christian faith and have historically been affirmed by all Christians.
I am not saying that we question whether or not Jesus rose from the dead. Sure, I will consider evidence to the contrary with an open mind. But to ultimately deny the resurrection would mean to abandon my Christian faith.
I am not saying that we will always be able to discern the truth. Sometimes we will lack information. Sometimes, we will simply not have the time or energy to examine everything as deeply as needed.
This means that we should hold to our convictions tenuously. We must be willing to say, “though I believe ‘x’, I am willing to consider other opinions as I know I don’t have all the information.
I am not saying that you cannot have your opinions.
Nor, am I saying that you should never promote your convictions.
What I am saying
I am saying that we need to be more open-minded.
I am saying that we must be careful how and when (and even sometimes “if”) we present our opinions.
I am saying that our openness to the truth affects our ability to grow into the likeness of Christ.
I am saying that being open-minded affects our witness (more about this below).
I am saying that most of us have too many beliefs on our “non-negotiable” list. The fact is that there are Christians who believe in a literal Genesis to the point in which they argue that the creation began thousands of years ago and vigorously deny and form of evolution. But there are also Christians who believe that the universe is billions of years old and that evolutionary science provides the scientific explanation as to how God created all things. Maybe our view of creation shouldn’t be on the “non-negotiable” list.
There are Christians who affirm abortion on demand and those who vigorously oppose it.
There are Christians who affirm Black Lives Matter and those who do not.
There are Christians who are democrats and republicans. There are some who support the green party and some prefer no party affiliation.
This list could go on. But the point has been made. I may have strong convictions on each of these issues, but they do not belong on my non-negotiable list.
There are times in which our dogmatism is harmful to our witness
The fact is that how we argue is just as important as the issue. I recently posted this on my Facebook and Twitter pages:
“One of the things that annoys me about FB and Twitter is that people seem to believe that it is okay to act in an uncivil manner. We say things to others and about others that would never be deemed acceptable in any public context. Then why is it okay to speak this way on FB? Let’s begin to have some more decency please!”
People are watching! We are to reflect Christ at all times.
Too often our rhetoric is intended to silence our opponents instead of loving them.
Stop using condemnatory labels
Someone is not wrong because they are a “liberal” or a “socialist” or “feminist.” When you reject someone’s argument because it represents a perspective you don’t like and your response is to use a label that is meant merely to silence them and not engage, we make a mockery of the gospel.
The gospel is predicated on loving your neighbors and even your enemies. The use of such labels is an indication of disdain and disrespect.
Furthermore, it hinders our witness.
Using a label, such as “liberal”, comes across as hatred to everyone who self-identifies as a liberal. It suggests that being one of them is bad and incompatible with being a Christian (at least a Christian like you).
Using such labels communicates to persons who identify with a given label, “you are not welcome here.”
But everyone is welcome in the church! The fact that you and I are in it proves the point! Too many churches purport to be a place where everyone is welcome but, in reality, these churches will welcome everyone as long as they become like them.
In addition, using such labels to win an argument is simply fallacious (“genesis” or “origin” fallacy). Just because someone is a liberal or a socialist does not mean that they are wrong.
Are we dying on the wrong hills?
Have we lost our chance to have honest dialogue because we do not display a willingness to be open-minded ourselves? We need to engage in slow thinking, not fast conclusions.
What is interesting is that some of the hills that evangelicals are choosing to die on today have not always been issues that even evangelicals supported in the past.
Perhaps the most notable example is the abortion issue. Most everyone would say that being “pro-life” is a staple of evangelicalism.
Not only has pro-life not been the primary issue for the religious right, but, at the time of Roe v Wade, many of the leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention—one of the leading voices for evangelicals, were supportive of the decision. Yet, today many evangelicals simply cannot vote for a candidate that is pro-choice.
Another key conviction among many evangelicals is their pro-Israel stance. Yet, when Israel became a nation in 1948 it was not because of the work of evangelicals but mainline denominations (Presbyterians and Methodists). Evangelicals did not begin to embrace the establishment of the nation of Israel until after the founding of Israel. It was only then that they began to see it as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Yet, today a political candidate’s view of Israel is a key determiner in his/her ability to gain evangelical support.
Interestingly, there are key issues that evangelicals previously held for which they no longer advocate. The most notable example here is the issue of segregation! Segregation, in fact, was the central issue for evangelicals in the 1970’s.
How to advance conversations in a way that advances the gospel
Here are 5 parting notes on how to have civil conversations that will not only enhance your journey with Christ, but will also advance your witness.
- Own your own junk: acknowledge your own biases and the biases of the sources you use
- Stick to the issue at hand: keep the conversation focused on one issue at a time. Otherwise, you will never come to any resolution. Instead, you will end up talking in circles. And, more than likely, you and the person you are talking with will only leave frustrated
- Be open-minded
- Be kind
- Be humble
 See: https://preservingbibletimes.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Story-II.Chapter-1.pdf. For an excellent review of this see Ian Paul’s blog https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/jesus-wasnt-born-in-a-stable/.
 I recognize that even this may be questioned. There have been occasions in which there have been outliers that may well have been within the realm of Christianity and, yet, have taught things contrary to some of the historic positions of the church.
 This was often the result of anti-Catholic sentiments. See: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/evangelical-history/evangelicals-really-silent-roe-v-wade/. “W. A. Criswell, the Southern Baptist Convention’s former president and pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas—also one of the most famous fundamentalists of the 20th century—was pleased: ‘I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person,’ he said, ‘and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed’” https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133.
 There is ample data to support this. See Frances Fitzgerald, Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. An example