Back when I was in graduate school for my Ph.D., we had to attend seminars.
Seminars are classes where a bunch of students gather with a professor to discuss a work of literature or criticism. This sounds simple – how hard can it be to talk about a book? – but the questions the professor asked were quite difficult, demanding not only a deep knowledge of the book at hand, but also a deep knowledge of other books written during the time period, a deep knowledge of the history of that time period, and a deep knowledge of the literary criticism written about that time period. In other words, to talk about one book intelligently, you had to be conversant with twenty others or so.
So before class, I always made sure I had notes written out that would remind me of everything relevant to the topic at hand. When the questions came in class, I always took a minute to pause and gather my thoughts – and I never answered unless I was sure I was correct, armed with sufficient evidence to not only back up my points but also to answer any follow-up questions that might be asked.
I was terrified to be wrong. Not because my classmates were mean; they were awesome. Not because my professors were unkind; they were graceful and warm. But mostly because I, like everyone else in my program, was terrified of looking stupid or as though I somehow didn’t belong.
I think that as Christians we often feel the same. Not in church, necessarily, but outside it.
We want to have the “right” answers all the time. We want to look like we know what we’re doing. We hate the idea of “looking bad” in front of the world. We like to focus on the positive. We want to say the right thing with the right conviction the first time, to be unassailable authorities, to be in step with everyone else, to be a wall of knowledge ready to step in at any moment. And when wrongdoing emerges, or when we make mistakes, I think the temptation is to either disavow the wrongdoers (they made the mistakes, they’re separate and different, so don’t blame us!) or to justify it by our own works (“but no one pays attention to the good things we’re doing”).
But we’re human.
As Christians, we are going to be wrong. We may misinterpret Scripture. We may apply it wrongly. We may not live always in the way Christ wants. We may make mistakes, intentional and unintentional, sometimes awful ones. And the problem is not with making mistakes, but doubling down on those mistakes or pretending that they never happened or cannot happen. At times, historically, the church has erred greatly. Some German churches sought the creation of a “national ‘Reich church'” and supported a ‘nazified’ version of Christianity during the Nazi regime (to the point that a schism developed and the Confessing Church, which protested this, separated); in many places the church was silent and, in some ways, complicit during the Holocaust (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum). For a time some denominations condoned slavery. The Puritans burned innocent women as witches. And the Spanish Inquisition was a thing, too.
It’s easy, both as the church and as individuals, to want to pretend we’re faultless and that we get everything right the first time. We’re not, and we don’t. It’s easy to worry that admitting we’re wrong, or dwelling on it, makes the church “look bad” or might somehow lead others to ignore the sounder doctrine and the words of truth we do have – and yet I’d argue that a dogged insistence on ignoring the mistakes of the past, and the potential for mistakes in the present, makes us look worse. If the church is based on forgiveness, God’s grace, and the understanding that we will grow continually and over time in a relationship with God, then we shouldn’t fear confessing errors, making up for them, and then trying to move forward.
Proverbs 4:23 encourages us to guard our heart with all vigilance, and part of that vigilance is reminding ourselves that we are human, too – that we must be as willing to grow and change as we encourage others to be. As a church, we are going to make mistakes. The ability to learn from them, to grow in grace and understanding, and to be honest with ourselves, is part of what will set us apart.