This year, I have written a few articles that are critical of certain people, organizations, or trends in the evangelical Christian community. While these comments have not necessarily been out of character for me, they have proved to be more significant than some of my previous blog posts, for I now have more people paying attention to what I write. My recent tendency to stir the pot has done nothing to help my mother’s digestion, and quite frankly, I myself have questioned my actions at times.
This has led me to meditate on what it means to criticize in a Christian context. Scripture lays out principles for how we should evaluate one another. I must ask myself, have I been abiding by these principles? Reconciliation within the church is very important to me. Am I really helping to bring about reconciliation when I criticize? Is it ever appropriate for me to call into question the words or actions of someone I have never met?
You see, I am not a conflict prone person by nature. (Yes, I hear that laughing!) I enjoy giving a hard time to my personal acquaintances, and I’ve been known to engage in friendly debates. However, there is a point when friendly banter turns into serious friction, and that is when I would have historically cashed in my chips and gone home. As a teenager, I was strongly affected by anger and avoided it like the plague. I adopted a rather opossum-like mentality: better to play dead than suffer attack.
People thought I was a rather indecisive girl who was happy to go along to get along. While that was true to a certain extent, I discovered that in fact I was simply repressing much of what I felt, too afraid to be assertive. My parents had always encouraged me to have confidence, but I thought so little of myself that I found it very difficult. The one thing I knew is that people seemed to like it when I made jokes. That was my first clue that there might be something to be said for showing off a bit more of my personality.
Yes, it’s true: I was a shy young person. I almost regretted being the valedictorian of my small high school graduating class, as it required me to give a speech. I was stressed for weeks beforehand. Parties and other social events were not my idea of a good time. I sat at the back or the side of the room. I rarely volunteered for anything. Although I was on the basketball team, I much preferred to play defense rather than offense. I was afraid of having the ball thrown to me and then messing up in front of the whole school. Going to college was a significant help to me in this regard, as I was constantly forced out of my comfort zone. Even so, I was 20 years old before I got up the courage to tell a guy I liked him. That didn’t go so well, but it was a good learning experience.
The longer I remained in college, the more I changed. I was not truly becoming a new person so much as revealing what had always been there, somewhere deep beneath the surface. I felt very insecure about my looks and many of my capabilities, but enough people told me that I was a good writer that I began to believe them just a little. Wonder of wonders, I volunteered! I joined the college newspaper, first as a sports writer and then as an opinion columnist.
It was that time writing for the opinion page that revealed my true feistiness. For the first time in my life, I felt the rush that comes from writing something provocative: that feeling of self-righteousness you get when it’s just you against the world. Oh, it felt good! Nevertheless, it was dangerous. After all, I wanted people to like me, and when you challenge people, they don’t always thank you for it. I was very blessed that on those occasions when a professor or school official had a disagreement with one of my articles, I always walked away unscathed. In fact, they ended up having a greater respect for me. I didn’t know how long that luck would last.
My subjects of study were politics and religion, neither of which lends itself to peaceable discussions. I had to develop a thick skin. Why, you ask, did I suddenly seek out opportunities that plunged me into conflict? I might need a psychologist to give you a complete answer, but to put it simply, I discovered that I cared. Remember, everyone had said that I was indecisive and happy to go with the flow. My college years taught me that this was incorrect. While I tried to be deferential whenever possible and to show respect for the people with whom I disagreed, I couldn’t pretend that I didn’t care. The injustice in the world weighed upon me like a heavy load. When I saw people doing clearly ridiculous things, I was unable to simply ignore it. There was a fire inside me, and like the prophet Jeremiah, I had grown weary of holding it in.
Why am I giving you all this complicated backstory? Because many of these competing impulses remain with me to this day. The biggest change in the past few years is how my deep concern for political issues has been transferred to theological issues. When I was younger, I was much more enamored with ecumenism among Christians. I didn’t see how many of our doctrinal debates were truly helpful. Not for me were the raging cage stage Calvinists. I picked up Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy and sympathized a bit with what he was attempting to do. This was not because I did not believe in absolute truth or doubted the inerrancy of scripture. It simply came out of my impulse to avoid conflict whenever possible.
Many of those typical queries you hear from evangelicals were things that I once asked. “Does one’s position on Calvinism vs. Arminianism really have much of an effect on the practical Christian life?” “Do we really need denominations? Where are those in the Bible?” “Does it really matter if we disagree about when Daniel was written if we agree that it contains theological truth?” “Does God really care if (x, y, or z)?” Now, once again, this wasn’t because I was unconcerned with doctrine. Rather, my desire for Christians to live together harmoniously was trumping my pursuit of the truth, mostly because of my own tendency to avoid rocking the boat.
Therefore, the great development of my later 20s was not so much that I embraced certain doctrines, such as the finer points of TULIP. It was that I embraced the very concept that orthodoxy must be defended. There were many reasons for this, not least of which was my observation of how bad doctrine had such harmful practical effects. These were not only matters for academics. They were changing the lives of average Christians everywhere. People were being hurt left and right by incorrect beliefs. Now my impulse for justice was awakened, and as much as I wanted to see reconciliation in the church, I became convinced that there is no true love apart from the truth.
Over the past year, I have tackled multiple controversial issues. I wrote about the perils of pastoral power. I questioned Justin Taylor and John Piper’s approach to satire. I criticized many of the articles being written about the so-called gospel according to Wonder Woman. I wrote two articles analyzing aspects of Tim Keller’s theology. Then finally, as the crown jewel, I went after the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, along with Al Mohler and Gary Thomas. That’s quite a lot of criticism over the space of a few months, and I partially blame my compatriots for allowing their feistiness to rub off on me. I would not take any of these articles back, but I do have certain regrets about how I used language and at times failed to conduct sufficient research. That feeling of near certainty I have when I first post something can give way to doubt fairly quickly, but the more informed my articles are to begin with, the better off I am in the long run.
Did the fact that I have been sick much of this year contribute to my crankiness? Possibly, but I was of perfectly sound mind when I wrote those articles. I must own them. They have brought me more attention than I ever enjoyed before, some good and some bad. It is an unfortunate fact of life that the negative attracts far more attention than the positive. What I must ask myself at this point is whether these were truly issues of orthodoxy, or if I was just enjoying being provocative for the sake of provocation?
In the case of the satire and Wonder Woman articles, I am certainly guilty of making a mountain out of a mole hill. There were some issues of significance addressed in those articles, but it was all a bit light hearted. Poor Derek Rishmawy didn’t really deserve the trolling I gave him, nor does he deserve it when I continue to do so on Twitter. His willingness to take it has increased my respect for him, and I certainly would not bother if I thought he was a poor writer or theologian. (I tend to give the hardest time to the people I like the most. Sarcasm is typically a sign of admiration on some level.)
The examination of Tim Keller’s theology was much more necessary, in my opinion. I do not say that because I believe that he has deviated significantly from orthodoxy, but because he is such an influential person and there is a constant debate about him in the Christian blogosphere. The fact that I took so much time to consider his teachings says more about his degree of influence than any particular dislike I have for him. In fact, I like him better than many other Christian leaders. By no means do I think he is public enemy #1. If Tim Keller is your biggest worry, you need to find something else to worry about. We have people openly preaching heresy every Sunday. I do not like some of the ways that Keller chooses to describe things, but I will say that the people I know who have engaged with him on a personal level have generally had very good things to say.
The CBMW is another issue, I’m afraid. I have been relatively uncomfortable with them since I first became aware of their teachings in college. I think they simply take things too far and are overly focused on the minors instead of the majors. Now, if you read the “What I Believe” page on this website, you will see that I could probably sign the Danvers Statement without much of a problem. However, the CBMW does not limit itself to what is laid out narrowly in that document. Some of the literature they have produced over the years is problematic and has had a significantly negative impact on average people. Most concerning of all are the issues some of their leaders have with their doctrine of God. I only became aware of this within the past year, but it is certainly troubling. The way we view the Trinity is a matter of basic orthodoxy, and we must defend it – even against our friends.
Does this mean that I hate the CBMW? No, certainly not. I think it could be a very good organization, but it needs to fix some of these issues. Until it does so, those of us who are concerned about orthodoxy must speak up on occasion. This is not about destroying the CBMW. It is about making it better. We need people to support a biblical view of gender and sexuality, but if they do so in the wrong way, it is more harmful than helpful. That is why I made the decision to criticize Grudem, Ware, Mohler, et al. Some people objected that my criticism wasn’t really about the Nashville Statement as much as the entire movement, and they are absolutely correct. The release of this new statement merely served as the occasion for me to say some things that had been on my mind for a long time.
I do not know if my criticism has always succeeded in focusing on matters of orthodoxy rather than sweating the small stuff. I think I have reserved the harshest criticism for the things that matter most, but I understand the concerns of those who feel that I am creating straw men and not engaging properly with persons. In all honesty, it is a bit difficult to have a proper engagement with individuals so famous that they would have no interest in speaking with me. Now, I was surprised one time this year when someone reached out to me and was willing to discuss these important issues in a very gracious manner. What a blessing that was! Few people are able to take criticism with a humble heart, and it has certainly affected the way I intend to conduct myself going forward. There are some individuals and organizations that have deviated so far from orthodoxy that such engagement is nearly impossible, but I am thankful that that is not always the case.
One day, I will be called to account for everything I have written – not by man, but by God. It is easy to forget that when you are so focused on making your point. Where I have erred, I sincerely apologize. I am still trying to figure all of this out. There is a great need for Christians to stand up for orthodoxy, but we must not chase after conflict for the sake of conflict. We must not become self-righteous.
I hope that as I continue write, I will be able to bring together these competing impulses and stand up for the truth in a way that is also conciliatory. I am relatively young and still learning. Thank you to all of you who tolerate my rantings with good humor. You’re the best.