Can being “right” be wrong?

right wrong

“Many times being right is the same as being wrong.”

Acknowledgement that you do not monopolize the truth
This blog is a response to Joe’s excellent article about healthy communities. I particularly liked point #3:
“A third sign of healthy community is acknowledgment that the group’s distinctive views and values are not always right, and that in the final analysis, maintaining these distinctive is less important than learning how to love.”

Talking to those who have been burned by the church, I have noticed a pattern. People have been trampled on/ignored/ostracized/threatened because they did not agree with the doctrine of the church on an issue such as: evangelism, sexual orientation, racial issues, etc. Every time I hear a story of someone mistreated because they didn’t agree with their Pastor, it shocks me. I honestly don’t understand how that is a representation of God’s unconditional love and acceptance. I don’t understand why the church’s love always comes with strings attached. It’s as if the church has a “terms of use” page that is full of fine print, i.e. you can’t watch this show, you can’t read this author, you can’t associate yourself with those people, you can’ts do yoga etc. And years later people will take that terms of use and shove it in your face.

The difference between big “T” truth and little “t” truth 

You may say, “But MJ, it sounds like you don’t believe in objective truth. Do you believe that no one is wrong? Does that mean no one is right?”

Absolutely not, the view of multivocality/acceptance/tolerance that I’m presenting is not a negation of the truth, but an affirmation of the truth. We need to understand that truth cannot be reduced to one specific view, tradition, denomination, language, etc., truth always transcend our limited perspectives. Think about what it means that The Truth (God), became a truth (an embodied human being–jewish, a carpenter, etc.).

This is what I think about in classes about systematic theology. One verse or book of the Bible will enlighten a certain aspect of God, but that verse/book of the Bible must be read within the Bible as a whole. What’s astounding to me is how are man-made theologies have done more in isolating people/denominations than teaching us about God. This is where being right can be the same as being wrong. (In my own personal experience in the church I learned more about who God isn’t than who he is, and right now I’m unlearning a lot of those deeply embedded fallacies.)

A new definition of heresy

I really like George Koch’s definition of heresy.

“From Greek hairesis. “Heresy” can be used positively or neutrally to refer to a sect, choice or way of life, or negatively, to refer to an action or belief that causes factions, disunion or division in a group. Although used colloquially to mean “bad doctrine,” its actual sense is the division that it causes. Thus, even good doctrine can be heresy if used in a way that causes division. See Schism and Heterodoxy—related words but not synonyms (What we believe and why, pg 288).”

Here we see that “good doctrine” can be bad if it is used to cause division. This makes me think of how ministries stress evangelism to the point of ministers sacrificing their children for the sake of fulfilling the great commission. Evangelism is something good, but sometimes we pervert it into an idol. Or take the purity movement. Because of such a strong teaching on the harm of premarital sex, many people have been taught to lie, hate their bodies, be self-righteous, be judgmental, etc.

What is truth?

St. Augustine said, “True is that which is.” More and more often, I’m learning that truth/reality is understood through language. Language is the bridge between reality and us. For example Jesus’ death and resurrection is a historical fact, but the question is, what kind of death and resurrection was it? Was it a penal-substitutionary death? A christus victor death? Or a moral example death? And even Church history has not been unanimous when it comes to understanding the nature of his death/resurrection. We all use different terms to interpret the historical event.

Furthermore, what about the apostle’s creed? We believe in those words, but how do we interpret them into real every day practical life? Or the Sabbath? Is it 5 minutes, 2 hours or 24 hours?


There is a part of me that wishes that life was more black and white. In a sense, I wish that I could just have a list of the propositions of truth and whenever I have a tough questions I’ll break it out and have the answer. I want spoon fed answers. But life is not black and white. Often, I wonder, “Why did God give us so much freedom of interpretation?”

Yesterday, my prof showed us a youtube clip of a man using “Biblical Hebrew” to prove that Obama is the Antichrist. He completely butchered the Hebrew language and inaccurately used a passage that wasn’t even talking about the Antichrist. It was ridiculous that the clip had 2 million views (most likely because it supported the view that the viewers held to begin with). But how can God bear to see his words used to support war, bigotry, injustice, neglect of social welfare, etc? Historically, the Bible has been used to support slavery, racism, corban, etc. Where do we go from here?
I don’t know the answer and I don’t even know two people who agree unanimously on everything so how can we find a church that we fit in to? As individuals and corporately, as the church, it is necessary to acknowledge diversity in views and values. We must also note that sometimes we are wrong.

Do you agree that sometimes being right can be wrong? Do you disagree? Do you agree that language plays such a huge role in discovering the truth? Have you witnessed good doctrine used in a way that caused division?


  1. This came to mind: “speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:15). I’m paraphrasing Tim Keller who said that when we speak the truth without love, we are not speaking the truth.

    Also, if we love without speaking the truth we are not being loving.

    This is obviously delicate and can easily be misused and abused.

    Traditional conservative churches, perhaps like UBF, places a high(er) emphasis on truth–aspects and elements of particular truth that they hold in high regard.

    So it seems that churches which emphasize discipleship and evangelism tend to be condescending and critical toward churches that are focused on mercy ministry and social justice, in ways that can be anything but loving.

    The converse may also be true.

  2. “The converse may also be true.”

    I agree completely. Given my personal background with UBF, I have a tendency to lean towards the love side. (Although, there’s not really a spectrum of love and truth. Love does not exist devoid of truth). A lot of what I say/think is in reaction to growing up in a church that stressed performance/production so vigorously.

    As you say, speaking the truth is very delicate and it has been misused and abused in my life. Speaking the truth devoid of a relationship is like a bull in a china shop. But that’s how many many peoples’ experience in the church is. This is why I think that being right can also equate being wrong. But as you say someone who focuses on mercy ministry and social justice, yet uses that as a point of contention and reason for superiority is doing it wrong. Basically anyone can stray any where. This is why I’m starting to think that the “unforgiveable sin” is a state of being and not a particular action.

    Another point worth noting is that Jesus Christ himself was often falsely accused of breaking the law, which is ironic, that God who wrote the law would break the laws that He wrote? Jesus taught that all the law and Prophets depend on love of God and neighbor.

  3. Joe Schafer

    MJ, thanks for this article. You raise many important questions, not the least of which is: “What is truth?”

    St. Augustine’s quote about truth (which I hadn’t heard before) is interesting. I have a sneaking suspicion that to modern ears, it sounds different, and implies different things, than it did to Augustine.

    I had always understood “truth” as a modernist sense, that a statement is true if it corresponds to some objectively defined external reality. This sounds right and good. But it has a big problem. If this is how I think of truth, and if I then state with great conviction that I believe something is true, then in effect I am claiming to see that objective reality as it truly is (i.e. as God sees it), and anyone who believes differently is blind to the plain fact. If that is how one defines truth, then it is very hard to passionately believe in something without an air of superiority.

    If you give up that notion of truth (correspondence to objective reality), then many people will say, “You don’t believe in absolute truth. You think that everything is relative.” They say that because they cannot imagine any other definition of truth. They have no alternative understanding.

    But there is another way to think of truth, which seems to resonate with postmoderns. And from what I have heard (I’m no expert on the matter) it is also closer to what the authors of the Bible had in mind when they wrote about truth.

    In this alternative view, if you believe that a statement is true, it means that you are trusting the person who made the statement; you are deeming him trustworthy. You are not claiming to see objectively. In fact, you are admitting to yourself that you cannot see very well, and you are instead entrusting yourself to someone else who apparently knows more than you do.

    I have found that this relational view of truth is a very accurate description of how human knowledge works in all areas of life, not just in matters of religion.

    For example, if I say “Global warming is happening, and it is caused by humans,” I cannot possibly believe that on the basis of evidence. I am not an expert climate scientist, and I cannot possibly gather and weigh the evidence myself to make an independent judgment. I have to rely on the testimony of others who apparently know more than I do. When I say “global warming is true,” what I am really saying is that I trust certain people and not other people on the matter.

    And when I say, “I believe in Jesus,” what it means is that I have entered into a relationship of trust with Jesus, and that I am leaning on him to reveal all kinds of things to me that I cannot possibly know. I am not claiming that I see objectively. I am trusting that Jesus sees objectively. If other people for whatever reason do not yet have a basis to trust in Jesus the way I do, I do not have to accuse them of being blind or stupid or illogical willfully rebellious. Rather I can humbly acknowledge that it is very, very hard for one person to trust another, and I can imagine all sorts of perfectly good intellectual and emotional and cultural reasons why their personal faith commitments might be different from mine.

    • “If this is how I think of truth, and if I then state with great conviction that I believe something is true, then in effect I am claiming to see that objective reality as it truly is (i.e. as God sees it), and anyone who believes differently is blind to the plain fact.”

      I agree with you completely. There is a limit to the law. There is a limit to science and there is a limit to math (supposedly there is some point where parallel lines touch). In Koch’s book he talks about Godel’s principle (pg. 91) where certain decisions must be made outside the construct of laws. He says, “Kurt Gödel realized in 1931 that no system of rules could answer every question it raised—some 1900 years after Paul talked about this and Jesus declared our freedom.”

      A correspondence to objective reality is a limited view of the truth because “objective reality” is limited. I’m not saying that objective reality doesn’t exist. It does exist but on the side of God and not our side. On our side, what we think is “objective” is very much a product of our culture, time period, socio-economic status, education, etc.

      The other day I was thinking how huge God must be for every culture, language, and person to understand him and come to him. What’s taboo in one culture is perfectly fine in another. And all these different cultural expressions do not phase God. For example, in Jewish culture, people did not even pronounce the word “Lord.” They had so much reverence for His name. Nowadays in Protestant Evangelical circles we say “Lord all the time.” The Lord told me this or that….

      But thankfully, God, sees beneath the actions; he sees the heart. And He also sees when actions that are “culturally acceptable” are wrong even when we’re sitting in Church. Hence sometimes are “rights” are wrong and our “wrongs” are right. I’ve seen a stronger hunger and thirst for God outside the church than inside it (that doesn’t mean that there is no hunger or thirst for Him in the church, but to say that the church building is not the only sanctified place).

  4. Very good observations, MJ. Indeed, being “right” is not always “right”.

    “There is a part of me that wishes that life was more black and white. In a sense, I wish that I could just have a list of the propositions of truth and whenever I have a tough questions I’ll break it out and have the answer. I want spoon fed answers. But life is not black and white. Often, I wonder, “Why did God give us so much freedom of interpretation?” – See more at:

    Yes, we long for a binary world, for some reason. But as you rightly point out, the world is not binary. We have discovered this in many areas, and most recently, humanity is discovering that the male/female binary thinking is also not reflective of our reality.

    This is why I spent so much time letting my ideas be challenged online as I wrote my books. Such challenges to our own notion of “rightness” is most helpful and healthy. We are not growing if our ideas of right and wrong are not being challenged. Some of my thoughts are good only because I have been challenged and criticized so much. I now seek out such critical feedback.

    “In 2004, when some former members petitioned the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in the USA to revoke UBF’s membership, I called the NAE and begged them to keep the membership. I failed however. The NAE revoked our membership in 2004 mainly due to the silence of the senior leaders and because no one they talked to, including myself, had any real defense against the allegations of abuse. This was another eye-opening reality check.” pg.103 Identity Snatchers

    “All the while, however, I became more and more disillusioned with UBFism, even my own trimmed-down version of UBFism was fraught with contradictions. I could see the growing disconnect between the seemingly glorious kingdom of priests I imagined and the depressing reality around me. UBFism was not living up to its promises of blessing and world-class leadership training, even with my own modifications to make it more appealing.” pg.104 Identity Snatchers

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  5. BK, you have guts. I don’t think I could publish a book about all that happened to me, for fear of criticism. But as you say,

    “We are not growing if our ideas of right and wrong are not being challenged. Some of my thoughts are good only because I have been challenged and criticized so much. I now seek out such critical feedback.”

    Criticism is an inevitable part of life. But that should not stop us from sharing our stories. I admire that you’re able to share the story of how you have grown and been challenged. Your story is astounding because you used to be such a staunch promoter of UBF. I haven’t read “Identity Snatchers,” but from that excerpt I see that you are ok with being vulnerable and admitting how you were wrong. That is a rare characteristic.

    Thanks for sharing your story despite the criticism and the years of cultish mind control. Keep writing!