Note: The following post is more or less part 2 of this older post. In the former, I addressed why I think it is often necessary to respond strongly to false religious ideas that are being advanced in the public square. In this post, I explain how I go about deciding which claims warrant such a response. I know it’s insanely long and you probably won’t read the whole thing. That’s okay; I wrote it for me.
Also Note: I am well aware that, in many ways, arguing on the Internet is akin to entering a Twilight Saga trivia contest—even if you win, you still entered a Twilight trivia contest.
If you don’t find yourself publicly rebuked once in a while, you’re doing it wrong. At least that seems to be the conventional wisdom among we New Calvinists (and, I suppose, Christ’s words in Luke 6:26 could be offered as biblical evidence of this to some degree). The word troll was invented for those who intentionally invite the public rebukes because they like the feeling, but most people—healthy people— aren’t crazy about the prospect. You can count me among that number.
Recently, though, I was harshly admonished (first on a blog and then on facebook) by a guy who’s been my friend for much of my life. The long and short of it: I’m apparently a self-righteous jerk who “throws people under the bus” if they aren’t of the exact same theological stripe as me or don’t do things in the exact same way that I do. The idea is that I’ve got God in a box (although those words weren’t used, the equally trite phrase “my God is bigger than that” was), and I’m unnecessarily divisive to boot. The case in point was my posting a video of a Hannah Montana song being performed at a mega-church service (where it was billed as “worship”) and posing the question, “If this is worship, who is being worshiped?”
I deleted the entire exchange, which ended in private message and began with the issuing of anethamas in my direction (albeit slightly softened by replacing “cursed be...” with “shame on...”). Lots of buzzwords and clichés, but little actual content, followed, capped with, “No wonder we haven’t reached the whole world yet.” (And here I didn’t even know we were trying to proclaim the message of Hannah Montana to all nations).
I can’t be too critical here, though, as my friend’s words and tone remind me of myself about ten years ago, when I was just starting seminary. My theology was undeveloped and based more in popular trends than serious study, but I tried to make up for it with extra-strong opinions and an extra-incredulous disposition. (Of course, that being the case, I would have responded incredulously to the very suggestion).1
I answered all this by pointing out that St. Paul often responded very strongly to false teaching that was in danger of twisting or obscuring the Gospel, as did St. John, St. Peter, Jude, and pretty much all the prophets—in ways that make me look like Stewart Smalley.
After all, it was the Apostle Paul who wrote, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.”
But when I brought that up, my friend said,
“... quote Paul all you want, i’ll stick with Christ who encourages us to go, live, and love... ”Of course, this “Red Letter hermeneutic” shows a lack of understanding regarding the inspiration of Scripture, but it also overlooks much of what Christ taught during his earthly ministry. Our Lord Jesus taught more about being on guard against false doctrine, false prophets, false christs, false teachers, wolves in sheeps’ clothing, and dangerous theological leaven than anyone else in Scripture. The love Jesus taught and modeled doesn’t look like path-of-least-resistance, flower child love. Sometimes it looks like this or this.
But here’s the funny thing: from the other side, I’m occasionally accused of having way too big a tent when it comes to the Church. For those who know me, the very notion that I make a habit of excluding Christians of other traditions is downright laughable. My view of the Kingdom stretches from Rome to Constantinople (the long way around) and includes everything in between. (See this post and this post, where I talk at length about this topic.)
Compared to many in the circles I travel, I am laid back to a fault when it comes to what should be exposed, anathematized, and refuted. I have again and again come out against neo-gnostic Calvinism (the notion that everyone who leans Arminian is a suspect Christian, unfit for service or ordination). I don’t dismiss Roman Catholics out-of-hand as non-Christians. I don’t indulge in screeds against the use of “worldly” music styles in worship (so long as it is actually worshiping Our Lord I don’t care what genre or instruments you employ). And I totally want to meet Billy Graham before he dies.
By holding a big-tent view of the Church, even while defending to the wall the doctrines of the orthodox faith, I’m often seen as reactionary and harsh by emergent types and seeker-driven Christians, and as compromising and overly accommodating by my more confessional/ fundamental friends.
Now, is it possible that I am the kind of jerk who gets off on confrontation and, therefore, just says whatever will get a rise out of the present company/ audience, thus cementing my identity as a “persecuted reformer?” I have considered this and rejected it for a number of reasons, most tellingly that there are many, many people (the vast majority of people) with whom I have no beef in these matters whatsoever and who have no beef with me. And this highly diverse, beefless group contains people with whom I differ greatly (here are just a few examples)—people with whom I can share a wide view of the Christian faith, but not so wide open that it lacks distinctives; people with whom I can disagree vehemently and debate passionately without the bridge being bombed (see below) and the inevitable, “Shame on you; you’re the reason we haven’t reached the whole world with the Gospel.”
Just because I often feel like either the most liberal or most conservative guy in the room at many clergy gatherings (depending on the group) doesn’t mean that it usually gets personal. It almost never does—this is one reason I love being a Baptist. We historically have been able to carry out the lively debate without dulling the edges of God’s Word, and then continue to embrace each other as brothers and sisters. Besides, I happen to know for a fact that I dread this kind of spat. Dread it. Still, one can’t stop speaking truth and exposing lies just because it is uncomfortable.
Another friend of mine (who can’t be hyperlinked because he lacks a blog) once told me that he also has no problem getting along with both liberal and conservative Christians and, in his ministry context, thinks of himself as something of a bridge between the two. “That’s awesome,” I said. He wasn’t so sure. “What’s the first thing they bomb when a war starts?” he asked.
Yeah, some people clearly view bridges as something to be burned.
But here’s the point: I don’t know many who would argue that—if someone is actively, clearly, and publicly teaching false doctrine—that no one should point out the error. To let people be led astray while doing nothing to help them see the Truth (usually in the interest of unity (read: uniformity)) is not loving in the least. I don’t care how open-minded you claim to be, within three guesses I can identify a teaching that you believe should be called out and refuted. Obviously, my friend agrees that there are certain things that should be boldly corrected, as he felt the need to try and correct me.
Therefore, the question that remains is: When has one crossed the line into error touching on essentials? In other words, when are we just quibbling over methods or details and when are we obeying the biblical call to contend earnestly for the faith once for all handed down to the saints? Everyone ultimately has to answer this question for himself; I can only tell you how I do it.
Last night, my wife and I watched the Robert Duvall movie, The Apostle, which has been my favorite film since it came out in 1997. It’s one of those Gen X phenomenon things, where it’s not just two hours of entertainment that I appreciate— no, loving this movie kind of helps define me. I almost always cry when the man at the bulldozer is converted and/or the final evangelistic sermon before the Apostle E.F. is arrested. (Oops: I meant to say, “spoiler alert”). And, in light of this whole bridge-bombing, I found myself reflecting on the film I had just watched and wondering, “Why does this story touch me, inspire me, and cause me to give glory to God?” It became kind of a test case in my mind.
Let me explain. The Apostle is a story about a Pentecostal Holiness preacher who pastors a large “tabernacle” (with a rather flashy, carnival-esque service) and travels from town to town, preaching revivals, and then (due to unforeseen circumstances) heads to a small town, where he builds up a church in the Deep South. In other words, we’re talking Finneyism par exellance, Arminianism, enthusiasm, slaying in the Spirit, the anxious bench ... basically, a lot of the very American spiritual elements that I roundly reject. This is not my tradition and I do believe that my reading of the key texts involved is the correct reading.
But I know a few local pastors in this same tradition. I pray for and with them. I worship with them from time to time. I greatly appreciate their ministries. We might have some good discussion or friendly debate, but I feel no need to warn the Christian community at large to be on guard, and I certainly don’t worry in the least about violating St. John’s admonition in 2 John 1:10 by supporting their ministries.
Why not? Going back to the test case of The Apostle film, Duvall’s character takes part in ministries that differ very much from my own, built on traditions and understandings very different from my own, but which have something vital in common with my own: absolute Christocentrism,2 continual reference in every form, action, song, and sermon to the Lord Jesus, His death for our sins, His blood which paid our debt, the concept of salvation by grace through faith alone, and a commitment to glorifying God with every aspect of life (although Sonny himself falls very short, as we all do).
Even if I would not personally want to join a church that sings “Jesus, He’s Alright” for ten minutes or encourages speaking in tongues (i.e., Duvall’s church in the film), I love to celebrate and experience diverse traditions that lift up Jesus Christ and glory in his death for the forgiveness of our sins and resurrection for our justification. I love the Eastern Orthodox church, where the notion of Christ’s body and blood, broken and spilled for me, is front and center in the eucharist (the high point of the service). Certainly, I have issues with Eastern Orthodox doctrine and even with elements of their liturgy, but Christ is proclaimed in it as Savior and Lord. Ibid concerning my friends at All Saints Episcopal in East Lansing, who are significantly more liberal than I (both theologically and socially), and yet I don’t know how Christ could possibly be more central to their life as a church. The same is true of a number of Independent Fundamentalist churches whose pastors are firebrands and likely think of me as too theologically liberal. But they love Christ and they proclaim Him clearly to the lost.
I would bring this all back to Paul’s statement, “The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.”
Where I take issue and where I see danger is where Christ, His cross, and His blood are toned down, twisted, perverted, obscured, or obfuscated; where they are hidden behind or presented as serving “my dreams for my life,” “the vision I’m casting,” or the notion of prosperity. If one gets the impression that Christ is here for my comfort, my entertainment, my glory, or my cultural proclivities, a false soteriology is at play.
A man-centered Gospel is no Gospel. And while my friend’s heart is in the right place as he pleads with me not to “turn people off to the message,” I sincerely want nothing more than to turn people off to that message. For once someone thinks they’ve found salvation in themselves, their heart will be all the more hardened to the true Gospel, which, although it is foolishness and a scandalous thing—a stumbling block—to this world and its culture...to us who are being saved, it is the power of God, for God has chosen the foolish things of this world to shame the wise.
1 There is indeed a certain sense of newly discovered freedom (and perhaps an initial smugness) that comes with realizing that your tradition is not the extent of the Christian faith, that things may not be as black-and-white as they were presented to you in high school youth group, and that there are a lot more questions and a lot fewer pat answers than you once thought. But that’s only beneficial if you come out the other side with stronger faith, having wrestled with these things and having realized that, while not everything you thought was cut-and-dried is such, the Bible is still trustworthy and you can know what you believe and why you believe it.
2 I realize that the charismatic/Pentecostal traditions do sometimes overemphasize the Third Person of the Trinity, but as with any tradition, there are different strains and I cannot deal with them all at once, nor would I like to lump them all together.