Applying the Gospel to our Criticisms of Public Christian Figures

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

"One of the most valuable commodities we possess as Christians is our attitudes towards each other. Protecting the reputations of others in our minds is so vital to Christianity. Maintaining our high and good opinions of others is largely what maintains the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:1-3).

The moment we allow ourselves to be critical or judgmental of someone else, our view of them becomes denigrated, and our opinion of them degraded. We just don't see them as we used to, and we seem to not respect them as much anymore. Our minds and hearts slowly and strangely begin to view them as less than honorable, not worth our emotional or filial investment any longer. And before you know it we are talking about them to others with less than respectable speech, if not downright gossip and slander, degrading their reputation in the eyes of others also.
But if the gospel remains the active agent in all our relationships, then forgiveness, gentleness, patience, meekness, humility and forbearance will maintain a foster a spirit of unity, just as these same things maintain unity between the Heavenly Father and ourselves.

This is the reason the text of Ephesians 4:1-3 got put where it did, right before one of the most formidable passages on the doctrine of the church. And that is also the reason why this formidable chapter on the church ends the way it does - on kindness, forgiveness, and tenderheartdness (4:29-32). The church just can't function with any degree of health, growth, nor unity when its members are not doing all they can, with regard to these qualities, to maintain their loving opinion and respect for one another in their hearts and minds regardless of what we may do to each other.

Does the gospel function this way in your relationships with other saints? Does it function this way with your wife? Your husband? Your children? Your annoying coworker? Your pastor? Your church leadership? Your nosy neighbor? Does it function this way with everybody you know (including your stubborn beagle!)?"

These are the thoughts I blogged on July 22, 2005, in a post entitled, "The Gospel Helps us Hold Others in High Regards." One commenter's response was quite appropriate: "Good one, Rob. I gotta keep this in mind when I start ranting about guys like Rick Warren and Brian McLaren...thanks for the attitude reset." I wrote the original paragraph in 2005, updated it again in 2006, and because of recent events surrounding surrounding Rob Bell, I recently have felt the need to revisit it, revise it, and repost it again today. It is so pertinent.  The truth behind all of this never gets old.

There have been a recent flurry of posts on the blogosphere that continue to show the world we do not cherish the cross as reflected in the attitude and obligations of Ephesians 4:1-3. But in saying so I'm caught in the middle of friendly fire. For on the one hand many dear reformed folks decry the first sentence in this paragraph because for them, not cherishing the cross is saying, believing, teaching, or preaching anything that is contrary to the way they would say it. In so doing, they want to believe they are speaking for God.  But they are actually not.  Speaking for God, you see, means saying what He plainly says (and not what you want Him to say), and saying it how He would say it (and not how you imagine Him saying it).

What I'm not saying here is that what we say, believe, preach, or teach about the cross is not important. What I am saying here is that how we say, believe, preach, or teach about the cross is as important as what we say, believe, preach, or teach. In fact, if the how is not reflective in our lives as much as the what, then the Bible would appropriately challenge whether or not we actually believe the same gospel as it describes.  In short, we L....O....V....E... one another.  Say it slowly.  Spell it out if you have to.  Do whatever it takes to do what it teaches.

Several years ago I wrote to a friend one morning that, "Christian combat in the blogosphere draws more of an bloodthirsty audience than it does the Christian virtues of gentleness, humility, meekness, forbearance, etc." So I think it would be fair to say that we as believers are strangely attracted to blogiators - that is, bloggers engaging in verbal gladiatory activity - fighting, accusing, quarelling, gossiping (talking about others without talking to others), and slander (saying untrue things about people we are supposed to love).

The flurry several years ago of references by anti-emergent people to John Piper as an emergent or emergent-friendly, or of Josh Harris as emergent-friendly, or of Mark Driscoll as essentially a problem-child of the church, or of John Armstrong as an apostate (all accusations being fired from various and sundry reformed folks), of Piper's invitation of Rick Warren to his Desiring God Conference, and most recently of Rob Bell (anticipating the release of his newest book, Love Wins), are all sinful and disgraceful references.  That's not a judgmental statement.  It's the gospel-truth when compared to the gospel of Jesus.

In a wicked world where our duty as Christians is to band together with our brothers and sisters for the sake of the gospel, it seems many would rather continue with theological mud-slinging that is probably more a result of ecclesiastical in-breeding than a genuine care for the gospel.  It almost feels like the "good ole boy club" where those of like-mindedness assume the position of absolute truth in all things doctrinal.  And the only reason it feels like that is because of the way they talk about those with whom they disagree.  You see, nobody would ever feel that way about the good ole boy club, or have such a perception about them, if they treated those they disagree with in gospel-loving tones.  What just makes matters worse is that the club members call this mud-slinging a defense of sound doctrine. These words may sting, but they are true and are cautiously spoken from genuine care for the church.

Oh, that the quarreling would cease among our spiritual relatives, our flesh and blood through Christ, our brothers and sisters for whom Christ died. Engage those with whom you disagree in love, privately, with a sincere desire to see them change and yourself changed in the process. Seek never to speak of others in a critical or negative light publicly unless absolutely necessary, as a last resort, after multiple efforts to reach them. And if that person is a public figure whom we are unable to reach, it is more honorable and glorifying to Christ to hold our tongues and say nothing at all than to believe the fleshly rationalization that just because someone published something or said something publicly that it is quite alright to criticize them publicly. 

What is more, the quarreling needs to cease among Christians toward those we may even deem as heretical! That's right.  Imagine that the one you deem as heretical could actually be someone made in the image of God, loved by their Creator, possessing many of the elements of God's image that you yourself do, with each of you being just as marred in that image as the other. This is called humility.  And when Jesus-followers look at even lost people this way, we display a humility that respects, loves and honors other people for simply being...fellow human beings.

Listen, rationalizing that because Paul mentions a handful by name in the Scriptures, or because Jesus frequently and publicly criticized the Pharisees, then it is also okay for us to use names publicly is really dishonest.  I believe that this also is a disgrace to the gospel of grace which unavoidably makes us aware of the essential cross-centered attributes of grace that should be evident in our lives, and namely the ones mentioned in Ephesians 4:1-3Read the NLT here).

Receive this as a reminder of the attitude of the gospel which is as important as what we believe about it.  In fact, our attitudes will more likely reveal whether or not we believe the biblical gospel. May we cease shaming the Lord by (1) taking part in such discussions on the blogosphere, and by (2) speaking of others publicly, unless as a last resort to genuinely persuade them to the truth, we have first done so privately and persistently, and by (3) mortifying that part of our fallen hearts that still delights in rationalization, quarrelling, and disunity.

And thank you to those who have already demonstrated this in your personal lives and on your blogs. May the gospel be the center of everything we have to say. May Jesus roll off our lips rather than the names of other people.

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