Are Christians like labrador retrievers?

Consider this (reported by Steve Brown in his book, Three Free Sins):

You have to work hard to offend Christians. By nature Christians are the most forgiving, understanding, and thoughtful group of people I’ve ever dealt with. They never assume the worst. They appreciate the importance of having different perspectives. They’re slow to anger, quick to forgive, and almost never make rash judgements or act in anything less than a spirit of love… no, wait! I was thinking of labrador retrievers.

Over the weekend I was teaching at the annual weekend retreat of Westlake Church Lausanne, a church I helped to start several years ago. Our theme was ‘The Grace Exchange‘ and we set out to explore the basic idea that people who receive grace should in turn extend it to others. In one of the sessions we looked at the issue of forgiveness (based on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18) and in another we thought about some of what it means for a church to be grace-filled, particularly in relation to judgmentalism.

Jesus’ instruction that we should not judge, so that we in turn may not be judged, is one aspect of his teaching that sits well with a 21st century mindset that considers many aspects of behaviour as matters of preference rather than matters of right and wrong. Live and let live.

It’s important to realise that Jesus’ teaching on judging did not negate the concepts of right and wrong. Just a few verses after warning against judging others, Jesus warned about false prophets. Clearly he did not regard all forms of discernment as off-limits: how can you identify a false prophet without some proces of evaluation.

However there is a shadow side to discernment which leads people to become judge, jury and chief counsel for the prosecution. It leads to spiritual and behavioural nit-picking. If God is a cosmic traffic warden, then some of his people view themselves as his helpers and traffic wardens spend a fair bit of time looking out for regulations that have been infringed.

It’s uncomfortable for spiritual and behavioural traffic wardens to think that not everything exists in clear categories of right and wrong. There are issues where two people may think and behave differently without either of them sinning.

That’s part of what Paul teaches in Romans 14. Paul knew how to draw lines in both behaviour and doctrine, but he recognised that in the emerging world of the New Testament church, as people came together from their different backgrounds, there were things that had to be held in an open hand. Should every Christian observe certain days – like Sabbath – as being more special than others? Are Christians free to eat meat or do they need to play safe with only vegetables? Is it acceptable to drink alcohol?

Paul had his own convictions about these things, but he recognised that there were going to be differences of opinion. Some people lived with a greater degree of freedom on some issues than others. Paul referred to those with greater freedom as ‘the strong’ and those who lived with more restrictions as ‘the weak’. While the weak had enough faith to believe in Jesus for their justification, their faith was not strong enough to silence the nagging voice of their consciences in relation to things like days and food. Rather than tell the weak that they should grow up or get over their scruples, or some such advice, Paul spends time teaching both groups what they need to do in order to live harmoniously together.

  • The weak must resist the temptation to judge those with greater freedom than them.
  • The strong must resist the temptation to despise those with less freedom than them. Despising is a form of judgmentalism.
  • The strong had to be prepared to rein in their liberty in order to build up their bothers and sisters who had different views.

Apart from the fact that Jesus (and Paul) warned against it, there are several problems with judgmentalism.

  • It is sometimes an expression of our self-righteousness. It’s the ‘thank you God that I am not like other people’ of the Pharisee in Jesus’ story. What makes it even harder to detect is that sometimes self-righteousness masquerades as a zeal for righteousness. The latter is a sign of life; the former is off-limits.
  • It is not our place to judge others. Paul wants people to understand (Romans 14) that our brothers and sisters belong to God (as do we). It is before him that we stand or fall.
  • Quite simply, we often do not understand all the facts. How often do we have to hang our heads in shame when the missing piece of a picture is revealed?

How should all this affect your view of someone whose behaviour you don’t understand or who draws lines (Sunday observance, alcohol, piercings, free-trade coffee, hybrid cars, millennial interpretation etc) in a different place from you?

How much room do you leave for grace?

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4 thoughts on “Are Christians like labrador retrievers?

  1. You should know that the quote about Labrador retrievers, which you credit to Steve Brown, is not by him. I know because I wrote it back in 1998, and already received an apology in 2011 from the legal department of Key Life Ministries for his use of my writing on the ministry web site without attribution. Our Daily Bread issues a similar apology.

    I’ve liked Brown’s show when I’ve heard it, but I have to say I’m disappointed. This was already brought to the attention of his ministry once, before the book came out. Committing the same breach of ethics is just recklessly irresponsible.

    If you could give credit where it’s due, I’d be much obliged. My name is David Learn.

    1. Hi David – your comment is now attached to the post and thanks for clarifying. Note that I don’t actually credit the quote to SB (‘as reported by Steve Brown’); it’s the best I could do with the information available to me. I like the quote and I use it at times in other settings. Your comment makes it easier for me because I will now be able to attribute the statement.

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