Church Leaders as Translators

If you’re connected to churches of Christ, feel free to read this. If you’re not, this probably isn’t for you.  I don’t want to air our dirty laundry for you! I’m writing in response to the hubbub about 4th Avenue’s decision to have a female preaching intern. Good-Translator

I’m a weirdo. I go to Summer Celebration and FHU Lectures. Let that sink in…

I was trained at Crieve Hall, Lipscomb High, Freed-Hardeman, Harding University, and Knox Seminary (a reformed, predominantly Calvinist school). I read Hugh Fulford’s News and Views, Patrick Mead’s Tent Pegs, The Jenkins Institute’s Hope and Expectation, Rubel Shelley’s FAX of Life and the Gospel Advocate. Some days, I’m afraid my Facebook feed might destroy the universe when posts from the left and the right collide with each other like matter and antimatter.

My behavior doesn’t make me a traitor, a coward, or unwilling to make a stand. Don’t look me in the eye and call me wishy-washy. Truth is real and worth searching for. I’m not afraid of hard questions from either side. I believe that God’s will is simple, but his Word isn’t always. Scripture itself teaches me that in 2 Peter 3:16 and church history colorfully illustrates the point.

Here’s why I read what I read and do what I do: the right and the left speak different languages. Literally different languages. They have different vocabularies and different dialects.

The right has a vocabulary of book-chapter-and-verse that sometimes devolves into fragments and proof texts. The left has a vocabulary of story that sometimes forgets some significant details and turns in the text. Each language has different assumptions and preferences. Each side carries baggage. Both sides are biased.

I’m writing this article because of what I saw in the comments and posts about 4th Avenue. Here’s what happens: The left makes fun of the right for not speaking their language. The right makes fun of the left for not speaking their language. We go around in circles, tell all our friends how smart we are and how dumb they are, and get nowhere. Nowhere! I’m sick of it.

If we’re ever going to get anywhere, we need translators. People who can stand in the middle. People who can go to Freed-Hardeman lectures and find the good and reject the dumb. People who can go to Lipscomb’s Celebration and hear truth and reject error. People who remember that the only kind of brother they have is the erring brother. People who love the people with whom they strongly disagree on important matters—who can hug them without a dagger in their hands. You can’t prove to me from scripture that doctrinal perfection is possible. History confirms that unity has never come through perfect doctrinal agreement.

Let me act like a translator for a moment.

Conservatives, can I let you in on a little secret? Patrick Mead knows that 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 exist. I promise he does! He just doesn’t think they mean what you think they mean. Like it or not, he has some compelling reasons, too. And don’t be fooled: you don’t take every “simple verse” simply, either.

Liberals, can I let you in on a secret? If the conservatives can’t hear your direct references to scripture, they can’t hear you at all. Oh! And they’re not all cranky, grace-hating old fogies, either! If you don’t like the “conservative monopoly on truth” – then you probably should back off your tendency to claim to monopolize grace.

We need conservatives who talk with liberals instead of about them.

We need liberals who listen, (and not lament!) conservatives.

We need fewer open letters about churches and more lunches and studies with them.

We need to respect autonomy and embrace connection.

We need intellectual honesty and searching of scripture. We need grace and the freedom that Christ gives us.

We need hearts that search for what is right, but also realize that we haven’t all come to the same place.

If we’re going to have those things, we desperately need translators. People who can speak to both worlds.

Want to be a translator? Want to bring peace? Here are a few suggestions.

FIRST: Make friends with someone on “the other side.” Have lunch with them. Get to know them. Learn to love them. Like them! It’s a lot easier to spout venom anonymously behind a keyboard than at a friend—even a friend with whom you disagree. In scripture, correction happens within relationship (see Matthew 18). Outside of relationship, it is impossible.

SECOND: Whenever you find yourself thinking, “I can’t possibly understand how somebody could think that” – congratulations! You just found your new job. Your job is to understand how somebody could possibly think that. Until you understand how, and why they think like they do, you don’t have the right to criticize what you do not know. Seek first to understand, then be understood. Be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. (James 1:19) Beware the sound of one hand clapping! If you only know what you think, of course the other side seems ignorant. “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” (Proverbs 18:17) As much as it depends on you, if it is possible, live at peace with all. (Romans 12:18) You may still disagree, but you’ll be disagreeing with the real story, not some straw man in your imagination.

THIRD: Season your speech with grace (see Colossians 4:6). Romans 5 teaches that God offered you grace while you were his enemy. I think you’ll find that being gracious to the people you see as wrong, erring, or dumb will make a bigger change than simply proving them wrong. When you win an argument, you’ve made a loser. Biblical discussions shouldn’t be a zero-sum game where there’s a winner and a loser. If truth is prevailing—that’s a victory for everyone.

FOURTH: Shut up! See James 1:19 again! It’s not my job to fix your congregation. It’s not even really my job to fix mine. It’s my job to work on me. Read Romans 14:4. It is not our job to judge God’s servants. That’s God’s job. I’m content to let him do it, thank you very much. The most helpful and hopeful line of Romans 14 (which deals with some tough topics, I might add) is that God is able to make his servant stand. That implies to me that the servant wouldn’t and couldn’t on his own. If you read the issues that plagued the early church, they were no “matters of expediency.” Does bacon damn? Is circumcision essential to salvation? It’s okay for me not to tell everything I know. I don’t have to show up at every argument I’m invited to.

Let’s be translators. Let’s fix this mess. Let’s quit displaying our bad side to the people who need Jesus the most! Let’s show the world how Jesus would disagree.

If I’m going to spin my wheels, I want to go somewhere. The only way my spinning wheels will go somewhere is if they have traction. And to find traction, we need translators. Be a translator!

13 thoughts on “Church Leaders as Translators

  1. Very good Matthew. I’ve many times said that we need these multiple autonomous congregations so people can worship with like minded Christians. We will always have differences among Christ family, but typically those differences are not salvation issues. I have heard and read things I personally would never welcome as part of my worship, but believe in letting others make different choices without my condemnation (because I don’t have that privilege or right).
    Let us all remember to love our brothers (and sisters) as commanded in scripture. Jesus never said love only those you’ve judged equal to your “understanding” of scripture.
    May God bless each of us we greater LOVE for one another!

  2. I understand the purpose and spirit behind the article. It is very easy. Hard to argue with someone who wants to embrace both liberals and conservatives and promote peace. But there is no need for translation on issues on which the Bible has clearly spoken. Either women can preach or they cannot. Both sides cannot be correct. We can seek to understand each other but at the end of the day, we must love God and others enough to stand for God’s word. We are not without compassion when we speak as the Bible speaks. I am willing to talk to anyone over any issue any time and do so in love. But at the same time, I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I’ve commuted until him against that day. For those of us who have the responsibility to stand in front of people with souls on the line every Sunday, as we have had for years, don’t think we don’t want peace and love. Don’t think we want to fight a battle. We don’t. But if the truth is being compromised we have made he solemn promise as ministers before God that we will defend the truth. And postmodernism and its effects or not, absolute truth does exist, and this truth is available. And this truth is not open to individual interpretation.

  3. AMEN!! I had gotten to the point where I’ve been afraid to read anymore posts hinting to the words “conservative” or “liberal”, but I am so thankful that I slowed down and read this one. Thank you so much. I grew up on the extreme “conservative” side of things, but for me, as I grew older, the Spirit has lead me down a more “antimatter” path. For the first time in my life, at age 42, I only have 2 friends and my husband that I feel like I can discuss “touchy” topics with. My circle is much smaller now because I have been burnt and labeled by attempting to find answers to some of the tough questions. Because of this, I began to pray for wisdom and search on my own. I am thankful for this transition and I am much more wise now than in the past, but it has been a very lonely and painful journey at times. It shouldn’t be this way. I dream of a time when we can sit in each other’s homes over coffee and our bibles, read and pray together, while we find the truth together. I too, believe that unity can exist, but I believe that it takes patience and sincere love for one another. We are all at differing levels of maturity and the strong MUST bear with the scruples of the weak. That is the message that I gathered from your post, and it was beautifully written. The world is hateful enough, we need ALL of our brethren on the same side! Thanks again!

  4. Appreciate this article brother, it was a like a breath of fresh air for me and I believe probably others, who have felt caught in the middle of this recent debate ever since this controversy about this video broke out. I sure don’t have all the ins and outs of this issue perfectly figured out. There is a difference between “another gospel” and “another opinion” (interpretation). Praying for wisdom and loving patiece towards my good brethren who I might disagree with on this topic. Thanks for giving “us” in the middle another voice! God bless.

  5. Oversimplification of a much more complex problem. Certainly there needs to be decorum and respect in our discussions, but when we are addressing matters where the bottom line is this – “what is God’s will for His church?,” then debate is essential and truth is attainable. Sometimes, regardless of what side you are on, you must draw a line in the sand and stand for your principles. The doctrine of tolerance is eroding man’s search for God’s will. I will admit I may not be right, and concede that many of my brethren may also miss the mark – but I don’t believe that God was so unclear that it takes 3 Ph.D’s to understand his will – as Zig Ziglar once said, “I don’t think it’s what we don’t understand that troubles us.” I fear too many choose to misunderstand to suit their position (regardless of what side they align themselves with.

  6. Matthew,
    I applaud your bravery and your common sense. You are walking in an arena fraught with traditions, doctrines and biases. Biblical unity is centered on a common belief that we are sinners bound for hell, Jesus Christ is the son of God, he came to this earth to save us, died on a cross and was raised by the power of God and our acceptance of him raises us from the spiritually dead as well. That statement we can all be unified on. Our Faith is not in doctrines and traditions. Like Abraham, our Faith is centered on the undeniable belief that God is going to do something supernatural with us. God is saving us and making us his children.
    We are all “erring brothers and sisters”. We are human and sinful. What we are not is conservative or liberal. Those are non-biblical tags man has created.
    My recommendation would be to read the book of Romans, several times, ask the Lord to guide you and to open your eyes to the glorious truth that our righteousness comes not from us trying to get all of this “the right way”, but that our righteousness is given to us by God.

  7. God says something and you say, “I see”. Others say, “If you eat of that tree, you shall NOT surely die” [Satan}. What right do we have to say that person is wrong? Some agree with God, some say He doesn’t know what He was talking about. It isn’t loving if someone stumbles into the campfire and you use rhetoric to say maybe he is right and others shouldn’t criticize his choice. There are all kinds of ways to get around what God said in the New Testament. People have been doing work-arounds since the print hit the page. They all BELIEVE what they say, I’m sure. Who would argue what he does not believe (politicians excluded)?
    It hurts us emotionally when people adamantly hold differing positions, but standing with God’s Word is nothing to be ashamed of, or to let someone make you ashamed of. I have debated and discussed and shown in scripture and cried, but have accept that the Bible says some have already been turned over to a reprobate mind and can’t be convinced.

  8. It is very telling of your stance when you refer to the Freed lectures and Lipscomb Celebration. Your very descriptive words tell volumes on what is kept and what is discarded from each. You should take a second look at those words because they are loaded. Can you please provide an example from new testament teaching in which any of the inspired writers felt it necessary to translate so false teaching word be less offensive. It should be understood that new converts might struggle with identifying false teachers but as many of your responses have noted “I was raised in the church”. Why is translation of basic black and white teaching needed? Itching Ears would be the answer from scripture. I do not know you but am familiar with several folks who have liked or shared this article. It is heart breaking that people love the church so little that they feel that God’s word must be watered down to be less offensive. I am thinking that Jesus clearing the temple with a whip, labeling men as tombs, vipers, and stinking inside has no need for translation. Sin is sin and refusal to submit to God’s direction is sin. Is there any absolute truth in the Bible that stands on it’s own without translation? Would like for you to share your answers on these absolute truths.
    Paul Morgan

  9. I think you are supposing to know what Hiatt’s position is on the subject of women preaching. He didn’t address this issue or suggest a position. Hiatt ONLY pointed out a Christian attitude about discussing differences.
    Point being, even when your brother is wrong (scripturally or your opinion) alway speak with love.
    Read again with an attitude of non-judgement.
    Note: you don’t know my position either, but I’ll help you…I’m not for anything that harms the church family or is contrary to scripture. BUT I love my erring brother and sister because I am one.

  10. There will always be disagreements among men as to how the church is to function and that is the way it has been for centuries. If so many of these issues are salvation killers and elderships everywhere create their own lists, than whose list do we follow? We all want to say that OUR list is 100% Biblical, but be honest- there is a really good chance that something on that list is there more for “where an action could eventually lead” than the fact that by itself, it is sinful. Drinking alcohol is not by itself, wrong. Getting drunk is wrong, violating another person’s conscience is wrong, etc. Some elderships say its a salvation issue, some say it’s not. Who do you believe? Revelations warns that anyone who adds to the book will be condemned. Do you want to be the eldership that makes the statement that they definitely know the interpretation of end times and that everyone that doesn’t follow them is apostate. This happens all the time. Who’s right? We are missing a very important message here–the entire Bible points to one thing-Jesus Christ. So why do we spend so much time arguing, preaching and teaching about The Church and precious little time on Jesus? Go look at the sermon topics for the past 52 weeks at your church and see the number that are on doctrine, the church and the way we need to act vs. Jesus, the glory of Jesus, the love of Jesus and the need in the world for Jesus. You just might be shocked.

  11. It might be profitable to consider what Jesus said in the context of the parable of the unjust steward, Luke 16:10 “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much; and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.” Devotion to doing what God says, in the way God said it should be done, for the reason He said to do it, produced an army of believers in the early days of the restoration whose diligence in worshiping and the roles each believer filled was matched in their private lives. Divorce was rare, and few would have defended the use of beverage alcohol because of the multiple times scripture warns that its use impairs one’s ability to distinguish between the sacred and the profane, Now it is not unusual to find people in the church questioning the essentiality of baptism for the remission of sin. Unless the conclusion is incorrect that it is the act of baptism that the atoning grace of Christ’s death is secured, then it follows that to question the need for baptism is tantamount to questioning the need for the cross. It seems to me that some may not like the restrictions on their roles because that line of reasoning permits them to deny the restrictions the Bible places on their morality. We should, however, recognize that no one will conquer death because of his own righteousness, but because of Christ’s.

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