This week I wrote an article for Her.meneutics that reflected on the most recent Mark Driscoll controversy. Unlike my last Her.meneutics article, of which I was surprised at the backlash, I was prepared to take some punches for this one. Although Driscoll is a many-layered person whose church has been an instrument of healing in the lives of many Seattle women, his critics struggle to get past his masculine rhetoric.
I sympathize with that sentiment. I have experienced the exact same struggle, which is why I chose to write the article. In some measure, the Her.meneutics piece was an act of personal repentance for an unchrist-like disposition on this issue. I believe that Mark Driscoll is very wrong on some things, but my assessments of him and men like him have tended to be unfair. Over the years I have found myself making blanket statements about certain Christian teachers, over-simplifying their ministries and messages without having all the facts. I don’t know any of them personally, but that hasn’t stopped me from making judgments based on very limited knowledge.
Most of those judgments were made in private, but the spirit behind them was nevertheless misguided. Another Christian’s error does not justify my own, and I want to confess that now.
In the past, I have written that it is easier to criticize than sympathize. We can poke holes in one another’s theology all day long, but it takes discipline and humility to show grace. Being slow to anger and slow to speak is a real challenge for the fallen human spirit.
Clearly I failed to take my own advice on this matter, but I have also been convicted that these unqualified generalizations are, in addition to being unfair, sinful. I came to this realization thanks to an essay written by Ed Stetzer, the President of LifeWay Research. Ed is a friend for whom I have tremendous respect. He is a faithful Southern Baptist with an uncanny ability to converse with Christians across the board. He is one of the most well-connected and widely respected guys I know, and it is because of teachings like the one I am about to share.
In a book titled Evangelicals Engaging Emergent: A Discussion of the Emergent Church Movement, Ed contributed a chapter on the missional perspective of this movement. In it he cautioned against misrepresenting the Emergent Church movement, saying,
“Critics must be on guard against bearing false witness. When the contemporary church movement gained the same kind of traction across denominational boundaries, many critical words were spoken, many of them false. The E/EC has not been able to escape the same kind of criticism. In regards to the contemporary and the emerging church movements, it seems that many in Evangelicalism struggle with the ninth commandment–a shame when we Evangelicals hold to the inerrancy of Scriptures that list that very commandment. If you are going to speak out against a movement, learn about it. Then you can speak with wisdom and clarity…”
Ed’s point about bearing false witness gets to the heart of the issue. This has become a real problem on the internet today, especially in my generation. The freedom of the internet allows Christians to make unqualified, decisive statements about pastors, churches and movements without knowing the whole picture. I have done this myself, and it was born out of an overly simplistic view of the world. My conclusions were just plain sloppy.
Disagreement certainly has its place, but we will fail to disagree with “wisdom and clarity,” as Ed noted, if we don’t account for the nuances of sin and faith. Paul himself bemoaned his broken condition, ruefully confessing, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Rom. 7:15) Even with the best of intentions, we all screw up. On the other hand, many of the most controversial leaders have also served as powerful vehicles for the grace of God. Undoubtedly, the Christian life is far more complex than our internet musings and private sarcasm reflect.
Given the paradoxes of the Christian life, we must tread carefully when we criticize others, and we must do so as a matter of personal holiness. Whether the topic is Mark Driscoll, Rob Bell, Beth Moore, Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, John Piper, or Brian McLaren, just to name a few, caution is in order.
Ephesians 4:15 exhorts Christians to speak “the truth in love.” As we seek to be a united Church that bears a positive witness to the world around us, we must not underestimate the importance of both love and truth. Loving disagreement is essential, but so is truth. We must speak the truth boldly when a Christian teacher abuses his or her authority, but we must also speak the truth about who they really are. The latter truth is far more difficult to discern, which is perhaps why so few of us labor to know it.