Does it matter who’s right?
I’m not so sure anymore.
Right or wrong: we all seem to lose something in this equation.
I’ve come to this temporary conclusion because I’ve reflected on Paul’s letters to the Corinthians recently. At the heart of his first letter, Paul answers a question about whether believers should eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols. He begins the section in this way: “Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor 8:1-2). Some believers who eat meat because they know that “no idol in the world really exists” may become brazen and insensitive and, consequently, harm other believers who think, even wrongly, that idols do exist. In short, even the right knowledge can be put to the wrong use.
Paul says as much in his letter to the Romans: “Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions” (14:1). Whether it is a matter of food or which holidays to celebrate, the principle is the same: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister?” (14:10).
In essence, this is the question: What if you are right, but others—even softer-headed other people—do not see it your way? The issue may be the one in the letter to the Romans: meat or vegetables? Or it may include the great American debate over creation and evolution. Or traditional marriage versus same-sex marriage. Or climate change. The principals change, and the issues with them, but the principle does not: the right knowledge can be put to the wrong use of breaking down the faith of others.
I worry that we’re doing exactly this in our efforts to be right about sexuality, creation, family values—you name it.
I worry that we’ve made being right more important than being Christian.
Not Paul! Paul launches his letter by recalling that he came to Corinth without rhetorical polish and pedantry, that he approached the Corinthians with weakness, fear, and trembling. “My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom,” recalls Paul, “but with a demonstration of the spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:4-5). Elsewhere in his letters, this power produces hope (Romans 5:5; 15:19; 2 Corinthians 2:21-22), signs and wonders, as in Romans 15:19, where Paul describes the obedience of the nations that has been won by word and deed, “by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the spirit of God” (see Galatians 3:5). The spirit brings full conviction in hearers, as in the case of the Thessalonians, to whom he writes, “our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the holy spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thessalonians 1:5).
While Paul believes that the spirit brought hope, effected signs and wonders, and produced conviction in hearers, the primary lesson of 1 Corinthians 2 is that the inspired, spirit-given content of his message—and not just the demeanor of the messenger or the response of the hearers or attendant miraculous activities—consists of weakness: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). The spirit is what provides the content of the message; it is the message of the cross that “God has revealed to us through the spirit” (2:10). It is the cross that the rulers of this age cannot grasp. It is the cross that lies at the heart of God, where the spirit searches, from which true wisdom arises (2:11). It is this cross that the spirit, which “comprehends what is truly God’s,” transforms into a powerful message.
What then characterizes a spirit-filled church? Not the swaying or swagger of people in motion. Not the pouring out of emotion. Certainly not leaders engaged in self-promotion. Not even people headed in the right direction. Why? Because the spirit inspires a church with a clear focus: crucifixion.
Architecture. Activities. Adoration. Every last artery of the body of Christ must flow with the full absorption of Jesus Christ crucified. There is only one issue on which the church must be right. Not same-sex marriage. Not climate change. Not evolution. The work of the Spirit that eclipses all of these—regardless of how right a Christian or church may be on these issues—is the full-fledged communication of Jesus Christ crucified.