Three true stories. Three very different messages. We might agree with some, but not all. Yet, all contain the same fundamental truth. Can you identify it?
#1 The speaker related Osama Bin Laden’s claim how a divided Christianity had significantly shaped his negative view of Christianity. Then this presenter further prepped the audience with various statements before asking, “How many churches are there in the US?” Affirming ecumenicalism, the audience shouted back, “One!”
#2 A preacher explained how the elders in his congregation had rallied around the principles of Romans 12:1-2 and “You can not do together what you are not doing individually.” These two principles had led them into pursuing habits of personal spiritual formation to transform their elders’ meetings from business board meetings into a more spiritual time for serving the congregation.
#3 Wading through verses in the Gospel of John while sprinkling in several humorous antidotes, the professor asserted that John powerfully portrayed Jesus as allowing himself to be crucified. Jesus was always in control. Jesus was no victim.
Other than the fact that these three scenarios describe presentations associated with Christianity, we might not find much in common between them. Yet, at a fundamental level they all share the same basic truth. Every lesson, class, sermon, article or presentation contains two messages. One is what the presenter desires the audience to hear and embrace, while the second message consists of the speaker’s method, namely how the presenter tries to move the recipients to embrace the what. Both messages are powerful. Neither should be ignored.
Sometimes we may accept the conclusion while rejecting the method. Ever hear a person arrive at the truth, but rip verses out of context to reach it? How does this impact you? Or how do we respond to those whom we perceive as being manipulative or selective with the evidence? Whenever the how is viewed as untrustworthy, the forcefulness of the what is diminished.
Consider the New Testament. When we think of Paul’s messages, what comes to mind first? Perhaps our initial thoughts gravitate to matters of content such as Christ crucified, the righteousness of God, God’s love or God’s grace. However, let’s not neglect Paul’s concern for the second message, namely his pursuit of the highest ideals regarding method.
“We have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2).
“As you know, we never appeared with flattering speech nor with a pretext for greed … nor to seek glory from people” (1 Thess. 2:5,6).
“You are witnesses, as is God, as to how holy and righteous and blameless we were toward you who believe” (2 Thess. 2:10).
If we are going to aspire to walk in such footsteps, we will want to avoid a number of deceptive techniques. For example, rather than redefining biblical words that could lead to white washing unbiblical concepts with biblical language, we need to use biblical words in biblical ways. How would God view it if we were to automatically impose society’s notions of truth, Christian, baptism, worship, etc. upon scripture’s use of those terms?
Although we find it encouraging when our practices and state of being are affirmed, to conflate what scripture says should be with what exists today or to transform scriptural commands into guaranteed comforting affirmations fails to follow Paul’s high ideal. Likewise, to appeal to secular fears or commonly shared societal values to advance an idea in religious garb falls short.
Furthermore, we will want to reject the method of pursuing an “ends justifies the means” mentality. Rather, we will draw near to scripture with the attitude, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”
Both content and method are critical. While the content might be the most visible aspect of a message, equally significant is how someone arrives at that conclusion. Both messages will shape future understandings.