Ah, the church. So many arguments, so little time.
The list of subjects about which we disagree is endless, covering both the profound and the stupid.
The ordination of women. The proper role of religion in politics. Climate change. Homosexuality and same-sex unions. Pre-, Post-, or A-millennialism. Biblical translation. Gender pronouns for God. How best to aid the poor. How best to support the sanctity of marriage. Hell. Heaven. Baptism.
Which brand of fair-trade coffee to serve in the fellowship hall. Whether to use wafers, pita, home-baked organic wheat, gluten-free or bagels at the communion table. What color to paint the lobby.
It should come as no surprise that the world outside the church looking in and sees it full of conflict, bickering, arguments and judgement and exclusion — of the “unbeliever” and fellow believers alike.
Frankly, it also should come as no surprise to the rest of the world that the church — by being a community of humans — naturally would have such disagreements and discord. We are imperfect. Our communities are imperfect. And our faith, too, is imperfect.
But I suggest that it is not the imperfection or presence of conflict within the church that too many of those who would not call themselves Christians find repelling. It is HOW the church deals with them that repels so many.
Jesus said the world would know we are Christians by our love. Not our smug.
To be smug is to be excessively proud of your knowledge, achievements and successes. Conceited. Arrogant. Complacently self-satisfied. It also turns us into black and white thinkers.
Black & White Thinkers see everything as good/bad or right/wrong. When smugness [pride] is present, admitting wrong equals being wrong or bad. And if you “can’t” be wrong, then you must be right and others are wrong. When pride reigns in the Black & White Thinker, self-righteousness becomes a huge problem.
It is the key element in most conflicts; church or otherwise.
The need to be right, and to be right in other’s eyes, lends itself to making justifications, excuses, blaming, etc. for our actions. This is to convince ourselves and others that we are in the right (and others in the wrong). All of us do this. However, when pride reigns in the Black & White Thinker’s heart, the justifications, blaming, and excuses are regular occurrences. Additionally, if being “right” is considered “good” and being “wrong” is considered “bad”, then there is a tendency to look at ourselves as better and others as worse.
Spiritual smugness is both a problem and an epidemic. Whatever the disagreement may be, we believe we know the truth — biblical truth. orthodox truth, God’s truth. And anyone who might disagree with us is either a fool or a threat to the life of the church.
Neither is true. At least, I don’t believe so. But I could be wrong. See what I did there?
The problem of certainty.
There is a tendency in conservative Christianity that does not leave room for ‘evolving’ positions, uncertainty, or doubt. The assumption seems to be that every Christian should have a clearly defined position on every social issue and even that for some issues there’s only one acceptable position to take.
When discussing controversial issues, can we exercise enough humility to temper our statements? Can we resist the temptations of certainty, realizing that it draws lines in the sand and reinforces stereotypes that non-Christians already have about us?
Can we learn the use of phrases like ‘Based on my understanding of scripture’ or even ‘I might be wrong about this’ or, God forbid, ‘my views on this are evolving’?
The opposite of faith is certainty
If the opposite of faith is certainty, then the opposite of love is smug.
Smugness is immovable. It is a conversation ender, an impasse, an act of hostility. Smugness is the dry ground in which the seed of faith has no chance. A smug spirituality is one that says I am superior to others and reduces faith to a contest to see who can find the truth first and best.
Faith is a gift, not a full-contact sport
The Way of Jesus is not the Way of the Smug. When he walked among us in the flesh, teaching his followers about the Kingdom of God, Jesus was patient. He never assumed a posture of “I know and you don’t and you’re stupid for not knowing.” He didn’t roll his eyes, throw up his hands and storm off when his disciples didn’t get it. He didn't call them names or ostracize them.
Rather, Jesus kept talking, kept telling stories and having conversations with them. He found new ways to communicate with his brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers.
Again, we are called to be Christ Followers.
I am suggesting we need to develop a “modest theory of knowledge.” The church is a diverse community and there are many subjects about which we disagree. And that’s okay. But we need to be committed to unity in our diversity, and the way in which we deal with conflict is an indication of our love.
Of course, we don’t get it right all the time. We miss the mark. We make mistakes. Sometimes the smug begins to creep in through the back door of our dialogue about controversial issues. But we must try, with humility, not to let smugness claim a seat at the table.
Fear and Control
Two things work against us if we are to be known by our love: fear and control.
We gloss over the weak points in our own beliefs and focus on the flaws in other positions. Eventually, this can lead to an obsession with proving others wrong and us right. We mask our criticism by believing we are protectors of the truth. We create positions which we then dedicate ourselves to defending. Our insecurity and doubt become clouded by overconfidence and defensiveness.
I've made this point in earlier blogs, but at the core of fear and control is a lack of understanding or a misunderstanding of the Father Heart of God. If we fail to see/understand God as Father, we are left with a picture of Him as only a judge. If a judge, we will live in fear of Him and in fear of getting something wrong - and be punished for it. Do you see how out of that comes the need to be right and seen as right?
If we see God as a loving, all-powerful Father, we will understand that His love is unconditional and that we are loved because we are His children not because we get it right every time.
Contact me, if you would like to learn more of the Father heart of God.
Our tendency to go to war with other Christians is an image of how terribly we can miss the point. This dishonesty of the heart is the very thing that Jesus came to redeem. He saves us not only from the penalty of our sins, but also from ourselves.
God is much bigger than anything we can imagine. God’s truth is more vast and complex than any knowledge our minds can hold. And yet, we climb Certainty Mountain.
Give us this day hearts that are humble, minds that are open, and deliver us from all smugness. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.