Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Age of Tolerance Calls for Bold Proclamation of Truth

The August 2007 issue of Christianity Today magazine features an editorial titled "Attack Dogs of Christendom" written by David Aikman, an esteemed journalist who has written much on the topic of religion and Christianity. The editorial examines what Aikman labels the "attack dogs of Christendom", that is, certain web-based ministries that are frequently boldly critical of other Christians. The main point of his brief essay is that, if necessary, Christians may criticize other believers, but should do so with a grace that provides a fitting witness to the transforming work of God on their own character. This certainly sounds right, but is it the whole story?

Aikman describes particular ministries as greatly missing this mark, saying that they are "so drenched in sarcasm and animosity" that they might leave inquirers to Christianity "permanently disillusioned". He bemoans the fact that at a time when "no attribute of civilized life seems more under attack than civility", such web ministries, by their uncivility towards other Christians, do not demonstrate "the witness that brings savor and grace to a crumbling generation". Instead, he writes, they "blast each another from here to eternity with characterizations that differ little from the coarse vulgarity of cable TV". Aikman concludes, "Where is the gentleness, modesty, and wisdom with which we are supposed to shame those who mock and accuse the Body of Christ from outside?" and urges Christians to set an example for the world of gracious critiquing of one another.

Aikman's plea that Christians demonstrate God's love and graciousness, even if they find it sometimes necessary to criticize each other, is a point well taken. Fallen human nature tends to exhibit self-righteousness as it looks upon the failings of others, but our Lord reminds us, when picking the speck out of someone else's eye, we must first see to it that the log in our own has been removed. If also we constantly reflect on the biblical truth that we (even as believers in Christ) continue to be fallen creatures that are only saved and transformed by the power of God through the sacrifice of His only Son on a cross, we will not help but become more humble and gracious towards other sinful, fallible people.

Getting doctrine right is no incidental, trivial aspect of our call to follow Christ, but a vital work.

Nonetheless, I believe Mr. Aikman has really missed the passion and even the great frustration that drives many "discernment" ministries. This passion is, in many cases, driven by a correct understanding of this truth: that getting doctrine right is no incidental, trivial aspect of our call to follow Christ, but a vital work. I would certainly agree with Aikman's witness to the attack on civility in our culture. But does not this dearth of civility and increase in coarseness mostly correlate with the increased godlessness in society? The United States, a nation founded upon free expression of religious beliefs, whose government and founding documents were molded by the Judeo-Christian world view, has increasingly abandoned Judeo-Christian truth as its bedrock value system. Included in this abandonment is the growing tendency in these times to resist defining truth objectively. Of course if truth cannot be decided upon objectively, then establishing right theological doctrine seems even more unobtainable. And the fight for right doctrine has come to be seen by many in different quarters as a sort of petty squabbling over matters that are not essential to working together as Christians for the greater common good.

One might say then, with all due respect to Mr. Aikman, that "no attribute of civilized life seems more under attack than truth"-- for truth is under attack not only by the liberal establishment, but even by those within Christendom who erode truth by not taking their own firm stand upon doctrines of the faith. The decrease in civility Aikman laments seems directly tied to a nation that no longer fears God as it once did, and which is increasingly marginalizing God in all aspects of its civic life. But the Church is called to be salt and light in our culture (Matthew 5:13-14), exposing the darkness by living according to truth and holiness, and preserving that which is good. Yet this edifying and preserving only is accomplished as the Church obeys its mandate to "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20)." Teaching accurately that which Jesus taught then, seems to be indispensable to making disciples, and demands that we interpret and disseminate the teachings of Christ correctly.

Despite this critical task, many evangelicals today (especially in the Emergent camp, but also in the broader evangelical community) are downplaying the importance of doctrinal correctness, some labeling it "divisive" to the Church at large. There is a kind of teaching in American Christianity today that has become most concerned with providing practical aids to living in the here and now: improve your marriage, your sex life, your finances. It is claimed that in-fighting over doctrine presents a poor witness to the world, and distracts the Church from its more primary and urgent call to do "love" through justice, serving the poor, helping the hurting, etc. The debate over doctrine is viewed as dry, intellectual, and most of all abstract, an exercise which doesn't help us bring Christ's compassion to a hurting world in practical ways.

Surely there is truth to the charge that a practice of Christianity dominated by endless debate over minor theological points, and which seeks to root out heresy, not for the sake of more fruitful, God-honoring living, but motivated primarily by pride and ego, will leave those who practice it puffed up with knowledge but lacking in the charity towards others that really counts eternally (1 Corinthians 13). Some discernment ministries may indeed be driven by these less than noble, ultimately unworthy, motivations.

The Age of Tolerance
However, we are living in the Age of Tolerance, and that spirit it seems, has invaded the evangelical church. For today many ask Christians to cease being dogmatic (after all, who are we to say that Christ is the only way?); and to talk about man's essential problem as the lack of self-esteem, rather than, as the Bible tells it, sinful rebellion against God. We ought, some would say, to make Christianity "user-friendly"-- to shape our presentation of the gospel to appeal to the "postmodern" frame of mind, or re-package it so as to appeal to the "felt needs" of unbelievers. In other words, don't preach the biblical counsel that speaks about the depth of sin and the universal need for repentance, and of the price of the cross of Christ. Preach instead that God has a wonderful plan for your life, a plan to make you happy, bless your finances and your health and lead you into a kind of heaven on earth. Preach the gospel as an option ("try Jesus"), and not as a command to believe and repent. Preach that we Christians don't have any solid, final answers and we're just on our own journey, just like everyone else. Preach that Christian "love" is really about accepting everyone just as they are, even in their sin, and not asking anyone to repent of their sins.

We are being taught that to choose Christ is ultimately our own choice, that to be born again or eternally separated from God-- the choice between heaven or hell-- is totally within our own hands. Yet the Bible teaches that those who do come to Christ come only because they have been called out and given the grace to do so by God-- for Christ declared, "No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father (John 6:65)"

In light of all this, is there a kind of criticism of other Christians by Christians that is justifiable?

Well, when even Christians are no longer preaching the gospel as Jesus did, as a call to radical self-sacrifice and as a repudiation of the lies that this world tries to sell;

When the Church ceases to stand hard on Bible truths and to preach them boldly, uncompromisingly and without apology, though they offend and many will reject them with words such as, "This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?(John 6:60)";

When we forget that "a little leaven leavens the whole lump (Galatians 5:6)", and that the little compromises we make with truth end with wholesale rejection of truth and falling away into deception;

Are we not then neglecting our solemn duty as believers to "preach the word; [and to] be ready in season and out of season; [to] reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching (2 Timothy 4:2-4)?

Paul warned Timothy, "the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths (2 Timothy 4:3)". That time is now upon us.

And so Christians must:

Always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Timothy 4:5)

Hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, and [be] able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it (Titus 1:9).

"Teach what accords with sound doctrine (Titus 2:1)"

I think that this is exactly what the responsible discernment ministries are attempting to do, in such times as these. Should they be gentle, modest and respectful? Certainly.

But there are also times for righteous indignation, times when double-talk and compromise must be challenged, and when those who say they are representing Christ must be called upon to defend their practices biblically. Paul challenged and opposed Peter, when the latter was acting hypocritically (Galatians 2:11-21). Read the story. Paul did not challenge Peter to embarrass him. Nor did he do so that he could now be seen as the #1 leader of the church and Peter be relegated to #2. He did it for the sake of the truth, for the sake of the souls of those in the Church, the precious souls for whom he and Peter had become responsible to God as leaders in the church. He was responsible to teach them sound doctrine, and to help them to mature in the wisdom of God. How? By teaching the Galatians the right doctrine about their justification before God, and opposing any actions (even if done by a fellow believer) in contradiction to right doctrine.

If we too are called by God to be disciple-makers (aren't we all?), let us tackle the call to teach and defend right doctrine with the same commitment and passion that Paul showed here. Let us do so humbly and depending upon God for much grace and wisdom. But let us not neglect this privilege and responsibility.

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