A Few Points on the Ethics of Theological Conflict

I had occasion to recently come upon an article in Credenda/Agenda, the focus of which was an entirely different theological controversy than the one in which the free grace community finds itself presently embroiled. I’ve been following that controversy for some time, and I have a few opinions on it, but for the moment I’m going to keep them to myself, because I want to talk about something else: how God’s people conduct themselves in theological controversy.

The article devoted two of its eight subpoints to that very issue.  Now, I’ve had a lot to say about this over the past few years, but nothing I’ve produced has been as comprehensive as this article, and certainly nothing I’ve produced has been as well said.  Since I can do no better than to quote the article, I am going to do just that, by the kind permission of the folks at Credenda/Agenda and Christ Church of Moscow, Idaho.

You will want to know that since the particular doctrinal context of the article is largely an intra-Presbyterian conflict, there are several references to the Westminster Standards, which are (theoretically, at least) the doctrinal confession of the Presbyterian churches.  For our conflict, substitute something similarly authoritative.  You’ll be surprised how uncannily a propos this is, with that single substitution.

For your edification and reading pleasure, I give you an excerpt of “Credos” by Douglas Wilson, Credenda/Agenda 15 number 5, 2007:

On Heresy

1. I believe that any minister who brings or circulates charges of heresy, particularly when the charges concern a right understanding of the covenant, should have a household that is in harmony with the Scriptures (1 Tim. 3:4-5; Tit. 1:6), with children who all love and honor the Lord Jesus Christ. Who is the false teacher, and who is the true minister of the covenant? By their fruit you will know them (Matt. 7:15-20).

2. I believe that such qualifications are relevant in the current dispute because covenants are understood incarnationally. This statement is a broadside directed at heresy hunters who are doctrine machines, zealous for covenant theology, but whose covenantal lives in their own homes [are] in disarray. This is a widespread problem, and is not a veiled reference to any particular person or family.

3. I believe that the ignorance of the Westminster Standards displayed by some of her zealous defenders is astounding and inexcusable. I believe some people who bring charges of heresy should read a book sometime.

4. I believe that those who bring heresy charges need to take special care that their confidence in creedal advance has not been practically vitiated by other factors. Such factors could include pessimistic eschatology, extreme law/gospel dichotomies, ecclesiastical turf war envy, unhelpful two kingdom distinctions, or personal familial tragedies.

5. I believe that when heresy charges are confused, blurry and distorted enough to include in their charges very different and contradictory heresies, this is evidence, not that the heretics are broadly wicked enough to encompass any error, but rather that any stick is good enough to beat them with.

6. I believe that when lies and slanders are circulated under the cover of heresy charges, those so charged should not lament but should rather obey the Lord Jesus, and rejoice and be exceedingly glad (Matt. 5:11-12). The truth is vindicated, not only when faithful ministers proclaim and defend the truth, but also by those who cannot argue against it without resorting to distortion and misrepresentation.

7. I believe that bringing heresy charges in grief or sadness or with heaviness of heart is not to be thought of as an all-purpose moral disinfectant, allowing one to therefore get the facts wrong, charge individuals falsely, and then claim that the cause of all the trouble was lack of clarity on the part of those misrepresented.

8. I believe that the task of rooting out heresy was not committed to jitney theologians and hedge preachers on the Internet, furiously typing, as busy as the devil in a high wind.

On Giving Offense

1. I believe that few subjects are as badly neglected in the modern Church as the applied field of biblical polemics.

2. I believe that when controversy breaks out in the modern Church, it is therefore likely that all parties to the controversy share certain assumptions about what is appropriate in conflict and what is not, and these hidden assumptions tend to govern their discourse instead of the example and pattern of Scripture.

3. I believe that this hidden compromise of method vitiates the attempts of those believers who attempt to be faithful to the content of Scripture, as well as to the content of their confessional heritage.

4. I believe that in a particular kind of religious controversy the central point is to accomplish reconciliation, and that to fail in this task is to fail in maintaining the spirit of unity in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:2-6). We are to receive one another but not into disputes about debatable things.

5. I believe that in another kind of religious controversy the central point is to give offense, and that failure in such controversy is a failure to give offense in the way Scripture requires. And Scripture demands that we seek to offend willful obstinacy of opinion by ecclesiastical officials in the face of the grace of God.

6. I believe that failure to distinguish these two kinds of controversy, or a flat denial that there is ever a time when giving offense is a spiritual obligation, means in effect, that in the great basketball game between obedience and disobedience, the referees are always on the take.

7. I believe that our Lord Jesus, when confronted with ecclesiastical obstinacy, showed us this godly pattern for giving offense. Did you know the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?(Matt. 15:12). Yes, I did, He replied in effect. Mission accomplished (v. 13). The Lord attacked the scribes and Pharisees for their long robes, sanctimonious geegaws, prayer habits, tithing practices, their ways of greeting, their seating arrangements, their hypocrisies, and so on. After one such exchange (Luke 11:43-44), one of the lawyers said that Jesus was insulting them in His indictment too (v. 45). And in effect Jesus said, Oh, yes, thanks for that reminder. You lawyers . . .(v. 46). In short, Jesus was seeking to offend.

8. I believe that in a sinful world giving offense is one of the central tasks of preaching. When the offending word is brought to bear against those who have shown themselves to be unteachable, they are written off by that offending word. Employing a scriptural satiric bite is therefore not rejoicing in iniquity, but rather testifying against hardness of heart.

9. I believe therefore that in every controversy, godliness and wisdom (or the lack of them) are to be determined by careful appeal to the Scriptures, and not to the fact of someone having taken offense. Perhaps they ought to have taken offense, and perhaps someone ought to have endeavored to give it.

10. I believe that sometimes a fool is not to be answered according to his folly (Prov. 26:4), and those who contradict are to be answered in all gentleness (2 Tim. 2:24-25). In other situations a fool must be answered according to his folly lest he be wise in his own conceits (Prov. 26:5), and those who oppose the truth are to be rebuked sharply (Tit. 1:12-14; 2:15). Examples in Scripture and church history of men who can do both are not to be thought of as conflicted personalities, but rather as examples of obedience and balance.

11. I believe that true biblical balance in such things is the fruit of wisdom, and that such balance is not usually found in hot-headed young men, who do not know what spirit they are of (Luke 9:55). Consequently, prophetic rebukes should come from seasoned prophets, from men called to the ministry of guarding the Church of God. The work should be done by men of some age and wisdom, and not by novices, firebrands, and zealots.

12. I believe that the Lord Jesus Christ is always to be our example in dealing with certain kinds of religious leaders, and that where He has set an example, we must strive to follow Him. Part of this means we must be careful not to be hasty in imitating Him, since His wisdom was perfect and ours is not. It is therefore good to take counsel with others.

13. I believe that sharp rebukes and the ridiculing of evil practices should seldom be the first approach one should make, but usually should follow only after the rejection of a soft word of reproach, or when dealing with hard-hearted obstinacy displayed over an extended period of time. If this is not remembered, the satirist will find himself killing ants with a baseball bat.

14. I believe we must be careful not to let strong language and supposedly-righteous anger be a substitute for good arguments, to be employed when we feel threatened. Strong language must be weighed and measured, and must always have a point. Special thanks to Jim Jordan for his comments on the above.

The rest of the article focuses on the doctrinal content of the controversy, and depending on your background, may induce hyperventilation, redness of face, and blog posts.  If you want to read the whole thing, you can link directly to it here or have a look at the whole issue on the page for volume 15, number 5 of Credenda/Agenda.

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