Blog First, Ask Questions Later

By now, you’re probably aware of the controversy surrounding a Presbyterian Church (USA) decision to bar the song In Christ Alone from its upcoming hymnbook. This decision was based on the church’s discomfort with one line from the hymn about the wrath of God. The line espouses what theologians refer to as the penal substitution theory of the atonement.

As the story spread through the Internet like a vicious virus, I desired to weigh in on the matter myself. Like numerous bloggers and newspaper writers, I have my own thoughts on the subject.

I won’t be writing about the debate, however. Not just yet, anyway. I don’t want to perpetuate a problem that I see everywhere—including in my own heart. That problem is the unhelpful urge to talk without listening. It’s so easy to turn oneself into the Sheriff of Doctrine-ville and shoot down offending parties before they can even open their mouths.

I’m all for debate, of course. Having a conversation about issues like the atonement is important. But if we’re all quick to speak, slow to listen, and easily angered, we end up talking past each other and not truly engaging in a beneficial exchange. That doesn’t glorify God or show love for our neighbor—even if our neighbor is, in the end, wrong.

Two recent experiences have helped to solidify this conviction in my mind. In both cases, I encountered an online declaration by a public church official stating sentiments about the Bible that were outlandishly preposterous (in the first case) and possibly dangerous (in the second).

In the first situation, several other online voices swiftly and viciously denounced the prominent church leader. I almost joined the fray, but then decided it would be better to contact the person directly and ask her for clarification. She responded to my email graciously, although it became more clear that she really had forsaken sound biblical exegesis. This realization led me to pray for her—something I probably wouldn’t have thought to do if I had simply added my voice to the public outcry against her.

In the second situation, I again decided to email the church leader and ask for clarification about his statement. He thanked me for my inquiry and admitted that he should have been clearer. In this case, if I had decided on pointing out the error in a blog post, I would have ended up publicly criticizing a man with whom I actually agreed, and who hadn’t even meant to imply what I thought he had implied.

Both of these cases have helped me see my need for greater charity in dealing with others. And part of that charity involves asking questions and listening to what people have to say. Speaking too hastily is, after all, an expression of foolishness (Pr. 10:19, 17:27, 18:13).

A couple points should be inserted here for clarification. First, I’m not saying that everyone who has recently posted an opinion piece on penal substitution has done so maliciously—or even unwisely. I’m also not implying that there’s never a time for public or private rebuke. I’m just stating a general principle and giving some personal examples of how the principle is helping me grow.

Second, I’ve been using language inspired from James 1:19, which states, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (NIV). We might be tempted to use the verse itself as a proof text for how to interact with others. But when we look at the verse in context, we see that James is talking about something else entirely—something that affects how we interact with others, for sure, but by addressing a deeper issue. That issue is how respond to the preached Word of God.

We are to receive the “word of truth” (v. 18) with meekness because it has saving power (v. 21). We are to be hearers and doers of this Word (vv. 22-25). To quote Doctor Edward T. Welch in an article on this passage, “if you are disrespectful toward others with your speech, don’t start by trying to listen to the person in front of you who drives you crazy. Start with meekness before God (1:21).”

Welch goes on to say that my problem as a listener may not ultimately be poor communication; it may be arrogance before God himself. If I cannot sit and listen to God’s Word without arguing, grumbling, or complaining, how will I be able to listen to others—especially when it concerns the Bible—and not respond similarly?

I may eventually blog about penal substitution. The controversy surrounding the atonement isn’t going away anytime soon, so there will be ample opportunity to address the topic. In the meantime, I’ve been trying to listen, both to God’s teaching on the matter and to the opinions of those who disagree with me.

And you know what? Even in these short few weeks, I’ve gleaned some valuable information. I have truly benefited from this time. If I ever do write about penal substitution and the wrath of God, I think I’ll be able to do so with much more love, humility, and wisdom. That’s worth keeping my proverbial mouth shut—for now.