Let's say a group of your friends are fighting over some controversy (could happen, right?). Or someone you know is going off in a weird direction that is sure to end badly. Let's say some people in your family are confused about the issues facing society (and the church) today. Or some of the people you have known for a long time are drifting away from their faith. What do you do? What kind of letter do you write to them? Do you 1) give them a straightforward talk that starts something like this: "What is wrong with you?" Or 2) gently love them through the chaos, careful not to say anything that might upset them or exacerbate their situation? Or do you 3) tackle the issues head-on, providing reasoned and biblical answers to back up your points?
My guess is I would fall mostly in category 2, insisting that love is the first and last word, with a dash of category 3 thrown in just to give them something to think about. And this is what I expected from the writer of 1 John who is sending a letter to a group of Christians who are torn apart by controversy and entertaining false teachings, no doubt confused yet still hot-headed and stubborn in their dealings with each other. The writer does not start with a call to love. He does not start by correcting their wrong ideas. He does not start by addressing the issues at hand. He starts by going back to the beginning, and the beginning is Jesus. He starts by getting back to the basics, the basics of encountering Jesus - of seeing, hearing, and touching him - because this is where everything first changed for all of them. And it remains the only place where transformation is possible.
He reminds them that God is light and remaining in this light is the only way to find truth, fellowship, purification, forgiveness, and loving acceptance. Straying away from this light leaves one stumbling around in the dark, blind, angry, and even self-righteous. He talks about the necessity of confession, obedience, and integrity. He points out how badly they are treating each other. He talks about living the way Jesus lived. Throughout, he uses the inclusive pronoun “we,” essentially placing himself in the middle of their chaos instead of in the privileged place of an expert or unbiased observer.
I have much to learn from the writer of 1 John in how to communicate with other Christians on controversial topics. I must learn not to start with the issues but with Jesus. I must learn not to draw attention to my credentials or education as a way to impress or convince others. In fact, the writer of 1 John skips the customary introduction (where he would identify himself and his position) and jumps right into announcing God’s revelation through Jesus. I must learn to place myself in the shoes of others, talking about “we” instead of adopting an “us and them” posture. I must learn to call people back to encounter with Jesus instead of just trying to set their theology straight. I must learn, with directness and clarity, how to announce the living Word of the Father that has been revealed to us. I must learn to speak truth without apology, yet never without compassion and understanding. And I must learn that I cannot call others to the light unless I make my home in the light.
GOD IS LIGHT and no shadow of darkness can exist in him. Consequently, if we were to say that we enjoyed fellowship with him and still went on living in darkness, we should be both telling and living a lie. But if we really are living in the same light in which he eternally exists, then we have true fellowship with each other, and the blood which his Son shed for us keeps us clean from all sin. If we refuse to admit that we are sinners, then we live in a world of illusion and truth becomes a stranger to us. But if we freely admit that we have sinned, we find God utterly reliable and straightforward—he forgives our sins and makes us thoroughly clean from all that is evil. For if we take up the attitude “we have not sinned”, we flatly deny God’s diagnosis of our condition and cut ourselves off from what he has to say to us. (from 1 John 1, trans. J.B. Phillips)
Matte from Montreal