Shayne Looper: When it comes to right and wrong
When it comes to right and wrong, a person can be right and still wrong; wrong, and still right; wrong, and still wrong; and right, and still right. For human beings, it is frequently not a matter of right or wrong but of right and wrong.
For some people, being right is very important. These are the people who, when asked the time, never say, “Quarter after seven,” if it is really only 14 minutes after seven. If stating what they paid for gas, they would not say $3 a gallon if they really paid $2.99. Being precise is, for such people, a matter of honesty.
Such a person can be right (correct, anyway) and still be wrong. He may have the content right but the way he expresses it may be wrong. Someone once anonymously gave me a novelty T-shirt, printed in all caps, that read: “I’m not arguing. I’m just explaining why I’m right.” (Why they thought it was an appropriate gift for me I’ll never know.) The sarcasm implies a person can be right about content yet wrong in the motive or manner in which that content is expressed.
A person can also be wrong while still being right. I was with some friends in New York City. We had an eight-hour layover at JFK, so we went into Manhattan and walked around Times Square and saw the sights. When it was time to get back, we asked directions to the nearest subway station. The person we asked seemed eager to help but gave us bad information. His motives seemed to be right but his directions were wrong.
As a pastor (and one of those people who say “14 minutes after seven”), being right about the Bible is very important to me. Yet how many anger-fueled controversies have divided the church and impaired its witness because someone was right about the Bible in the wrong way. How many people have been alienated from the church and its life-giving message by someone who was right yet very wrong?
Of course, people are sometimes certain they are right in regard to content who are in point of fact wrong. That is why the scholar F.F. Bruce warned against a dogmatic attitude: it is harmful if one is wrong and unnecessary if one is right. One of my favorite Bible teachers used to tell his students: “Ten percent of what I am about to tell you is wrong ... I just don’t know which 10 percent it is.”
Right and wrong becomes even trickier when we factor in the possibility of being right about facts but wrong about context, which frequently happens in theological, political and other debates. The current immigration controversy is a good example. Everyone has facts to state, but those facts can be unhelpful and even misleading when they are not contextualized or their context is misconstrued.
Not only can we be right and still be wrong or wrong and still be right, we can be wrong and still be wrong. For example, if the man who gave us directions to the subway really sent us in the wrong direction because he despised tourists, he would have been wrong both in content and in motive. A Bible teacher may teach wrong information (whether he is aware it is wrong or not) and do it with wrong motives, perhaps to enrich himself or exercise power over others.
The final possibility is that a person can be right and right: right in both content and motives. This, I think, does not happen very often, at least in its fullest sense. We simply don’t know enough about the physical world, theology, philosophy or daily life to be entirely right about content. Nor have we made sufficient moral and spiritual progress - that is, become sufficiently human, as God intends - to be consistently right in our motives.
People who are right more often than most in both content and motive are called saints or sages and are respected for their example and instruction. Christians believe that only one person, Jesus, was right in every way at every time, and the Bible presents the remarkable prospect that (to the degree possible, given our nature) we shall one day be like him.
Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Branch County, Michigan. Read more at shaynelooper.com.