Archive for February, 2012

Thoughts on When to Confront a Speaker

I was looking for something else and came across this post on the original version of this blog from back in June of 2009. It seemed worth bringing over to the new version for accessibility and for those who didn’t even know there was an old version. The backdrop is a sermon that was preached at a conference that generated a lot of online heat.

A couple of weeks ago, when the fur was really flying, I sat down after a Sunday evening service and outlined some thoughts about being in the uncomfortable position of moderating a meeting at which someone uses the pulpit improperly (whether intentionally or not). I am grateful that I’ve never faced a very bad situation, but it seems inevitable, if you have a lot of outside speakers, that someone will say something that presents a challenge to you. I had hoped to write it out in article form, but haven’t gotten around to doing it, so I decided to just add some more notes to the original outline.

The Context Affects the Decision

  • Is this something which can be dealt with at a later date as a part of normal shepherding and preaching?
  • Is this something which should be addressed now because this group doesn’t regularly assemble? E.g., a conference or seminar
  • Is this something which can or should be addressed immediately because the nature of the group permits or requires it? A group of pastors should be able to handle this better than most, and a group of students may need this more than most.
  • Is this something which seems to deliberately take a position with the intent of contradicting a well known and well established position of the host or some party involved in the meeting? IOW, if you perceive that someone has tried to settle a score or put a notch on his belt, that might warrant addressing it (even if it is just to ask for a clarification on that matter).

The Importance of the Doctrinal Issue Affects the Decision

  • Is this a matter of significant doctrinal consequence and ramification? If the gospel is at stake, I think something must be done immediately—whether that is a gentle clarification or an outright challenge (and I’ve had to do both).
  • Is this only a matter of differing interpretations or is it really a matter of rejecting biblical truth?

The Nature of the Communication Affects the Decision

  • Did the speaker clearly violate the biblical obligations to speak truthfully and for the edification of those who hear?
  • Did the speaker display a combative attitude or tone that indicates that he knows that what he is saying is controversial and against some of those who are present? If the speaker initiates the conflict, then don’t feel badly about stepping up to the challenge.

The primary factor is the doctrinal content and implications of what was said.

If heresy has been proclaimed, then it should almost always be addressed immediately. Differing interpretations can be allowed to stand in most cases, unless it is a crucial matter to a pastor and local assembly. Most often, though, it can probably be addressed in the course of normal shepherding and ministry of the Word.

The second factor is the nature of the communication, especially if joined to the significant doctrinal issues.

Anytime a speaker seems to pursue controversy deliberately and does so by unbiblical means, it warrants public correction (or at least voiced objection).

Most times when a speaker accuses others of false doctrine in a combative way and is clearly mistaken in his view, it warrants public address of some sort.

  • It may that a question of clarification would be the best way to approach it. Something like, “Brother, it sounds like you were saying X, but I wonder if that’s really what you meant or were trying to say because….” IOW, you seek clarification in case you’ve misunderstood or it was a simply misstatement on his part.
  • If there is little to no doubt about what has happened, then the proper response would be to either express disagreement with his view or if warranted, to challenge him about the nature of what he has done.

In those cases where a well-intentioned speaker has espoused a position which is contrary to the position of the host or others present, it is generally best to let it alone unless you feel it could cause a significant and unnecessary disruption.

  • The people most likely to be upset are the ones who are already most firmly convinced, so there is no fear of them being led astray. Those who are unaware of the issue will not even notice it.
  • If there is concern about the impact what was said might have on those who heard, then a decision needs to be made about the right context for addressing it and whether it needs to be addressed directly or not.
  • If it happens in the course of a church service, then you should have plenty of opportunity to address it down the road since you meet with these folks regularly.
  • If it happens in a conference or some other unique setting, then it really comes down to how important the issue is and how grievous the error was.

These are rough, unfinished thoughts, but hopefully will be of some value to those of us who, either now or in the future, have the responsibility for leadership when God’s people gather together. As I’ve said in other posts, God’s Word is the standard and authority, not the preacher, so I feel no obligation to let any man just say what he wants to say because he’s “God’s man.” Even the OT prophets were obligated to speak truthfully!

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Demagogues at the Gates

I read a piece by Ann Coulter that expressed something that I have been thinking about recently in light not only of the present political campaign, but of how I’ve seen the same thing manifest itself within the professing Christian community. I’d like to avoid getting into the whole ball of political wax in Ann’s article, so here’s the portion that interests me and from which I’d like to launch into a larger discussion:

This strange new version of right-wing populism comes down to reveling in the feeling that you are being dissed, hoodwinked or manipulated by the Establishment (most of which happens to oppose Romney) the same way liberals want to believe that “the rich,” the “right-wing media” and Wall Street Republicans (there are three) are victimizing them.

It’s as if scoring points in intra-Republican squabbles is more important than beating Obama. Instead of talking about the candidates’ positions — which would be confusing inasmuch as Romney is the most conservative of the four remaining candidates — the only issue seems to be whether “They” are showing respect for “Us.”

While I agree with her basic point here, I’d like to extend the argument somewhat by suggesting that the Establishment versus Us angle is really a cheap piece of demagoguery being used by candidates (and activists and some bloggers) to achieve their own agendas. A demagogue is “a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power.”

A radio ad I heard is a perfect example of this. It is put out by the Winning our Future SuperPac and focused on painting one candidate as the Establishment guy in order to discredit him. Its entire message was built on an assertion (candidate X is the Establishment candidate) and an appeal (don’t let the Establishment tell you what to do). No argument to the ad at all—not one piece of evidence was introduced to prove the assertion. In case you don’t know who Winning the Future supports for the Republican nomination, it is Newt Gingrich. The irony is rich. Here’s a guy whose whole career has been inside and alongside of the political Establishment and his SuperPac is engaged in demagoguery like this. The ad was nothing more than an attempt to use popular prejudices to gain power.

I’ll admit that it disappoints me, but doesn’t surprise me that this kind of stuff happens in political campaigns. The simple reason is that it works and politics is often about not much more than that. I am disturbed by the fact that this kind of demagoguery seems to be steeply on the rise and often the dominant note of political discourse in our day. The fact that it is becoming the mantra of supposed conservatives is a very bad sign of things to come. That is especially true when folks with commercial interests lead the charge—the temptation to use this tactic to build an audience has to be as great as to win a campaign.

My larger concern, however, is how this kind of “them vs. us” cliché seems to be showing up so much in the online world among those who name the name of Christ. Granted, there has always been a segment which builds it popularity and cohesiveness purely by demonizing others in contrast to focusing on the articulation of one’s own beliefs clearly. As a short-term strategy, it works more quickly to build a coalition against something than it does to build it for something. Enemies frighten people and fear motivates. As a long-term strategy, though, it inevitably implodes because fear can turn to paranoia and is also easily exploited by self-serving people.

Just watch any group whose prime reason for existence is to be against something or someone. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that hasn’t eventually become self-cannibalizing. The demagoguery of the leaders breeds distrust. The kinds of people who are attracted to it never seem satisfied and tend to start turning on one another. It’s ugly, ineffective, and ultimately dishonors God.

But it works in the short term and is an effective way for people to make a name for themselves. Pick a target and pound away while claiming to be the last defender of the truth. Position yourself as the voice for the little guy, the crusader against the Establishment. Tap into whatever prejudice will gain listening ears or reading eyes. Paint yourself as the person who some mythical Establishment hates or has hurt. Frame yours as the voice of the people. It works…for a while.

In reality, this demagoguery is not much more than what Absalom did when he stood in the gate and wooed the heart of the people away from his father, King David. He told them what they wanted to hear, painting a picture of the Establishment that fomented a desire to overthrow it. The analogy is not perfect, but I think the heart of the matter fits—Absalom was perfectly happy to gain power by promoting the dissatisfaction of people, then capitalizing on it.

Our cultures, the one outside and the one inside the church, seem to be in danger of dumbing down to the point that demagogues will rule the day. You can see it throughout the political campaigns. You can see it all over Facebook protest groups. You can find it too often in tweets and blog posts. It may work (short-term), but it is not right.

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A Bad Trade?

Here’s the basic fallacy of the ER2 storyline—once you’ve granted to someone good standing as a Christian brother and fellow servant of the gospel, you can’t claim that you’re going to be sitting down to discuss whether he is truly such or not. You’ve already tipped your hand, so the rest of the time it means that you’re just bluffing. And you must think we are all pretty stupid not to recognize this. Especially when the event itself and the post-mortem reports make reference to the wonderful time of fellowship and prayer together the participants enjoyed before the big “showdown” regarding Jakes’ theology.

ER2 was not about theological and ministerial differences. It was about commonalities. Or, to put it another way, it was about minimizing differences in order to highlight commonalities. The end of the day conclusion was supposed to be something like, “Yeah, we’re all different and have our disagreements, but we all love Jesus, want to see people saved, and want to grow big churches. We’re all on the same team.” That might be an acceptable goal for a day of discussion like ER2 if: (1) you are in fact on the same team, and (2) you’re not promoting the event as an opportunity to find out if that is actually true. To promote and prepare for the event with the assumption that you are all on the same team, while talking like you’ll make your conclusion after the event is simply dishonest.

Let’s not kid ourselves about what the real purpose of something like ER2 is, though. James MacDonald (and to a lesser extent, Mark Driscoll) is using it to position himself as a leader, as someone who influences church life in our day. He is building a reputation and a network. Is that a problem? No, I don’t think so. Is he unique in pursuing this purpose? Absolutely not. Our day is full of efforts like this—T4G, the Gospel Coalition, 9Marks, Shepherds Conference, Desiring God. All of these are competing in the marketplace of ministry ideas because they believe they have something to offer and they want to help churches and pastors. I’ve got no principled problem with anybody trying to influence other people.

If James MacDonald wants to help pastors and churches, then creating a platform to do so is a legitimate effort. The problem arises when anybody chooses to build that platform in ways that compromise the gospel or send an uncertain sound about fundamental theological truths. This is the grave danger for all efforts to build movements or coalitions—trying to reach certain constituencies often results in compromising relationships with errant leaders. That danger is only increased by the celebrity culture and obsession with visible success that dominates contemporary Christendom.

Schedule big names and you can draw a big crowd. Gather a big crowd and you’ve opened new avenues for your own influence. It doesn’t make any sense to me to fight the reality, or even legitimacy, of this. Who reading this wouldn’t rather hear a Spurgeon than me (with the one exception of my wife, I hope!)?  My main problem isn’t with big names, with big names getting scheduled for events, or with the fact that people like to hear big name speakers at events. All of that is just the way it is and some of it is completely justifiable—some people have big names because they are serious about God’s Word and have been so for a long time. I’ve given up trying to figure out why some men are more popular than others. Really doesn’t matter to me. It is what it is.

The reality of creating a platform for influence does not, however, mean that we can ignore what the Bible says about false doctrine. It is wrong to form unholy alliances even if it is for the purpose of reaching more people with the truth. The truth always suffers when people start scheming like this. The “greater good” inevitably becomes the club to beat down opposition to compromises. That and the issue seems always to get mired in personal debates that sound more like “I am of…” than whether biblical truth holds the place of functional control in our decisions.

The invitation of T. D. Jakes to the Elephant Room is simply another version of the same problem that has plagued evangelicalism for 60 years. What is the boundary of Christian fellowship? Or, to turn it another way, how unorthodox can a person be before we conclude that he is beyond the boundary of Christian fellowship? There has been a very broad swath of evangelicalism that has been willing to shift the boundary wider and wider if doing so brought the possibility of expanded influence.

How has that worked out for evangelicalism? Maybe one way to answer that would be to wonder whether Ockenga, Henry, and Carnell would have invited someone with the belief system of T. D. Jakes to something like the Elephant Room. I might be wrong, but from what I have read of their writings, I don’t think they would have considered Jakes an evangelical. So, who has been influenced by whom over these past sixty years?

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Artful Dodges

Personally, I think that Thabiti Anyabwile has provided some of the best commentary on the inclusion of T. D. Jakes into the Elephant Room discussion. His initial offering before the event was dead on target, and his follow up post is also worth reading. He continues to provide valuable insight that by highlighting the personal dimension of false teaching. This is not merely an abstract discussion of theology or ministry.

This last post by Thabiti also serves to highlight the rottenness of what Bryan Loritts posted right after ER2 and followed up on in a video conversation with James MacDonald. It appears that Loritts has taken down the blog post, but in it he makes the case that the loudest opponents of ER2 have been “middle aged white Reformed guys” and he suggests that “a few of my black brothers [are] playing into what some have historically called white idolization in their longing to fit in with this Reformed crowd”?

Here’s the video of him making the same basic charges.

I’d like to make three points about these charges. First, this is a classic example of shifting the focus away from the complaints being lodged against ER2 and T. D. Jakes to the people who have lodged them. The age and ethnicity of the ER2 critics are really irrelevant. The real question is, “Are they right in their complaints?”

Second, and much worse, is that Loritts impugns the motives of the black critics of ER2 and Jakes by suggesting that they are being vocally critical in order to gain acceptance with the middle aged white guys. This really is a despicable tactic which borders on calling them a bunch of Uncle Toms. The only commendable aspect of his assertion is that it is so transparent that the slime factor is easily seen.

Third, I think it important to point out the role that MacDonald plays in facilitating this baseless charge against his black critics. It is obvious that Loritts is being interviewed by MacDonald in order to make this point. Worse, MacDonald plays all naïve in the face of Loritts’ accusation against his brothers, “What would they be leveraging it for? Opportunity?” What James ought to have been doing is saying, “Brother, it seems like you’re judging these men’s motives, aren’t you? Have any of them told you that they are opposing ER2 in order to gain a larger hearing in the white theological world?” Instead, MacDonald plays his part perfectly and lets Loritts take the cheap shot.

The irony here is that the whole exchange leaves the door wide open for speculation as to why Loritts would take that shot and also why MacDonald would give him air time to make it. The reason that is so is because neither MacDonald nor Loritts actually engaged the charges against Jakes and ER2. Instead of dealing with theology and biblical obligations to defend the Gospel, they threw in some red herrings. I think that stinks.

The theological issues at stake in this debate are very important—denial of the Trinity and a false prosperity theology are major, not minor problems. That these matters were so poorly addressed in ER2 should be a very serious cause of concern. It was a classic case of pietism trumping doctrine, with the added intoxicant of celebrity schmoozing poured on top. A very bad day in light of Acts 20:28-30.

It is also important, I think, to expose the methods being used to obscure the truth here. Good men are raising important, serious theological questions and objections, and those objections are being met with personal insults and artful dodges. Sadly, I’m not really surprised by this because that has been the mode of operation for decades—rebut questions about doctrinal concern with accusations of theological nitpicking; pit love against doctrine; emphasize the personal piety of those accused of false teaching; drop hints that certain unhappy people are just jealous of other’s success; imply that people are using controversy to gain visibility and opportunities.

These are not new tricks. That they were trotted out so quickly just shows that things have not changed. That they seem to work so effectively is what ought to concern anybody who is serious about sound doctrine and the health of the church.

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