Recently I preached from John 7. I took a larger section of the chapter, which meant there were parts I couldn’t address as fully as I would’ve wanted to. That included not being able to say much on verse 24, where Jesus says to the religious leaders, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”
It’s a reminder from our Lord that there are forms of discernment that are shallow, and inadequate. It is possible to formally express a desire for truth, perhaps even to have a heart for truth, but then wrestle through issues so inadequately that truth cannot really be obtained.
It’s a good word for our day, when there are so many culture debates occurring in this moment. A shallow form of discernment sees in cultural debates one error and one error only: only the danger bound up in whatever the world is currently advocating. A truer and right discernment needs to think more fulsomely. I would argue that in any cultural discussion, there are three dangers that Christians need to be aware of.
1. The potential danger of cultural ideas themselves.
It’s just simply the case that in a fallen world there are false teachings. False teachings can even be quite popular. They can (and often are) the dominating beliefs of fallen cultures. For that reason discernment means recognizing that not everything that is praised in the world is true. We should never believe something just because “everybody” says it. We must “test the spirits” as John says (1 John 4:1).
2. The danger of overreaction.
But there are other dangers when confronting cultural ideas. There is the danger of over-reaction. This is the danger that I fear Christians do not give sufficient attention to. This is an error in which a Christian legitimately sees an error in the world, but in response to it runs so far in the opposite direction that he or she runs past the truth and falls into a new error on the other side. In fact, C.S. Lewis describes this error quite helpfully in Mere Christianity:
“The devil always sends errors into the world in pairs–pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one.”
For example, in response to a doctrinaire kind of Christianity, some Christians adopt an anti-doctrinal attitude. On the one hand, they were right to see that a prideful attitude towards theology is wrong, but their solution of ‘no doctrine’ went too far and ended up in error also.
Overreaction via ‘Dog Whistles’
Overreactions can come in a few forms. One is the so-called “dog whistle.” In this, words no longer act as words, but more like codes harkening to something more monstrous than the word itself portends. So, if someone speaks of “God’s love” with any frequency, this is taken to ‘really mean’ a promotion of sentimentalism and a low view of sin. If someone speaks frequently of “grace,” this must be understood as tacit support for antinomianism.
The way the dog whistle works is that it takes commonplace words and ideas, and imputes to them all of the baggage of how some people (particularly ideological foes) use these words and ideas. In the end, language no longer works like language, but as a series of placeholders for entire worldviews and heresies.
This way of handling language breaks the ninth commandment because it never listens to what a person says, but only what meaning the listener can creatively assign to the person. It also makes for disaster for any poor soul who attempts to say anything at all. They will find themselves tiptoeing through a minefield of ‘how they could be interpreted’ rather than just going with what their own word usage and context should dictate they surely mean. In this over-reaction, one problematic usage of a word is applied to all uses of the word.
Seeing the end from the beginning, we need to realize that since there are competing worldviews around us, if Christians employ ‘dog whistle’ discernment, we will soon find that the world has taken the dictionary right out of our hands, leaving us with no ‘safe’ words left to speak.
Overreaction via the “Hammer”
There is the old saying, ‘When the only tool in your toolbox is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.’ In some cases, overreaction takes a similar form, in which the most disliked false teaching of the day becomes so inflated in the minds of its critics that it is, as it were, seen under every rock.
A church sings a modern worship song and this is interpreted as “consumer Christianity.” A pastor talks about the ‘personal application’ of a passage of Scripture, this is interpreted as being “man-centered.” Just recently, I saw an article asking whether Christians should let a certain atheistic scholar guide their thinking on the topic of Critical Race Theory (CRT). One could rightly fault the author for committing the genetic fallacy, a logical fallacy that says a person’s argument can be dismissed because of their background. But instead, a commenter argued that what this author had in fact done was practice “standpoint epistemology,” which is one of the very tenets of CRT! Given that the author of the article is a critic of CRT, this struck me as excessive. But it’s one example (among many) of how an error can become so large in the mind of its critics, that it is seen everywhere, and unduly read into situations where it doesn’t belong.
Some errors are Gnostic, but that does not mean all errors are Gnostic. Some errors are liberal, but not all errors are liberal, etc.
Truly Being a People of Truth
The danger of overreaction-style responses is twofold:
First, if our goal as Christians is to avoid error, over-reactions do not help us accomplish this. They are in fact, just different forms of error. Overreactions only trade one lie for another.
Second, the danger of the overreaction is that it can even lead us to inadvertently deny things the Bible positively teaches.
Antinomianism is wrong, but that doesn’t change the fact that Biblical salvation is still by grace alone. Identity politics is wrong, but that doesn’t change the fact that part of the glory of the Incarnation is God identifying with us in our lowly condition. Seeker-sensitivity in worship is wrong, but we are still to do things in a way that is intelligible and understandable to outsiders. Progressive social justice is wrong, but we are still commanded to care for the poor and exploited. To miss that “yes and no” quality to truth means missing the witness of Scripture on these matters altogether.
Even as I was preparing this post, I was alarmed to come across various Christian social media accounts that seemed to criticize the very idea of “nuance,” as if this is some sort of liberal ploy. It isn’t. Nuance is how we show that our ultimate commitment is to the God of truth and not some tribe or party. Nuance is another way for saying “I will tell the truth even when it may be more complicated than I wish it to be.”
3. The danger of misrepresentation.
The other danger when interacting with ideas of the world is the danger of misrepresenting them. When we misrepresent what others say, we run the risk of alienating our own people or our mission field. As a pastor, this is something that I take quite seriously. Whenever I speak about some teaching of the world, I feel great pains to accurately represent what it is (even if its an errant teaching of the world).
There are too many stories of children who grow up in churches where their pastors spoke recklessly on some philosophy of the world, and when these covenant youth go off to college, they discover that their pastor was deeply in error in his grasp of the issue. Disillusioned, they begin to wonder what else their pastor might have been deeply in error about (like perhaps Christianity itself?).
Further, if the world sees us making little effort to accurately represent its views, it is unlikely to consider us to be people who care much about truth. They will be less likely still to care what we have to say about Jesus Christ and salvation.
“We Distinguish” Conclusion
None of this should be groundbreaking. It’s the kind of discernment you see repeatedly in Reformed theologians, like Francis Turretin. In his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, there are some questions where he can give a simple “We affirm” answer to. There are others where he simply says, “We deny.” And there are others still where the truth is more complicated than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ allows, and so he says, “We distinguish,” and spills considerable ink doing just that. That is a good model of a mind held captive by truth and not by some ideological faction.
The lesson here is not to disengage the world, but rather to engage it with humility (as well as zeal for the Christian worldview). We have within ourselves, even as Christians, all of the potential to make a hash out of any topic we try to talk about. Passion does not equal knowledge. For that reason, humility, self-control, hunger for accurate information, reliance on the Spirit of God, and love for our neighbor–all to the glory of God–are virtues that can help us to have ‘right judgment’ and not just a ‘judgment by appearances.’