Is it a good idea for Christians to use the phrase “I could be wrong...” when discussing their convictions?
You know in the Ambassador material that we provide at Stand to Reason, of course, my goal for you is that you become a better ambassador for Christ, and that’s three areas of development: Knowledge - an accurately informed mind, wisdom - an artful method (that’s Tactics, essentially), and character is an attractive manner. And so when I talk about character being an attractive manner, I mentioned that sometimes Christians err on one side or the other, and that is they’re either too naughty or too nice, I mean, to put it simply.
In the area of being too naughty there is a way that we can protect against being too dogmatic, or harsh, or grumpy, or whatever, and that is to be willing to say to somebody who has a different point of view, we’re willing to say, “You know, I could be mistaken about this,” okay? Now that’s a little bit controversial. I use the phrase a lot. My mentor JP Moreland uses the phrase. I’ve heard other Christians use the phrase. I like the phrase because when I say to someone that I disagree with who’s advancing their own view and then I give my counter view, when I say, “Well you know I could be wrong about this, but here’s my view and my reasons,” when I say, “could be wrong about this,” it’s a powerful statement that is an acknowledgement of my own fallibility so that I don’t sound to the other person like I’m being inappropriately dogmatic.
Now I have had people say, “Well, you shouldn’t say that. You’re a Christian. You couldn’t be wrong,” and to that I respond, “Sure I could be wrong,” and guess what, I have been wrong, even on spiritual things. My theology has changed over the years, which means I changed to what I came to think was wrong to what I came to think was right, and maybe somewhere down the line I might change it again. Now my theology is not always constantly in flux, but I know that just like anybody else my own biases can influence me.
There’s a thing called confirmational bias, and you always wanna kind of stick with what you already believe. It’s hard to shake you out of that. So I want to be able to say to people, “Well, I could be mistaken,” which signals that I am open to hear a contrary view. I’m not gonna be narrow-minded. I don’t have blinders on. I’m open to hear a contrary view, and if they have one that is well justified, they have good reasons for it, well I’m open to changing my mind, okay? So I think the willingness to say, “I could be mistaken,” is actually a virtue, okay? It shows that you are not being inappropriately dogmatic with other people.
Now, listen, do not say that if you don’t believe it. It’s not a ploy. It’s not a rhetorical trick to sound more persuasive to people. If I don’t think I could be mistaken on a particular issue in question, I don’t say, “I could be mistaken.” I say, “I think I’m right,” or I just move forward in a confident manner. But if it’s a largely an open issue or at least theoretically open, doesn’t mean that I’m open to change if I have no good reason to do it, but I could be mistaken about what the New Testament says about Jesus of Nazareth, but I don’t think I am because it’s good history, and there’s a lot of reasons why we can trust in it, for example. But if somebody else thinks it’s not good history, tell me why. I’ll consider that. No problem.
You see, what we want to do is we want to engage people in a thoughtful, gracious, and appropriately humble manner. Being humble is one of the characteristics of a good ambassador. That is, that we don’t hang on to our own views any more tightly than our justification allows. We could be mistaken, and if I’m willing to say, “I could be mistaken,” that allows me to have an open attitude to hear where I’ve gone wrong or at least the reasons why people think I have, and that helps everything. It helps them, and it helps me too.