The problem of “I might be wrong”

I was having a conversation with somebody about baptism yesterday on twitter. You can go and read it if you want. This post is not about baptism. Nor, I should say from the top end, is this me having a go at the person I was speaking with. I am categorically not doing that here. But I was prompted to write this by an argument that was made because it is a very common argument that crops up in all sort of conversations and I thought it worth just writing up some thoughts about it. Again, I am not addressing this to the person I was talking to nor using this as an opportunity to address anything said in that particular discussion. It was just a comment made that prompted me to think it might be useful to write up something more fulsome because it touched on a view I have heard many, many times before.

The specific argument in question is the one that relies on the apparently humble, ‘I might be wrong’. I say apparently humble, not because the person using it is really arrogant. I don’t think that. But because though it has the appearance of humility, I don’t think it is cogent.

The reasoning – whatever it is applied to – runs something like this:

  1. A is demanded of all people
  2. I understand A to be defined by X
  3. There is a chance I might be wrong about X
  4. Therefore, I cannot insist upon X even though I am convinced it is the proper form of A

It sometimes takes a slightly form, but that is the nub of it. There is an apparent intellectual humility to that position. I have heard this view a lot when people want to argue that they do not want to insist on something they do actually believe to be a matter or moral rightness. They want to make room for those who demur.

Of course, we all accept there are times to make room for those who differ from us. But I don’t think this is the ground on which to do so. There are things that are either adiaphora (indifferent things) or that are not indifferent, but not nevertheless matters of commands of Christ. Whilst there are matters of belief that would indicate somebody is not a genuine believer in the Lord Jesus – those things we consider first order issues – many theological positions do not undermine either our understanding of the gospel nor have significant impact on the life of the local church. These are usually the matters on which we want to make room.

When it comes to commands of Christ, however, we are dealing with the world of sin. If Jesus has said we must do, say or think something and we do not, we have sinned. If Jesus has said we must not do, say or think something and we do it, we have sinned. This seems a fairly uncontroversial definition of sin.

Now, when it comes to matters of sin, I believe Jesus has commanded particular things. Though it may feel intellectually humble to say that I might be wrong about my understanding of those things, I don’t actually believe I am wrong. I actually believe I am right, otherwise I wouldn’t believe what I do. I would believe something else. But I believe what I do because I believe it is right. That is the very nature of believing anything.

If I believe Jesus has commanded something, and he has commanded it for everyone, it is actually intellectually dishonest to insist I might be wrong and, therefore, to leave space for that person to do other. The reason being, I do not think I have misunderstood Jesus. I think Jesus has commanded this thing and demands it for everyone. But if I think that, and someone does not do it, I must think they are sinning. Otherwise, I don’t actually believe Jesus has commanded that thing for everyone or I do believe something that I actually think is wrong (which would be perverse).

Now, if I think someone is sinning, that surely has an impact on how I deal with them. For example, if I think Jesus has said it is inappropriate to have an affair with your father’s wife and such a person should be removed from the church (cf. 1 Cor 5), it is intellectually dishonest to say ‘but I might be wrong’ and just let it slide. If I think 1 Cor 5 is clear, I am actually sinning myself by not doing what I think it says. I may still maintain that I might be wrong. That is always a live possibility whatever we may think. But it doesn’t change the fact that I don’t think I am wrong, I don’t think I have misunderstood Jesus, and to not follow through with the consequent logical action that must follow that belief is to not do what I believe Jesus wants me to do. That is, it is to sin myself.

The problem with arguing that ‘I might be wrong’ as a means of indulging people in what I actually believe is wrong, is that it essentially turns into moral relativism. Because I can never be sure I am 100% right, I can never insist that what I believe is right. Which is another way of saying I never have grounds to say something else is necessarily wrong. Which means the commands of Christ disappear into thin air. I may have my view on what he probably means, but I can’t insist on it and nor can you. I may have my affair, believing Jesus didn’t really mind, and you can’t tell me otherwise because – even if it is only by a teeny-tiny part of a percentage point – you might be wrong. Which means, if you can’t be 100% sure, you have to indulge me. Which seems to be a recipe for both antinomianism, licentiousness and a total lack of church discipline.

It seems to me, rather than using ‘I might be wrong’ to indulge views we don’t believe, intellectual honesty demands we say ‘I might be wrong, but I don’t think I am’. That additional clause means we recognise we might be wrong, but as we think we are right, we have to so act on the basis of what we believe to be true. Minimally the balance of probabilities means we have to so act in line with what we do think is right. If we believe something is right, we surely don’t have license to then permit what we necessarily think is wrong and sinful. Indeed, indulging what we think is sin is surely sin. Even if we might be wrong, if whatever is not of faith is sin (Rom 14:23), we are surely sinning by believing one thing in faith and then doing another entirely against what we actually believe.

So, I think we should stop trying to use ‘I might be wrong’ as a mark of intellectual humility. I don’t think it right to use it as a reason to permit what we think scripture necessarily does not permit. That is not only intellectually dishonest, it is (it seems to me) quite dangerous. But what do I know, I might be wrong, I guess.