Polls of North American attitudes toward Christianity reveal that we have a serious image problem, with arrogance touted as one of our ugliest features. When you think about it, the church does make audacious claims—nothing less than a special message and mandate from God’s very self: “The church is sent with the gospel of the kingdom to call everyone to know and follow Christ”(Our World Belongs to God, 41).
It’s as if we know something others don’t and possess something others lack. Can we dare claim such a thing when inclusion, respect, equality, and openness are dominant cultural values? No wonder some denominations have backed away from exclusive claims about the gospel for fear of sounding arrogant, and many Christians are timid about sharing their faith with others.
So is it arrogant for Christians to claim the truth? Yes . . . and no.
Often we are arrogant in defending our faith. A student proudly told me how he had stormed out of a class because his professor had criticized Christianity. My response disappointed him. While I admired his passion, I questioned his attitude. Do we want to be perceived as the sort of people who write off others’ objections to our beliefs? Does the Spirit have nothing to teach us through criticism? Doesn’t another person—no matter how much we disagree with her—deserve the respect of being listened to? Too often, Christians use “God says” to shut down discussion. This is arrogance, plain and simple.
At the same time, God has chosen us for a purpose. Now is no moment for the church to be timid. How should we be faithful to God’s urgent purpose without coming across as arrogant? A shift in mindset might help.
We need to consider how we as Christians relate to God’s truth before we can meaningfully relate that truth in our pluralistic context. This is of first importance: We are God’s. God is not ours. While we’re known fully by God, God is only known in part by us. God calls us to seek him; we are reminded to pray for the conversion of our hearts and minds so we may grow into the fullness of the truth revealed in Scripture (Eph. 4:13). This suggests that the church doesn’t own truth as much as it witnesses to truth—above all, the truth revealed in Jesus Christ. One contemporary Reformed confession puts it this way: “In the spirit of humility, as beggars telling others where food is to be found, we point to life in Christ” (Living Faith, Presbyterian Church in Canada, 9.2.1). What would happen if we were to think of ourselves less as sitting on the truth and more as pointing to it? We’d invite nonbelievers to join us as learners of the way of Jesus, journeying deeper into God’s truth. This is a humble stance from which to share our faith with others. We’d talk and listen to them with Christlike traits of empathy, patience, and kindness, all the while open to the Spirit’s challenge that in the encounter, we too may have something to learn.
None of this is easy, but it’s not as if we’re the first generation of Christians to be thought arrogant. The early church suffered from the same image problem we do. Not only did Christians share with Jews belief in one God to the exclusion of the empire’s many gods, but the church claimed Jesus Christ as Lord to the exclusion of any other. It’s no wonder, then, that New Testament writings unapologetic about the church’s confession of Christ in a pluralistic world are also deeply concerned with how we make our testimony: ‘Be compassionate and humble. . . . Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you. . . . But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:8,15).