Does Godly Leadership Require Certainty About God?
By Mike Edwards
Leaders proclaiming certainty have not allowed God’s open and relational ways to guide individuals in their own time.
I am grateful for pastors of churches I attended in the past who encouraged getting to know God. In retrospect, it seems pastors felt compelled to proclaim certainty of what God thought, according to their understanding of Scriptures. Perhaps they felt an internal pressure due to leadership expectations from parishioners. Didn’t pastors, though, read books where biblical scholars, who respect the authority of Scriptures, do not always agree? Total certainty is an illusion because even if God is Truth, we still have to discern what is Truth. For example, can preachers or priests be women or gay? Many are leaving the institutional church because of the lack of honest, open dialogue. God’s example seems more open and relational because of the freedom given to understand God in our own time.
It’s hard to be relational when you are so damn certain.
One would think Christians would be the least judgmental people in the world. After all, they believe in loving others like they want to be loved. Catholics and Protestants, or whatever other representation of the church may apply, seem compelled to establish creeds, as if uncertainties about God are a sign of weakness. It isn’t always voiced that you are required to accept their doctrines to participate, but try challenging them and see where that gets you! If God was so concerned about beliefs such as the Trinity, angels, the Bible, the Virgin Mary, or hell, it seems there would be more agreement. Maybe Christians would be more united and less judgmental if religions only encouraged the Creed of Love as the Spirit guided individuals.
No, uncertainty doesn’t have to lead to lawlessness!
I am not suggesting anything goes in the declaration that we can’t be certain. No one questions laws against murder. Criminals don’t deny their actions are wrong; they deny they committed such a crime. Unless you are a terrorist, it is almost universally accepted that it is morally wrong to kill or behead someone because of his or her beliefs. We don’t have to fear uncertainty. Different opinions, expressed without physical or verbal aggression, can stand side by side, as we continually evaluate the most loving approach or understanding of God.
The idea of an infallible or inspired Bible may be a reason Christians claim certainty.
The Bible certainly is a resource to discover what God is like, though the majority of people born into this world didn’t have a Bible or knowledge of Jesus. There must be other ways to know God! Infallibility is a non-starter because we don’t have the original manuscripts. The many translations or versions of the Bible we have today suggest copying is not an exact process. Even if we had the original autographs, interpretation is still required. Scholars who believe in the authority of Scriptures disagree regarding what the Bible says about critical issues such as homosexuality, gender roles, divorce, and hell, among many other things.
Interpretations are fallible, but most people do not begin a discussion with “I may be wrong…” Keep in mind that we can’t prove that God inspired every word of the Bible, unless you argue a biblical writer making such a claim is definitive evidence. The possibility of a fallible book encourages questioning rather than demonizing views to the contrary. We have every right to question interpretations that suggest a Creator does not love in the way we were created to love. God-followers seem unaware of how often they appear to be unopen and morally superior based on their assumptions about the Bible.
How can we know God?
Some declare God is mysterious when their interpretation of the Bible makes God appear immoral, but how can we have a relationship with a God we can’t understand with the brain God gave us? Is evil sometimes mysteriously good? The Bible assumes we can understand God by challenging us to be perfect like God (Mt. 5:48). We can only understand God’s perfect love by the way we humans were created to love perfectly. It is intuitive to think that the perfect love of God and human are the same. That is why the mystery card is used when God seems unloving from a human perspective. A Creator surely loves others and us in the same way that we were seemingly created to love others.
Where has certainty in God’s name gotten us?
It is logical to suggest we can’t be certain of what an invisible, inaudible God thinks. But supposed certainty has led to justifying slavery. It has led to revered theologians such as St. Augustine and John Calvin not firmly opposing the execution of those who didn’t agree with their theology. The Bible can’t be the definitive guide to what God would do because scholars who respect Scriptures disagree on so many issues. And it clearly is wrong to behead people because they don’t share your personal beliefs about God.
Jesus didn’t judge uncertainty.
Jesus performed many miracles, but his disciples/followers still didn’t believe. Jesus didn’t cast away Peter when warning him he would deny Jesus three times; I believe Peter now is called the “Rock.” Jesus hung out with all kinds of people that didn’t share his certainty. Jesus didn’t unload on others when their beliefs weren’t his, unless you were a religious authority who was misrepresenting God. My hunch is that God, like parents, would rather be doubted than ignored.
Is God unloving by not being more visible, thus more certain?
We may wonder why God isn’t more obvious in our lives. God’s awe-filled or overpowering presence may only lead to fearful obligations to obey. When parents push their agendas, even if in their children’s best interests, a child may resent or rebel against coercion and never turn back from that rebellion. If God communicates in less demonstrative ways, this may allow for heartfelt choices. God may know what a controlling parent never learns: the road of learning, reflecting, and non-coerced choices may best lead to lasting convictions.
God’s love is not controlling. Controlling love is an oxymoron. Authenticity, the highest good in relationships, is impossible without freedom. Not even an almighty God can force true love. It isn’t that God has the power to do something and doesn’t. God can’t control or violate freedom and love perfectly. God, like parents, had a choice—not to create or to create knowing suffering was a possibility in the pursuit of intimacy. Divine love limits divine power. God is open to changing the world at relational speed.
Uncertainty can lead to acting more lovingly.
Being unable to declare the certainty or morality of our opinions forces us to listen and express ideas openly. God understands, as much as humans do, that forcing beliefs does not lead to long-lasting changes. Starting a conversation with “I may be wrong…” will more likely lead to new understandings and creative solutions. Conversations change when humility is part of the tone. Certainty, when it comes to political matters such as taxes or health plans, has led to justifying verbal or physical violence in the name of God or morality. Differences don’t have to lead to chaos but can be resolved by remaining open-minded to the most loving ways.
The Bible tells us the Word of God is not the Bible; it is flesh in the body of Jesus (Jn. 1:1-14). Jesus, when leaving this earth, didn’t promise to leave us with a Bible, but with God’s Spirit to aid in discerning good from evil (Jn. 14:16). Doesn’t the Spirit speak to us somehow when we have thoughts to be the perfect partner, parent, or friend we desire to be deep down, despite our constant failures? It may be good that that the Spirit doesn’t communicate audibly. The Bible may be more direct communication, but it has been used to force beliefs on others despite being subject to interpretation. Leaders who admit uncertainty, rather than certainty, about God, keep from imposing beliefs on others, which is just not in God’s open or relational nature.
Mike Edwards earned his M.Ed. in Counseling at Georgia State University. Mike blogs at what-god-may-really-be-like.com and donewithreligion.com He asks questions in hopes that individuals may reconsider any beliefs they hold about God that discourage pursuing God and spirituality. Mike loves to play tennis, read, and spend time with his family.