“But That Would Mean We’ve Always Been Wrong!”

One of the most difficult things when trying to teach people what they need to know is their past. “Unteaching” is always hard. People develop habits, ways of thinking and traditions that are sometimes very difficult to correct despite the best efforts of truth and reason.

How People Define Truth

The human tendency is to define what is true and good by personal experience. Thus, if you have always thought something to be true, then it might be difficult to get you to see otherwise. If you have taught or acted on your beliefs, then the likelihood of your changing becomes even more remote.

What Puts Us on the Defensive

Whenever we are confronted with teachings and practices that are contrary to what we’ve always believed there is a tendency to become defensive. This is natural and not inherently bad. However, we must not allow our defensive reactions based on our personal pasts to be our means of determining truth.

“But that would mean that we’ve always been wrong!” is often a defensive reaction that is at least thought if not spoken. If that is the basis of our resistance to any teaching or practice, then we have set up ourselves and our experiences as the standard of truth. This attitude often comes out at times of controversy when truth and reason have failed to convince some.

Martin Luther before King Charles

Martin Luther, while on trial before Charles V with his life at stake, said, “Unless I shall have been convinced by the witness of Scripture or of evident proof from reason — for I do not believe either pope or councils by themselves, since it is agreed that these have often made mistakes and contradicted themselves — I am overcome by the Scriptures I have quoted, my conscience is captive to God’s Word: I cannot, I will not, revoke anything, for to act against conscience is neither safe nor honest.”

The response of Charles V to others after Luther had been escorted away was, “A single monk led astray by private judgment has set himself against the faith held by all Christians for a thousand years or more and impudently concludes that all Christians up to now have been in error.” Notice that King Charles did not respond to Luther with Scripture as requested, but with tradition. For Charles to admit that Luther was right would have been to admit that he and many others before him had been wrong. That was unimaginable to Roman Catholic leadership and therefore Luther was denounced as a heretic.

Luther Falls into the Same Trap

Interestingly, Luther also fell prey to the same kind of reasoning several years later on the subject of infant baptism: “If [infant] baptism were not right, it would follow that for more than a thousand years there was no baptism or any Christendom, which is impossible….But the fact that child baptism has spread throughout all the Christian world to this day gives rise to no probability that it is wrong, but rather to a strong indication that it is right.”

Christendom (as defined by Luther) had practiced infant baptism for a thousand years and throughout the world. Therefore he “reasoned” that it was right. For him to have admitted that infant baptism was without scriptural justification would have been to admit that what he perceived to be popular (orthodox) Christianity had been wrong for a millennium.

The Catholic Church and Contraception

This attitude was seen in the 1960s when the Roman Catholic Church was debating the issue of birth control. The first “working paper” of the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control contained the following quote, “If contraception were not intrinsically evil, in honesty it would have to be acknowledged that the Holy Spirit…assisted Protestant churches, and that for half a century…a great part of the Catholic hierarchy…condemned most imprudently, under the pain of eternal punishment, thousands upon thousands of human acts which are now approved….For the Church to have erred so gravely in its responsibility of leading souls would be tantamount to seriously suggesting that the assistance of the Holy Spirit was lacking to her.”

The argumentation is the same. To change is tantamount to suggesting that we’ve been wrong all this time and that is inconceivable (pardon the pun). My point is not to argue the issues of infant baptism or birth control. It is to point out the faulty rationale that is often used to defend what people believe and practice.

Saul and the Resurrection

What if Saul of Tarsus had had this kind of thinking? Saul was on his way to Damascus to arrest Christians and take them bound to Jerusalem to be punished. He did this out of his zeal for God (Acts 22:3-5). Indeed, he thought he must do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 26:9). This changed when he was confronted with the undeniable reality of a resurrected Jesus. Imagine if Saul had said, “If Jesus of Nazareth was raised, in honesty it would have to be acknowledged that God has been with the Christians and that for the last decade a great part of the Jewish hierarchy condemned most imprudently those thousands of disciples of Jesus. For the Sanhedrin to have erred so gravely would be tantamount to suggesting that God was not with that esteemed body. That is impossible. Thus it must be concluded that Jesus is still dead.”

Saul of Tarsus did not resort to such nonsense and neither should we. When we are confronted with the truth, it should not be our practice to defend ourselves against it by arguing from our past beliefs or those of any other group. Our response to truth should be to repent and submit.

Humbly Acknowledging God’s Standard of Truth

God’s word is truth (John 17:17)! Instead of trying to determine truth by looking at what we’ve taught and practiced in the past let’s get back to God-breathed words. They are all we need for teaching, convicting, correcting, and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).

Remember, God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord and He will lift you up (James 4:6,10). When confronted with truth it may require us humbly to acknowledge that we’ve always been wrong, but that gives us access to God’s grace. Pride leaves us in the unenviable position of meeting the resistance of God.

–(Adapted) Andy Diestelkamp