Let’s agree to put an end to competition in spiritual matters, shall we? I’m talking about the need that we too often feel to assign motives and deficits of sincerity and spiritual wholeness to people who don’t agree with us. I’m also specifically talking about the gross misappropriation of scriptural passages to frame disagreement in a “I’m right because I love God” and “You’re wrong because you don’t love God as much as me” contest. In essence, it’s a form of spiritual extortion. If I disagree with someone, it is not kind, gentle or loving to create a dichotomy of motives in which I am seeking to please God and they are obviously just pandering to cultural and secular voices.
It’s Disrespecting of the Scriptural Witness.
We can and will disagree on religious and spiritual matters, regardless of the subject or text in question. To have a civil, Christ-like disagreement, we must give the benefit of the doubt to one another. When someone speaks of their faith, their sincerity, their love of God, their motives, their beliefs, their respect of scripture, or really anything, they should be taken at their word.
Yes, the scriptural writers said some things about motives:
~ Paul in Galatians 1:10, TNIV… “Am I now trying to win human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
~ Peter and John and then others in Acts 4:19 & 5:29, NKJV… “But Peter and John answered and said to them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge.'” and “We ought to obey God rather than men.”
~ Paul again in 1 Thessalonians 2:4, NLT… “Our purpose is to please God, not people. He is the one who examines the motives of our hearts.”
~ And Paul’s important and beautiful sentiment in Romans 12:1&2, CEB… “So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.”
What we do not find in these scriptures or in other passages is a license to blanket our brothers and sisters who disagree with us with the intention or motive of pleasing people more than God. In fact, please notice that Paul affirmed it is God who judges hearts.
I’m willing to accept that those speakers in the New Testament had sufficient knowledge to express their own motives, and I accept them at face value. I am not however willing to listen to Christians quote and paraphrase the same words in ways that paint those who disagree with them as not wanting to please God or to follow God’s lead. That kind of thing is a gross misappropriation of scripture and needs to stop. It doesn’t help us move forward or create meaningful dialogue. Instead, it violates in word and spirit the command of Christ, “Stop judging others, and you will not be judged” in Matthew 7:1, and verses 1-6 for a greater context and exposition.
It’s Disrespecting of People.
Why am I writing about this stuff? I’m sick and I’m truly tired of the accusation, explicit and implicit, that I am affirming of my LGBTQ neighbors because I seek to please people more than God, or because I choose to follow the voice of culture above the voice of God. I am sick of others having to deal with that accusation and maligning of their motives.
I regularly give my non-LGBTQ-affirming friends and neighbors the benefit of the doubt that they are sincere and trying their best to both follow God and love people, as I do with them on other points of theological and exegetical disagreement. It’s only fair to take people at their word when they say they don’t hate someone. It’s fair to take people at their word when they say they want to please God and when they believe they are pleasing God. If their choice of words and actions do turn hateful, I won’t hesitate to point that out, and have on occasion such as here and here.
Honestly, it’s this kind of disrespect that keeps us from having meaningful dialogue and sharing on so many points of disagreement. We must be careful of what I have started calling “Self-Marginalization.” Self-marginalization happens when we speak and act in such a way that others are repelled and prohibited from engaging us. As Marshall McLuhan warned us that “the medium is the message” we would do well as Christians to make sure that our medium is not the language or action of spiritual competition, disrespect or un-Christlike judgement.
I’ll end with these words from the Apostle Paul, some of my most favorite’est Pauline verses in Philippians 4:4-8, CEB. These words reject competition and domination. These words orient us to gratitude and service. These words ring with grace and wisdom…
Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus. From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise.