Fresh out of college, I had just moved to a new city and started attending a new church. In my new Sunday school class, where I barely knew the people, every week my stomach churned Why? Because people were saying wrong things. As they confidently shared their badly mistaken opinions, my mind would race, rehearsing my rebuttal. I would anxiously watch the clock, then just before class ended, I would unleash my speech, setting them right. It was my duty, I felt, to let no error go uncorrected.
Our consulting team worked with a church in California that was known for its emphasis on right doctrine. Through its radio program, people from all over the city who shared their passion for doctrinal correctness were drawn to the church. Their church health assessment* revealed “loving relationships” as their greatest weakness, so we offered our usual recommendations for strengthening loving relationships. A year later the pastor called. “We haven’t made much progress in becoming more loving,” he said. “How can a church like ours that makes doctrine our primary focus become good at loving relationships?”
This tension isn’t new. A doctrinal controversy arose in the church in Corinth, but those who were right were being right in a way that was hurting the church. Paul writes: “Yes, we know that ‘we all have knowledge’ about this issue. But while knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church. Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn’t really know very much.” (1 Cor. 8:1-2 NLT).
Jesus said people would know we were his followers not by our knowledge, not by our being right, but by our love for one another (John 13:35).
This is not to say, of course, that truth doesn’t matter. But both Jesus and Paul are saying love matters even more. There are times we need to speak even difficult truths, but in those times we are always to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). Whenever being right is what’s most important to me, I’m in the wrong. Always.
Our church’s small groups have borrowed AA’s “no crosstalk” rule: “no giving advice or trying to fix anyone.” This rule helps protect the groups from people—like me—who consider it their obligation to set others straight.
One day in our group, Jack made a comment on scripture that was totally off base. No one told him he was wrong. But as the others in the group shared what the scripture was saying to them. I saw the light come on in Jack’s eyes. He got it. And without needing to be told he was mistaken.
As Paul reminds us, knowledge makes us feel important, but it’s love that strengthens the church.
- Has your “need to be right” ever damaged a relationship?
- When you put love above being right, how does it change the way you speak truth?
* The Natural Church Development survey