Once the articles and cartoons stopped, I thought the conversation would also stop. I guess I thought wrong. Clearly, I have at least two options. I could just ignore the discussion and get on with life and ministry. That’s a very attractive option. Or, I could offer a different perspective on the interaction from this past week. It’s not hard to tell which option I chose. Let me explain why.
I will begin with the assumption that we all love the Lord. His glory matters to us. We are His people and His people want to do His will. I hope we all agree on this. What we disagree about is the point of our discussion, and this is an important discussion.
God has given me the privilege of teaching seminary students for almost two decades. It is one of God’s great kindnesses to me. Few things thrill me as much as encouraging and equipping men for ministry. My ministry position puts me in contact with hundreds of men who are preparing for ministry at the college and seminary level, and it opens the door to interact regularly with hundreds more who are already serving local churches in pastoral ministry. It is inevitable, given this contact, to have conversations about the direction and future of fundamentalism. I wouldn’t want to avoid it. I usually enjoy them, and have enjoyed these conversations since my college days. Contrary to what some seem to think, I don’t have a problem with anyone talking about these subjects or expressing their views on just about anything.
I do have concerns, however, about the way in which views are expressed and the content of the views expressed. What seems to be often forgotten is that there is a fine line between a critical evaluation and a critical spirit. Sadly, sometimes a well-meant critique is done in a way that encourages a critical spirit. Imbalanced critiques, especially, lend themselves to this process—fault is found in places where none lies. Careless critiques also feed the critical beast by setting a low standard for critique—all you need is an opinion, not any qualifications for sharing it. Our culture is drowning in careless criticism. I think it explains the popularity of talk radio and discussion boards on the internet. I am not saying it is wrong, just that we should recognize the potential it creates for criticism. Anyone with a phone or a keyboard can do better than the pathetic quarterback, coach, politician, or leader. At least they can talk a better game.
Talk is pretty worthless if it isn’t correct, and testing its correctness is what seems to be missing. We are rapidly descending into a culture where everyone is free to say whatever they want, but no one is allowed to challenge or refute whatever is said. It doesn’t matter if they are right; what matters is that they feel that way. That kind of mush-headedness might be acceptable for the afternoon talk show circuit, but it can’t be accepted by God’s people. What matters most is always what God thinks, and we know what God thinks because He has spoken to us.
As I tried to point out briefly, it is important to understand the difference between opinion and judgment. When it comes to serious conversations about serious topics, we don’t need opinions. We need clear argumentation backed by careful analysis. I am not asking for a research paper, just simple propositions with proofs. When a pastor offers his understanding of where obedience lies, an opinion piece won’t cut it. And don’t be mistaken about this, Joel’s article was his understanding of what it means to obey God’s commands about biblical separation. That’s a serious topic that calls for serious handling.
At the root of my concerns is the question of authority, that is, what will our functional authority be in matters like this? In principle, I imagine we all agree that the Bible is our authority. In practice, sometimes I wonder. How often can we appeal to our experiences without revealing something about the authority that experience wields over our thinking? To what degree have we become saturated with our culture’s relativistic, sentimentalized spirit? The common retorts show evidence of this: “Well, that’s just your view” or “That’s how I feel about it” or “I’ve had lots of people tell me the same thing.”
Some, no doubt, think that I am making too much out of all of this, but the most dangerous shifts are the subtle ones. The obvious ones can be seen by all; it’s the subtle shifts that go relatively unnoticed yet can negatively affect the direction of institutions and movements. Frankly, my concern is not really with the outcome of Joel’s proposed categories. It is with how he gets there and the kind of supportive responses his articles elicited. This is deeper than a mere taxonomy. It’s about leadership and influence, and it is telling revelation of the culture of American Christianity, particularly the Fundamentalist subculture. Please allow me to share four concerns that I have after reflecting on this past week’s discussions.
1. The importance of clarity in discernment and communication.
Biblically, discernment means the ability to make a distinction between things (cf. Heb 5:14 “to discern good and evil”). We cannot practice discernment unless we can effectively tell what is alike and what is different. The biblical word, often translated “examine,” reflects the process of refining which separated metal from impurities. This is precisely where the articles failed. They did not make clear the basis for distinguishing between A, B, and C. Some men tried to point this out, but it seemed to be to no avail. Mike Riley put his finger on this, and finally elicited an admission by Joel. But even then, the comments continued to lump together disparate things.
Is it that difficult to see that when pastors like Linscott, Anderson, and Harding are lumped into the same pile with Jack Hyles wannabes, something is seriously wrong? Those three are very different from each other on several key points, and they are radically different from Hyles. According to Joel, Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary and Emmanuel Baptist Theological Seminary fit in the same group—an assessment that is obnoxious to both schools. If there were only a few exceptions, I suppose we could ignore them, but in reality the exceptions out number the rule.
At the end of the day, here’s the defining point: everyone that disagrees with Joel’s assessment of the conservative evangelicals is Type A. He will toss in other characteristics, but they don’t apply across the board. I fit that category because of I disagree with Joel on this point and because of my approach to church leadership. Chris Anderson is a more godly leader than I am, but he still fits that label because of his views on worship. The bottom line is that getting an A from Joel is based on one’s “view of conservative evangelicals plus” something else, but the “something else” can be anything that Joel disagrees with and shifts from person to person. The only unifying characteristic is one’s view of conservative evangelicals. This is confirmed by Joel’s willingness to reduce my “grade” because I said some positive things about Mark Dever.
Good leadership requires clear direction and effective communication—seeing where to go and being able to tell that to others. Joel’s articles, by his own admission, are an attempt to influence the direction of fundamentalism. While it applies specifically to the issue of speaking in tongues, the principle taught in 1 Corinthians 14:8 is larger than that (that’s why it makes sense as applied to tongues). An indistinct sound does not rally the troops. Since this article was joined to an explicit effort to rally people to a certain kind of fundamentalism, then this principle supplies a good basis for evaluation. Exactly who was being called to the rally? Exactly who was being “called out” as incorrect or deficient? If the article had been clear, the answer to these questions would have been fairly obvious. In spite of all the resulting discussion, explanations and clarifications, clarity has yet to surface.
If this is serious stuff, and I think it is, then we all need to do better than this.
2. The immaturity of contemporary debate and discussion among fundamentalists.
It became obvious very quickly that to take exception with the ideas in these articles was being treated like an attack on the individual who wrote them. I know that this will not be received well, but this is one of the clearest marks of immaturity that I know. People who are not able to differentiate between ideas and people are trapped in childish thinking. It’s a shame that it even needs to be said that arguing that Joel’s classification system is bad is not the same as saying that Joel is bad. My comments on this point really apply not so much to Joel, but to his defenders. Perhaps I missed something, but I don’t think I recall even a single ad hominem argument.
People with a deep commitment to the Lord and His truth should be marked by the balance of earnestness and humility. We should care enough about truth to take discussions about it seriously. We should recognize that the truth matters more than we do, so we want to be sharpened and shaped by it, even if it comes through confrontation. It is a testament to the spiritual weakness and ill-health of contemporary fundamentalism that disagreements are so quickly personalized. This aspect of the whole discussion was disheartening.
Frankly, I have found men like Dever, Mohler, and Piper to handle disagreements far better than many of their admirers in fundamentalist circles. Read some of Piper’s footnotes, Al Mohler’s web commentaries, or listen to Mark Dever do interviews. Watch them interact with one another in public contexts. I have had straightforward interactions with each of them and never found them put off by it. They understand the importance of truth, the value of direct communication, and do so without taking it as personal. They know that there is a distinction between the individual and his ideas—you can reject the latter without insulting the former.
Have you noticed that the conservative evangelicals are getting labeled as “fundamentalists” by the softer evangelicals precisely because they are willing to be blunt about the truth? Think of the irony here—soft evangelicals slap what they consider a pejorative label on the conservative evangelicals in the same way that some fundamentalists are doing to other fundamentalists. How strange that some view the boldness and dogmatism of the conservative evangelicals as virtues while simultaneously seeing the same qualities as vices in fundamentalists. Why is it fine for someone to be blunt with those you disagree with, but unacceptable for them to be blunt toward those with whom you agree?
3. The infection of the therapeutic mindset and model.
Do we realize how much we have been influenced by our therapeutic culture? One sign of it is that objective issues of right and wrong are being replaced by subjective definitions of “helpful” and “hurtful.” An idea or comment isn’t tested by truthfulness, but by whether it hurts someone’s feelings. It is right that we must speak the truth in love, but it is also right to remember that the biblical concept of love is not chiefly emotional. Love seeks the well-being of the object loved, so loving communication seeks the best interest of the one to whom we are speaking.
The best interest of someone is sometimes served by strong, direct words—the kind of words that the Lord regularly used with His disciples, or Paul used in his confrontation with Peter and Barnabas. Both cases are better examples of speaking the truth in love than the therapeutic models of today.
In fact, the therapeutic model really can cause a departure from the biblical pattern. One way it does this is by elevating love over the truth. I hope we all agree that being untrue and unloving is wrong on both fronts, but I wonder if we really believe that being true is the most important issue. If my words are not true, then they can not truly be loving. No amount of sentiment, kindness, and positive feeling can compensate for the lack of truth. Once we have the truth, then we can talk about speaking it in love. Without the truth, we cannot speak in love.
Another way that the therapeutic model twists things is by creating a handy defense shield. Hard truth can be rejected more easily when sentimentality becomes the standard of evaluation. Can you imagine the blog chatter following Paul’s confrontation of Peter and Barnabas? “I can’t believe the arrogance and rudeness of Paul—he should have handled that privately!” Or, “Paul really needs to work on his leadership skills. I bet he has hurt a lot of people with his confrontational style.”
A third way this therapeutic mindset has an ill effect on communication is perhaps the most sinister of all. Whether intentional or not (only God knows the heart fully), it can actually be used as a way to dodge genuine confession. How many times do we see apologies that do not admit guilt, but ask forgiveness for offending or hurting someone? Our political leaders and celebrities have mastered this kind of apology. “I’m sorry if anyone was hurt by my statement. I didn’t mean to do that because that’s not the kind of person I am.” If you cut through the smoke and mirrors, what you find is that they skillfully avoided anything close to a biblical confession. They’re not repentant about what they said, only that someone took it the wrong way—in other words, it was the hearer’s fault.
The bottom line is that the truth matters more than how we feel about it. And being confronted with the truth is more important than being coddled with error. I am sure we all agree with this in theory, but do we in practice? I think I would die a happy man if I didn’t hear one more comment about people being hurt by someone pointing out a perceived error in thinking or practice. For my part, if I am in error and it takes hurting me to correct me, please do so.
4.The insulation of contemporary American Christianity.
That leads me to my last point. By insulation I mean that we are so free from real problems and persecution that we call an internet discussion a battle or describe someone as being under attack. Folks, this reveals something seriously sick with our souls. There is no way that we can compare having our ideas critiqued to the suffering of the persecuted church. It’s kind of like watching a group of high school athletes cry after losing a soccer game. Give me a break.
In God’s kindness to me, I have had the privilege to talk with men who have been persecuted for their faith and service to Christ. I have looked into the eyes of a man who has been imprisoned three times for serving Christ, beaten for his faith. I met two men recently who go on trial on Thanksgiving Day for passing out Christian literature in a Muslim country. I’ve sat beside a young couple willing to give up home and what little security they had in the city to shepherd a little village church in East Africa. People around this globe are genuinely sacrificing and suffering for Christ while we sit at our computers in America and compare criticism to warfare and persecution. We ought to repent in sackcloth and ashes.
I’m sure these words will not sit well with some, but all I would ask is that you consider what I have written. If I am wrong, then ignore me. Thankfully, no one answers to me! We will give an account of ourselves to the Lord, and I want to be ready for that great day. I hope you do too. May God grant us all grace to live faithfully until we see the Lord Jesus Christ!
Dave Doran serves as Senior Pastor of Inter-City Baptist Church and president of Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary in Allen Park, Michigan.