We’re asking why a youth pastor should apologize to a teenager’s mother for comments made in a message, comments she found offensive. You can read the story in Part 1 and my list of things that don’t necessarily require an apology in Part 2. That brings us to Part 3, where I truly believe he should have apologized (he did), though perhaps a little differently.
So, why apologize?
I believe he owed her an apology because he evidently did not take the time to present her belief in a way that she could recognize. Perhaps, had he known she was in the audience, he would have said things very differently. Perhaps he wouldn’t have mentioned purgatory at all. We’ll never know. He did mention it, and he talked about it in a way that she thought was totally inaccurate. It is a shame that she wouldn’t or couldn’t articulate what she really believed, but she was able to say enough. She said that he had picked up one of her cherished beliefs and treated it like trash.
And I don’t think that there is ever a reason to do that.
Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, describes Habit #5 like this: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” He shows how this is a fundamental principle in sales, law, engineering, parenting, and medicine. A good doctor diagnoses before he prescribes, an effective leader listens to people before he speaks. Unfortunately, most people only listen well enough to respond with their own views, never having taken the time to show appreciation and respect for the other person by trying to understand them.
And this isn’t just some self-help mantra; it’s biblical. Proverbs 18:13 says that when a man gives an answer before he has fully listened to the question, “it is a folly and a shame to him.” Did you catch those words? Folly. Shame.
When we assume, fail to ask, and arrogantly believe that our experiences and presuppositions are identical to those of everyone around us, we will wind up with egg all over our faces. We will offend people, and it will be our fault. And we will need to apologize.
I don’t know if the youth pastor could have said anything about purgatory without this woman being offended. Maybe she is easily offended. Maybe she is the sort of person who just can’t tolerate a religious disagreement. Maybe she’s been ostracized in the past and tends to react negatively toward anyone who speaks critically of her faith. But from what I know, he didn’t do anything to avoid it, and he may carelessly have said a few things that made it worse.
As I said before, I agree with his doctrine. I don’t think he should apologize for the truth. But he should apologize for presenting someone else’s belief in a manner unrecognizable to them. Love demands no less, for it believes the best about people, not the worst. (1 Cor. 13:7)
And there’s a lesson for the church of today, for preachers and pew-sitters alike. We are not going to agree on everything. We might have some grave differences. But if we’re to have peaceable discourse, if we’re going to disagree agreeably, if love is to be evident in our ranks, we’re going to have to start listening to the best that the other person has to say rather than ridiculing or demonizing them in an attempt to promote our own party.
I don’t mean that we should pretend like our differences don’t matter. I mean that evangelistic non-Calvinists should speak with missions-minded Calvinists, and that soul-winning Calvinists should speak with grace-loving Arminians. I mean that credo-Baptists should speak with covenant-minded paedo-baptists. I mean that missions-loving, Bible-believing Faith Promise Independent Baptists should speak with missions-loving, Bible-believing Cooperative Program Southern Baptists. And I mean that none of us should ever assume that the person in front of us agrees with every jot and tittle that his or her church claims to teach.
An Entirely-Non-Fictional Story
We were in Denver, Colorado, on a youth missions trip to work with an urban church plant. Actually we were piggy-backing another church’s missions trip, and they had scheduled a visit to a downtown Buddhist temple. I suppose it was to give the youth a taste of the challenges posed by an Eastern religion and help them look to their own faith for answers.
A female Buddhist priest (or nun: I confess my ignorance on this point) gave us about a 45 minute lecture on her Buddhist beliefs. It was very interesting! However, somewhere in the middle of her talk, she started to sound a lot like my youth pastor friend.
She didn’t talk about purgatory. (That would have been interesting, as she also described a bowl of cold oatmeal as “hell.”) No, she talked about her Southern Baptist preacher grandfather. And as she did, she lapsed into an affected southern dialect and some stereotypical revivalist phraseology. “Y’all must be bern agin!” (Or something like that.) That was merely prelude to her rejection of Protestant Christianity and her journey to Buddhism.
During the Q&A, someone asked her about some of her spiritual exercises, and she tried to draw some similarities between transcendental experiences and some early Christian ascetics. She almost sounded like she thought the two were pursuing the same goal on the same path. Having some knowledge of the groups she was talking about, I felt the need to draw a distinction.
She had mocked my particular brand of faith, and she had categorized me with a group that I would not identify with. So, once our audience was finished and the teens were dismissed, I approached her. Was I offended? No. Nothing she could have said would have shaken me loose from my confidence in Christ. But I did feel that she was in error. So, I simply told her some of the differences between what she had portrayed as “Christian” and what most of us truly believe.
“Thank you for telling me that. I have learned something today.”
So did I.
If we believe something to be true, we must expect there to be other people out there who disagree. And we must expect that, just as we have freedom to express our beliefs, so must they. And it won’t always be pretty.
But whether we are Christians of different strands discussing our divergent practices, or Christians sharing the Gospel with non-Christians, two things must guide our way.
One, if we love the Word of God and receive its message as absolute, authoritative truth, nothing should ever offend us. Oh, we might get upset at sin and error – and we should – but nothing should shake us loose from Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
And two, when we speak of the truth to those with whom we disagree, let us do so honestly, accurately representing what they believe and lovingly assuming that they represent the best – not the worst – of another point of view.
You can read Part 2 here.
You can read Part 1 here.