I recently linked to an article from Sojourners regarding the recent political climate having an adverse affect on honesty in Christian conversation. The truth is, however, that this is not a new problem. Recent events have perhaps exacerbated the problem, but we’ve historically demonstrated a rather tenuous relationship with the truth when it comes to making sure things fit our personal narratives of how we perceive the world.
Getting Things Right
One example comes from a congregation we were recently visiting. The preacher was leading a series about other Christian faiths, and that day’s lesson was on Catholicism. At one point in the lesson, he said something to the effect that the Catholic Church sells indulgences so that people can buy their way out of Hell or make early payment for future sins. Both of these are flatly untrue. I can’t say I fully understand every detail of the Catholic doctrine of indulgences, but I do know these are myths.
Anecdotes, misconceptions, urban legends, and myths — when preached or taught as truth, these undermine the greater truth we are trying to spread. They become obstacles to others coming to the truth of God’s word. This is one of the reasons James writes, in the beginning of James 3:
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.
Sweating the Details
If someone listening to my preaching can’t trust me to rightfully discern between factual and fictional information, how can they trust me with the bigger truths of God’s word? If someone hears me misrepresenting what they believe, how can they trust me to rightly explain what I believe? If I can’t be trusted to do my homework on secular illustrations or doctrinal explanations, how can I be trusted to study and rightly divide scripture?
II Corinthians 8:21 mentions that we aim to be seen honorably both to God and to our fellow humans. This means we should get things right, even if they aren’t part of scripture. We need to check to see if our lessons that touch on science are relying on outdated or debunked information. We need to make sure that the stories we share as true actually are true. While we defend our own doctrines, we have to get the doctrines we attribute to others right. That’s being truthful in all things.
I have to apply this to myself as well. I’ve occasionally shared a story about African missionaries and neckties that I think is true — but now I’m not so sure. I tried to track it down to the source I thought it came from but have been unsuccessful. It’s a humorous anecdote that I think well illustrates the challenge of unintentionally teaching culture-specific values alongside the gospel. But I have to stop using it as I don’t know if the story is true, and the illustration loses all power if it’s not.
Do all illustrations have to be true stories? Jesus certainly allowed himself to use fictional illustrations in his use of parables, so no, I don’t think every anecdote and illustration has to be true. Fiction is fine as long as our audiences know we are speaking in fiction. If we are presenting something as real, as truth, we need to be sure it is. We always have to make sure that we are telling the truth while we are speaking truth.