The Right Type Of Reputation
Every cultural season has its buzzwords. These words aren’t always great descriptors of reality, but they do act as a window into the perceived values of a given culture and time. These words shift and morph largely due to the fact that they are created through reactive response in an attempt to correct some assumed weakness of a previous culture or generation. A brief survey of Western social culture will easily display the ebb and flow of outrage and aspirations we are inherently familiar with.
The church is not immune from such trends. The same forces that shape our culture inevitably push against the patterns and values of our local churches. So in response to the criticism of previous generations of Christian culture, where the primary patterns of worship and communication seemed so forced and fake, where plastic smiles and veneered evangelical lives were at the fore front, a new brand of Christian culture emerged. This, emergent church was a phenomenon of the early 2000’s and flourished for a season but, for the large part, its candle has sputtered out almost as fast as it had been lit. Yet in its wake, small communities of faith scattered all over the globe began to question the ‘way we do church’, and driven by the super highway of the internet, new buzzwords began to take root and their influence is now almost universally felt. Words like ‘transparency’ and ‘authenticity’ are touted as high ideals to aspire to, while more grounded words like ‘honesty’ and ‘integrity’ have made a remarkable comeback and are being reframed in the incarnational language popular today. This, for the most part, has been a welcome relief from the two-dimensional faith many of us saw modelled from previous generations, but it comes with a warning; we must beware the pendulum swing.
The ideals of transparency, authenticity, honesty, and integrity, are often communicated with the notion of complete openness, or holding nothing back, and strong words like accountability (or the lack thereof) usually accompany this bundle. This, of course, has many merits and it would be foolish to argue that falseness of any variety should have a place in a Christian’s life in any way. My argument is that these high values of transparency, authenticity, and the like, are simply not synonymous with complete divulgence. Or to put it more plainly, you are not more transparent and authentic simply because you hang every sin or victory on the line outside your house.
Consider Paul and this remarkable phrase to the Corinthians:
though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. — 2 Corinthians 12:6
Paul has just been unraveling the foolishness of the Corinthians for elevating so-called ‘super apostles’ over the simplicity of the gospel — with which comes a weakness worth boasting about. Of any that could boast in superior insight and revelation, Paul, it would seem, was foremost. And whereas other boasts were filled with half-truths and fabrications, Paul knew that what God had granted him to see and experience far outstripped any claim by the countless gospel charlatans doing the circuit. Yet even though Paul’s claim in verse 6 shows us that any boast he had in such things was credible and truthful, he refrained from claiming such a boast. Paul’s transparency and authenticity didn’t include complete divulgence — he held stuff back. Paul’s authenticity was tempered by discernment. Paul knew that while everything may be permissible, not everything is profitable. In an age of platforming and personal brand building, of social media profiles and image consultants, this should give us great pause. Paul held back truth, he didn’t supply the fullest picture of his credibility. Why? “so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me.”
Paul was invested in the right type of reputation. Paul’s primary concern, as far as reputations went, was that his was built on the right type of gospel authenticity. Millenia later, we face the same choices. What matters most? A projected image of excellence that elevates us against the hucksters out there, even if it’s all true? Or a humble commitment to living out everyday faith in everyday places among everyday people? One of those choices will build a name for yourself (and it will be authentic), the other will build a name for Jesus (but it will be better).