On Faith and Excellence
September 22, 2021
by Autumn Dawn Galbreath, MD, MBA
My kids have attended a classical, Christian school for many years. While we love the school for several reasons, its academic rigor set it apart from the several other schools we considered when making the decision to move our kids there 16 years ago. Other schools offered personal attention, others had great mission statements, others had in-depth biblical teaching. But it was all of these things, combined with high academic expectations, that sold us in the end, since the primary purpose of school is to educate kids academically. In the grammar school grades at our school, the students are taught to always do an “Excellence Check,” that is, to look back over their test or assignment and double-check for any errors prior to turning it in. The concept of the Excellence Check resonated with me when my kids were that age because it served as a regular reminder to them that they should be giving their best to each assignment. It was never a “Perfection Check” or a “Compare to Your Neighbor’s Performance Check.” It was a reminder for each student to do his or her best at all times. One student’s best might be a perfect score, while another student’s best might be much lower, but the expectation to do one’s best was clear. We might think of excellence as being at the top of the class or someone who stands out in his field, but that isn’t the way our school defined it, nor the way I am defining it here.
The supporting verse for much of the activity in grammar school, including the Excellence Check, is Philippians 4:8:
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (NIV).
In this passage, Paul exhorts his fellow Christians to focus their attention on those things which are excellent and praiseworthy, incorporating multiple Christian virtues into his definition. Those things which are excellent are true. They are noble. They are right. They are pure, lovely and admirable. Based on this definition, how much of our lives as Christians are we living excellently?
First and foremost, an idea or action cannot be excellent if it isn’t true. Now I freely admit that I don’t know many (any?) Christians who would openly espouse lying or speaking untruths. I mean, it’s the eighth of the Ten Commandments, making it a basic tenet of our faith. But who among us can truthfully say he or she never lies? Never says, “I’m not feeling well,” to the friend she just doesn’t want to see? Never says, “Of course that dress doesn’t make you look fat,” to his wife? Somehow we have classified those “little white lies” in a different category from “really lying.” We all engage in those small deceptions regularly, often without even realizing it. And if we can speak untruths without recognizing them as untrue, what other areas of our lives suffer the same?
Sharing misinformation, or sharing information we have failed to verify, is another means of participating in deception or failing to hold up the standard of truth. Lifeway Research found that “49% of U.S. Protestant pastors say they frequently hear members of their congregation repeating conspiracy theories they have heard about why something is happening in our country.” At the same time, a Barna study shows that 20 to 47 percent of evangelicals (depending on age) believe “that it is wrong to share one’s personal beliefs with someone of a different faith in hopes that they will one day share the same faith.” It appears that people in evangelical churches are as or more willing to repeat conspiracy theories than are willing to share their faith with non-Christians. How is this excellent? How can we claim to stand for what is true and noble if many of us are willing to repeat untrue, unproven or unverifiable claims as truth? It troubles me deeply to see brothers and sisters in Christ who are more willing to put their faith in an internet video than in the people they have known and done life with for years, or than experts who have dedicated whole careers to careful study in a particular area. Ed McBroom, the Michigan state senator who oversaw the election probe in that state last fall, perfectly summarizes this experience in comments about his detractors: “It’s been very discouraging, and very sad, to have people I know who have supported me, and always said they respected me and found me to be honest, who suddenly don’t trust me because of what some guy told them on the internet,” McBroom said. “And they’re like, ‘Yeah, but this is a good guy too.’ And I’m like, ‘How do you know that? Have you met him? You’ve met me. So why are you choosing to believe him instead of me?’”
I relate to Ed McBroom’s experience, as I know many of you do. As we have tried to care for patients and provide information and education over the course of the pandemic, we have been challenged with claims from internet video personalities—people our patients and friends do not know and whose credentials are often suspect. Somehow, personal relationships and expertise are nullified by information gleaned on social media. To quote Ed McBroom, it’s very discouraging and very sad, indeed.
Yet, are we in healthcare any better? When I was a medical student, a speaker at our CMDA noon luncheon made the point that a medical student who isn’t doing his best academically isn’t acting as a Christian medical student. I had a strongly negative reaction to that at the time, mentally ticking off all the ways in which a Christian could be serving God while in medical school without a perfect academic record. But as I reflect on his words now, 25 years later, I realize he wasn’t challenging us to a perfect academic record. He was challenging us to an Excellence Check, reminding us to do our best on this path to which God had called us so we could become competent physicians whose skills could minister to those around us. And I believe that, for the most part, medical students do this. But what has happened to those of us out in practice, outside the halls of academia? Have we maintained our commitment to excellence, or to truth? God calls us to love Him with all our hearts, souls, strength and minds (Luke 10:27). Are we doing that? Failing to remain up to date and evidence-based is not loving God with all our minds. If we fail to continue in our education with excellence, we cannot deliver excellent care to our patients, and we are no longer upholding what is true in our professional lives. For this reason, it has troubled me even more deeply when members of my own profession have succumbed to conspiracy theories and junk science. This is a failure to cultivate our minds and a failure to Excellence Check our performance as healthcare professionals. And we who have spent so many years and so many dollars pursuing our healthcare training should know more than most that cultivating “the life of the mind…has been an important current throughout much of Christianity’s history, a recognition that intellectual pursuits can glorify God.” We should be the standard-bearers for upholding scientific truth in the public square. Of course, healthy debate and disagreement is a part of the process of science, but practicing outside of evidence-based boundaries and contributing to the general distrust among fellow Christians is not. As experts to whom others look for scientific and health information, we bear a greater responsibility in this arena, and we should carry that greater responsibility with care, never allowing our positions as experts to lead others astray or contribute to misinformation.
Jesus Himself calls us to truth, and even calls Himself the truth (John 14:6). Failure to seek truth and to live lives that are committed to truth and excellence is a failure to live according to the gospel. As it says in Christianity Today, “Ed Stetzer, professor at Wheaton College and contributor to Christianity Today, says, ‘When you share such fake news and conspiracy theories, you are simply bearing false witness. That is a sin and it is time to repent.’” We harm our own reputations, we harm those around us, we undermine our credibility and we malign the name of Christ when we do otherwise.