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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

I Was For It Before I Was Against It and the Risk/Reward of Changing Course

Written by: on September 15, 2020

“Peter said, ‘You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection.’”[1]

Any modern leader will tell you that one of the worst things you can be called is a “flip-flopper.” In 2004, when John Kerry was running for president against the incumbent George W. Bush, the challenger was excoriated for saying he “was for it before he was against it,” referring to a yes vote he had cast in an early version of a military spending bill, and the no vote he cast in the final version. The explanation was unhelpful. Kerry’s statement was political gold for his opponent, who labeled the Senator as indecisive and incapable.

How did the act of changing one’s mind become the cardinal sin of leadership? When did it become so wrong to reverse a position? When did become so egregious to admit to it?

It’s easy just to pick on the politicians here, but it plays out in the most personal arenas. As a parent, there have been times when I have disappointed my children by adjusting plans. Even when there were perfectly rational reasons for doing so, their frustrations were expressed. “But dad, you said…” Most of the time we are unaware at how quickly our minds wrap around an idea or a plan, how we are unable to really understand what is happening inside of us when that idea is challenged or that plan is changed.

I wonder how it felt for Peter, as God spoke to him in a dream in Acts 10, using the image of meat to show him the new thing God was doing. Beyond revising the dietary laws, God revealed to Peter the ways that the message of Jesus would extend past the boundaries of a region and into the wider world, how the Gospel would be proclaimed in cultures that had previously been excluded. We can almost hear Peter explaining himself to the others. “Yes friends, that was then, this is now. God has shown me…”

In “Not Knowing,” D’Souza and Renner write, “we rely on preconceived ideas that are years, sometimes decades, out of date. As the world is changing so rapidly, we increasingly find ourselves in situations where what we know, or what we thought we knew, is no longer useful or correct.”[2] Information changes. Knowledge changes. Understanding changes.

What gift could the Christian community offer by taking such an approach? Yes, the truth of Scripture is timeless, but God’s Word is not bound to human limits of time, space, and understanding. God is always revealing new things. What would it look like for the Christian Church to atone for its part in the harm that has been done to human beings throughout history? To admit where it was wrong in misapplying Scripture to justify slavery and colonialism? To recognize its failure to lead on issues of equality for women and people of color? To confess its misinterpretation of verses to condemn people who love a person of the same gender? To repent of the times and places where it used its position to gain greater power and influence in the political arena?

What do we risk when we admit we were wrong? What might be the fall-out from confessing that while we might have been taught some things at one time, we too are part of this world that God, as the creed reminds us, “has created and is creating.”[3] Perhaps some might see the Church as indecisive and inconsistent. Some may see the Church as shaped by culture, as opposed to the one shaping culture. But many might begin to see the Church for what it really is- a flawed, but faithful witness for the good news of God’s love in Jesus. Not perfect, but striving to be as we imitate the one who is and was. Willing to be honest about our failures. Willing to be changed as God works in us. Willing to stand for some things we might have previously been against.

[1] Acts 10:27-29a, NIV.

[2] Diana Renner and Steven D’Souza, “Not Knowing: The Art Turning Uncertainty into Opportunity,” (New York: LID Publishing, 2016,) 83-84.

[3] From “A New Creed: A Statement of Faith of the United Church of Canada,” (1968.)

About the Author

mm

John McLarty

Husband. Dad. Pastor. Play a little golf.

12 responses to “I Was For It Before I Was Against It and the Risk/Reward of Changing Course”

  1. mm Darcy Hansen says:

    John,
    This is one of my favorite posts you’ve written. I’ve read it multiple times now. I wonder how you navigate all those questions within your congregation? Do you tackle them head on, or dance around them? How does “being wrong” or admitting to “not knowing” go over in your congregation? As you said, culturally, it’s unacceptable. Within some branches of the Church where certainty is King, it’s inconceivable to make such admissions. Tough to change minds and encouragement growth in such settings.

    • mm John McLarty says:

      There have been times when I’ve been able to say- either in a sermon, or a Bible study, or in conversation- that my understanding or belief of something had changed. A big part of being able to do that is having a solid, trusting relationship established where people can see I’m real. If they’re aware of the journey, people tend to be more understanding of another’s evolution.

  2. mm Dylan Branson says:

    In my undergrad program, I took a class called “The Church in the Postmodern Context” that explored how the church was viewed today. One of the books we read was Dan Kimball’s “They Love Jesus, but Not the Church” and what I found interesting was that it wasn’t Jesus people typically had a problem with (though their view of who Jesus is was skewed and troubling at times), but rather it was the church itself. An argument that kept popping up was the hypocrisy of the church through history. What it seemed to boil down to was that the church has made a lot of mistakes and it has lost the right to speak on issues because of that. It can’t be ignored that there have been times when the church was complicit with societal evil and we try to white-wash the church’s sins away by ignoring them. But part of the journey is learning to accept what has happened in the past and to not let it define the narrative going forward. We must own up to our mistakes and apologize where we have failed. It’s only once you’ve owned and learned from the past that you can actively move forward into the future.

  3. mm Greg Reich says:

    John,
    Love this post! One of the comforting and profound things I see in scripture is God’s willingness to use broken, messed up flawed people to advance His kingdom. In modern leadership circles Gods willingness to use flawed people would be seen as poor leadership. I think it is a flawed faithful witness that unfolds the wisdom of God and the power of the gospel. It has often been said that Christianity is the only one who kills their wounded. How has the church gone from a place of love and forgiveness to a place requiring perfection before membership is allowed?

  4. mm Jer Swigart says:

    Love this, John.

    I’m struck by the experience of fear associated with the ideas that “I might be wrong.” or “I was wrong.” or “I changed my mind.” or “I’m reading this passage with new lenses now.” The idea that we theologians & pastors shouldn’t never change their minds seems to discourage the ongoing process of transformation that I see happening in Acts 10. Quite literally, I read Acts 10 as a moment when God is changing Peter’s theology (mind) and, to your point above, the shift in theology is what propells him across a diverse threshold. This “change of mind” became the spark that catalyzed the movement of the gospel into the Gentile world.

    What would be the impact on your congregation if you were to say, “I think God’s changing my mind on this issue/passage/idea.” Would that inspire them or discourage them?

    • mm John McLarty says:

      When there is trust in the pastor/congregation relationship, it becomes more possible to talk with vulnerability and transparency about one’s journey from one understanding/belief to another. This takes time and tremendous effort, but it can be done.

  5. mm Chris Pollock says:

    To change our minds. To admit we are wrong. Which comes first? Can there be one without the other?

    ‘God is always revealing new things’ to us. ‘As deep cries unto deep’ (Psalm 42:7).

    With regards to colonialism, how are there colonial structures and systems still in place?

    Perhaps, however these still exist, we may find a location that we can admit wrongness?

    For what has been done…’wrong’. For what continues in a fashion that oppresses and exploits ones made-vulnerable by said structures and systems. What does a change of mind look like?

    Thank you John for your thoughts. What a journey we are on and, together. Life and love open up to us more and more, I’m learning. And, what about truth?

    The Truth and, what it is, has me stumped sometimes.

    • mm John McLarty says:

      I think there are parts in each of us where we are completely unaware of how ingrained our perspectives and biases are. Sometimes our eyes or minds or hearts are opened to them. Then we get to choose to change or resist change. Either way, at least then we’ve taken ownership.

  6. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    John, I’m intrigued by the credal line, “has created and is creating.” Where did you come across that? Is that something widely used in your circles? How else does it guide you? I’m writing that one down!

    • mm John McLarty says:

      The phrase comes from a creed that is included in the United Methodist hymnal and used sometimes in our liturgy, “A Statement of Faith of the United Church of Canada.” I love the line and say it often (and when I include that it’s part of a creed, people sometimes give it a little more consideration!) It guides me as I remember that life is not static, why on earth would God be? We grow, adapt, dare I say- evolve- all in the hopes that each step brings us a little closer to the Almighty- to the restoration of that perfect creation God intended.

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