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Willing to be Wrong

As Seventh-day Adventists, we believe that we have the Truth. We see ourselves as experts on all things Scriptural. We believe that our understanding of truth, in just about any aspect of theology, is both well developed and correct. This means that if another person or church has a different understanding, they are simply wrong. At its best, and to the extent that we are right about a given issue or practice, it is a marvelous opportunity because it gives us something to share with the rest of the world that will improve their lives and relationship with God. At its worst, it creates a kind of arrogance that is the antithesis of everything Christ lived and taught. 

There are two monumental dangers attached to our slavish attachment to the Truth. The first danger is that we forget that what ultimately saves us is a relationship with Jesus Christ, not an intellectual understanding of truth. If truth were the criteria, then Satan and all of his angels would be in great shape. The second is that once we have established that we have the truth, it becomes almost impossible for us to admit we are wrong; that we don’t have it quite right, that God’s Truth is different than ours. 

In Acts 15 we find the story commonly referred to as “The Jerusalem Council.”  It goes something like this:  A group of Christian Jews traveled from Jerusalem to Antioch to visit the new Gentile converts. The original intent of the visit is not quite clear, but when they discovered that Paul and Barnabas were teaching these new Christians that the Mosaic laws in general, and circumcision in particular, did not apply to them, there was outrage. 

Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question. (v2)

            At first glance every good Adventist will have great sympathy with these Jewish Christians.  They had all of the weight of evidence on their side. Thousands of years of Jewish writings supported their position. Tradition added further evidence. When looking back at the life of Jesus, it was clear that Jesus practiced all of these long-held traditions. Finally, never once did Jesus say that circumcision or the other Mosaic laws did not apply to his followers.

The fight was substantial and passionate.  Both sides were firmly committed to their understanding of how to please God.  Finally, at an impasse, they decided to take the problem to the Apostles residing in Jerusalem. Both sides had legitimate views. Both were deeply convicted and passionate. Yet, in truth, only one point of view could be right and the other had to be wrong. They presented their cases, Paul and Barnabas speaking of miracles and changed lives; the Christian Pharisees pointing to tradition and Scripture. After both sides present their cases, James pronounces the verdict. 

Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled and from blood. (v19,20)

The story concludes with all of the leadership and both sides pleased with this new teaching.  This new way of doing things took into consideration Scripture, tradition, the life and teachings of Jesus and, apparently most importantly, what the Holy Spirit was actually doing in the lives of these new believers.

The most remarkable lesson that flows from this story is that both sides of the debate went into the Jerusalem Council passionately convinced they were right and at the same time, willing to be wrong. In early Adventism we see this same attribute. They went from Sunday-keeping to Sabbath observance; they went from a 6:00 pm to 6:00 pm Sabbath to a sunset-to-sunset Sabbath; they went from an anti-Trinitarian view of God to a Trinitarianview; they went from a belief that eating pork was acceptable to it not being acceptable.

However, it seems that somewhere along the way, we Adventists have lost the willingness to be wrong.  We would rather engage in a no-holds-barred fight with our fellow believers, or those of another faith tribe, than concede that, perhaps, we don’t have the Truth. This is the result:

  1. We read our Bibles and Ellen White as if they are ammunition stores which allow us to more effectively do battle with those we do not agree with.  [Note how some refer to Bibles as swords.] This is so wrong because Scripture was given to us primarily to help us understand the character of God and his plan for salvation. It would be fair to argue that Ellen White’s writings should be used in the same way.  These writings were not given so that we might destroy others.
  2. Due to these divisions, it becomes almost impossible for the Holy Spirit to work in our lives and in our churches.  We are, in effect, saying that God must work within the constructs of our current understanding of Scripture.
  3. We are today, as a church, spending our time, our energy and our money defending our cherished positions rather than doing the things Jesus commanded us to do.

If we are serious about revival and reformation, if we are serious about our relationship with Jesus, we must be willing to be wrong, because a willingness to be wrong is a willingness to be led. It will take a willingness to be wrong, to realign our priorities to be the same as the priorities of Jesus.

Illustration: Daryl Urig, The Blind Leading the Blind, 2009.

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