Can you count the number of authors you agree with on every point of doctrine and practice? I can: zero. (Okay, put me down for One if we’re counting the Bible (or somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 if you want to count the inspired writers)—but I’m keeping this in parenthesis because it feels too much like a Bible college joke.) I find that I agree with some authors more than others, but I have not yet found an author that sees things exactly the way I do. And I’m sure I never will. The thought of finding such an author gives me goosebumps, but they’re the creepy kind of goosebumps.
Perhaps you are more agreeable than I am, and you’ve found an author you can sign off on completely. Maybe you’ve even found two or three (doubtful, and if you think you have that many, I’ll tell you to start reading more closely). Let’s just imagine that’s the case for you. Even if you have this handful of literary soul mates—or clones—I hope you’re reading books (or blogs, or lectures, or whatever) by more than a few authors.
If we are going to live and learn as faithful members of the body of Christ—beyond that, if we’re going to make it as human beings—then at some point in our lives we are going to have to start learning from people we disagree with. This is something I alluded to in a previous post, but it’s worth exploring in greater depth. [Disclaimer: If you think I’m telling you to embrace heresy, please read to the end.]
How can you learn from people who are wrong? Well, I know that people have learned from me, and I’m often full of wrongheaded assumptions and misplaced priorities. I learn from people all the time with whom I disagree on a number of issues, but who have insights into some area in which I need to expand my thinking. Whether I’m reading commentaries, books on theology, or books on art, culture, economics, history, etc., I frequently find myself variously disagreeing and learning. Even if my perspective is simply being challenged (i.e., I’m not coming to any firm conclusions but my assumptions are being questioned) the process is incredibly valuable.
Here are three brief thoughts on learning from the wrong people:
1. If my doctrine and practice are accurate/truthful/correct, they will hold up to every form of scrutiny, questioning, and attack; if they’re not, they need to change. Many times I have found myself disagreeing with an author and kept reading, only to discover that the author has better reason for believing what he believes than I do for what I believe. If the person I disagree with has the force of truth on his or her side, then it’s only my arrogance that keeps me from changing my views.
But the most typical scenario is that I disagree with an author, I keep reading, and I find that the truth I believe is more convincing than the author’s argument. I often find this to be true when reading Christian authors from the other side of the theological tracks (though sometimes I’m surprised). And this is typically what I experience when I read non-Christian or even anti-Christian authors. I am challenged by what they say, but at the end of the day, I decide that God’s account of the world is more convincing than theirs. Yet I am a better person for having listened to those perspectives and discovered that the truth I believe holds up against attack. If it’s true, it’s true, and listening to the opposition will make my view of the truth more firm and robust.
(I should note that I wouldn’t tell a new Christian to go read the Koran without any words of warning. These things call for discernment, and the best thing for a new Christian—any Christian, for that matter—to study is the Bible.)
2. The biblical approach to assessing truth is discernment, not uncritically accepting the teaching of anyone. As much as we trust the teachers we like to listen to, we should never accept their teaching as true simply because it’s their teaching. Paul watched Peter with discernment and confronted him to his face when he was in error (Gal. 2:11-16). The Bereans have rightly stood as a model for us because they eagerly listened to Paul’s teaching, then searched the Scriptures to discern whether they should agree with Paul or not (Acts 17:11).
It is easier to either wholly accept or wholly reject a teacher, but the prescribed approach is discernment. It takes more work, and it’s often uncomfortable and frustrating, but the truth is worth the effort. The key is to know the Scriptures well and to use the minds that God has given us to sort through the truth and falsity of the teaching we encounter.
3. I need to value other people enough to care about what they have to say. A person’s worth is not dependent on the extent to which they agree with me. Every person is created in the image of God, and as such, their views are worth listening to. Of course, every person on earth has suppressed God’s truth, so listening to what people have to say will include sorting through a lot of lies and idolatry. But at the end of the day, a human being is an image bearer of God, and we should love the people around us enough to hear them out.
At some point (probably sooner than later) we will need to bring the truth of Scripture to bear on the lies they believe, but listening is an important part of the process. Many Christians are convinced that everyone else needs to listen to us, but we don’t need to listen to anyone. We can say that refusing to listen to another person’s view and simply telling them the truth is loving, but ultimately, love must be manifest in our actions. If I say I love someone, but don’t show it any way other than sermonizing, I probably don’t love them. This also ties back to point #1: God’s truth holds up to scrutiny, so why can’t I engage someone in thoughtful discussion?
Nobody has enough time to read every book, so I’m not suggesting that you go find the books you think you’ll disagree with the most and read only those. I’m merely suggesting that we treat the people and authors around us with respect and that we allow our thinking to be challenged. Who knows what we’ll learn and how we’ll grow if we allow God to teach and sharpen us in ways we don’t expect?