N A SERMON AT THE FIRST ADVENTIST CHURCH IN WASHINGTON, D.C., in the spring of 2008 Frank W. Hale, Jr., longtime university professor and administrator, recalled the turbulent days of the civil rights struggle in the United States in the early 1960s. As the conflict raged, he said, a group of “concerned African-American professionals” arranged a meeting with high Adventist Church officials for a candid discussion of the issues. Reflecting on the gathering, he made a statement that arrested my attention: “We knew,” he said, “that the clergy couldn’t put their hands on us” (since none of them were employed by the church).
The statement dug into my soul, and begged the question: Are employees of the church muzzled? How candidly can we speak what’s on our minds? Is playing to the administration gallery our modus operandi? Does the drive for promotion paralyze independent thinking? Can people believe that what we say genuinely reflects what we really think and feel—in sermons, in editorials, in articles, in lectures, in comments on boards and committees?
In other words, are we credible?
A well-known church official made a glowing presentation a while back. Following the speech, two persons who’d heard him fell into conversation. Asked one of them,“What did you think?” The other replied, “Just words.”
I pondered long over that exchange when I heard about it, putting myself in the place of the presenter in question. How do people who know me react to my sermons, my editorials, my articles, my books? Am I credible? For me that’s urgent. That’s critical. When a church board member says to the pastor, “You’re lying!” that hurts; and when I heard the story, I felt it personally. How does a pastor’s credibility become so compromised that a parishioner could confront them with such language? Not “you’re mistaken,” or “you’re wrong,” but “you’re lying”! That’s bad.
Of course, it doesn’t matter what you say—not everyone will agree with you. But ultimately, the more important question is not whether people believe what you say or not, but whether they even believe you mean what you say. The world is filled with clichés, platitudes, empty words: “Your call is very important to us”; “All our agents are helping other people.” When you hear such talk at 11 o’clock at night, you know something’s fishy.
Some of us are good readers of the times. We know what’s politically correct and are able to act the part. But external smiles and skin-deep polish do not always cut it in a jaded world. Those with opportunity to observe us over time often can see through our pretence.
We damage our credibility when we fall into the habit of embellishing accounts; telling fantastic and self-serving stories; stretching the truth; puffing up ourselves; engaging in flattery or exaggeration; kowtowing to the powers that be. We should not give people reason to question our probity, our integrity. When we say something, people who know us should feel they can take it to the bank.
Someone said that “credibility is like virginity. Once you lose it, you cannot get it back.” I don’t believe that. But I think that once lost, it does become extremely difficult to regain. That’s why it’s important to work hard not to lose it in the first place.
Credibility. It brings to mind figures like an Elie Wiesel; a Walter Cronkite; an Edward R. Murrow; a Martin Luther King, Jr.; a Winston Churchill; a Mahatma Gandhi; a Nelson Mandela.
To be credible, our deeds must match our words. And our deeds must conform to justice, fairness, honesty. The temple police sent to arrest Jesus found their hands tied by an invisible cord; for before them stood the rarest of all behavioral phenomena, namely, the manifestation of complete correspondence of word and action in a human person. “Never man spake like this man,” they said (John 7:46, KJV). Because never man lived like this Man.
O to be like Him!
Roy Adams is associate editor of the Adventist Review.