I can feel all fifteen sets of eyes on me… all waiting for me to respond, looking anxiously because I am assumed to have an answer that will settle all disputes. Humility is often talked about, and frequently held up as a virtue required of all leaders. Some leaders make grand claims to have attained humility and are quick to recount the episodes in their lives that gave them the ability to somehow remain humble in the face of success all around them.
Anyone in a leadership position, especially one that involves teaching can easily fall into the trap of thinking they know more than they really do. The church culture expects answers from their leaders. As a professor at two different colleges, I am constantly faced with questions from eager students who expect me to give them the answers to all the difficult questions in the world. It becomes increasingly easy to operate from a stance of epistemic authority from the position of teacher. Add to that the perceived infallibility that comes from advanced degrees, or special titles, and you have a potent combination that can cause anyone to think more of themselves and their understanding of all things than is really the case.
What would be the response to a pastor on a Sunday morning that admits during the weekly service that he/she has studied the Scripture passage under inspection that week only to discover more questions have risen in his/her mind than answers. Could a pastor really tell his/her congregation that all the answers are not divinely imparted to them during their weekly study? Could the existence of mystery really become not only acceptable, but also expected?
I often times wonder what the response would be in a congregation if a pastor openly admitted to the congregation that “I have been studying this passage all week, and honestly I’m still not quite sure what all the implications of this are.”
“We know in part” (1 Corinthians 13:9). The apostle Paul rightly understands the incomplete nature of our understanding of the world around us.
Responsible Christian teaching rightly admits the incomplete nature of our comprehension of God. God is beyond our comprehension; any attempt to adequately describe the God of the Bible always falls short of completion. A sense of awe and wonder must always accompany any theological enterprise.
Christian pastors and teachers need to become acutely aware of this limitation, because of temptation to think more of ourselves than we should. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking we have all the answers, which soon leads to dogmatic statements that extend to every area of theology. Certainly there should be some subjects with which we speak with great certitude about, however, in many cases a little epistemic humility would go a long way.
So how can we remain humble in front of others without compromising the imparting of truth, which is the responsibility of Christian teachers?
First, I would extend a call to all teachers, whatever their status to learn three very important words: I don’t know. There is something refreshing about admitting that you do not know something when asked a question. So much pressure is placed on Christian leaders to have all the answers, because they are professional Christian leaders. However, admitting that we are not all knowing relieves us from the pressure of having to be infallible on all things in theology. Pastors admitting that they don’t have all the answers would actually encourage their constituents ensuring them that questions are sometimes ok.
Second, Christian leaders need to approach any teaching with great humility, knowing that anything they begin to say about God will be in part inadequate to fully capture His greatness. Any statement about God in human language falls short of His holiness, His perfection. So we will begin to readily admit that God is bigger, and greater than anything our words can describe.
Finally, pastors, and teachers will understand that sometimes starting the conversation amongst your listeners is actually a greater method of teaching than giving all the answers. The pastor on Sunday morning moves from being the last word on the subject to the first word. The pastor starts a conversation that will continue throughout the week.
Questions are often times better than answers, because through our questions we become seekers after God, searching the Scriptures prayerfully to encounter a God who is both beyond us, and somehow personally attainable through the Scriptures.