The Tension of Truth

by Aaron

In a message a couple of weeks ago I mentioned that we are called to speak God’s truth as seen in the Gospel by speaking hope, grace, and truth to the world around us. I then received this question the next week and thought we could put it in a blog for everyone. Here is the question: How do we as believers balance the tension of not being judgmental with standing for God’s truth? If standing for truth requires we differentiate right from wrong, how do we keep ourselves from being judgmental or being perceived as judgmental (even if in our own hearts)?

The short answer is you can’t stop people from perceiving you a certain way when they are predisposed to do that…but what we can do is slowly change those preconceptions with a life of grace. The long answer is that sometimes people react poorly to a message of truth because those with the truth do not communicate it in a way that makes sense (and sometimes people have hardened hearts so our words only sound like judgment).

As an example, one of the greatest preachers in American history, Jonathan Edwards, spent most of his career preaching at the Congregational Church of Northampton. At the time this was considered one of the most important towns in Massachusetts. He had a disagreement with a church policy over communion (who should be allowed to partake) and was fired. He then went to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, on the American frontier, where he started to minster to a congregation that had many Native Americans in it. When he spoke in the new congregation, he changed how he preached. His words didn’t lessen the Gospel message, but they became simpler.

He changed his way of reasoning and started to use more stories and metaphors. As Timothy Keller notes, “He preached more often on the accounts of Jesus’ life instead of on the propositions of the Pauline epistles.” I have been re-reading an excellent book by Keller called Center Church and it speaks at length about speaking into our given cultures in understandable ways. The truth without judgment. I will quote or rephrase the book at length because I think it is helpful to answer the question.

Center Church points out that “to enter a culture, another main task is to discern its dominant worldviews or belief systems, because contextualized gospel ministry should affirm the beliefs of the culture wherever it can be done with integrity.” The book shows that we should be able to determine 2 types of beliefs in a culture.

  • “A” beliefs are beliefs people already hold that, because of God’s grace, roughly correspond to some parts of biblical teaching.
  • “B” beliefs contradict Christian truth

With “A” beliefs people are already predisposed to latch onto many of the Scriptures teachings, but “B” beliefs are those a culture finds offensive or implausible. When speaking truth we should look for the “A” beliefs; these beliefs will differ from culture to culture. Keller states, “To use an obvious example, in Manhattan, what the Bible says about turning the other cheek is welcome (an “A” belief), but what it says about sexuality is resisted (a “B” belief). In the Middle East, we see the opposite—turning the other cheek seems unjust and impractical, but biblical prohibitions on sexuality make sense.”

What we want to do in speaking of the Gospel is point people to the overlapping beliefs they can easily affirm. Paul does this in his speech in Athens in Acts 17. We spend time building rapport and relationships with people because where truth is found we can affirm it whole heartedly. We can build people’s respect for biblical wisdom this way. “A culture that puts a high value on family relationships and community should be shown that there is a strong biblical basis for the family. A culture that puts a high value on individual human rights and justice should be shown how the biblical doctrine of the image of God is the historical and logical foundation for human rights.” We must take care to affirm “A” beliefs before engaging in the “B” beliefs. We don’t start with the challenge, we start with affirming truth. We show respect even when disagreeing on many “B” doctrines.

When Paul speaks in the book of Acts he doesn’t just go out and put down the Greeks’ love for the mind or Jews’ love for morality; he wants to help them see they are pursuing those things in defeating ways. Valuing morality (as the Jews did) was a good thing, but without Jesus that pursuit of morality leads to judgementalism and weakness. To the Jews, Christ seemed weak, but that weakness brought (and still brings) true power. “Paul does not simply dismiss a culture’s aspirations; rather, he both affirms and confronts, revealing the inner contradictions in people’s understanding.” It is so important for us to understand and enter a culture BEFORE challenging it. “Our criticism of the culture will have no power to persuade unless it is based on something that we can affirm in the beliefs and values of that culture.”

It is much different to challenge the wrong things a culture believes from the common ground of the things they say they already believe. Center Church states, “It is important to learn how to distinguish a culture’s “A” doctrines from its “B” doctrines because knowing which are which provides the key to compelling confrontation.”

Yes, we must be able to judge what culture around us deems as right vs wrong, but we do not need to become ‘judgmental’ in the process. No matter what, in areas where “B” doctrines collide there is always great opportunity for offense and anger, but starting in the common grace of common ground gives us a surer and more tactful approach presenting Gospel truths. Healthy confrontation can occur when relationships are built between people, and honestly human cultures are extremely inconsistent in conforming to what they say they believe…contrast that with God Himself, who stands above all culture, and is always consistent.