Friday, February 25, 2011

In Defense of Polemics: Reposted

The previous post on tone, and the squishiness and squeamishness that provoked it, reminded me of something I posted near the beginning of For Our Benefit. The post is called "In Defense of Polemics," and gives some Biblical justification for my standing complaint with the Tone Police. I've slightly modified it here where appropriate.

If you read my comments on other blogs, you might notice that I'm not afraid to engage in polemical discussions. That is, I'm willing to engage error masquerading as truth and to call a spade a spade. But if you read For Our Benefit, you'll notice that that's not been my modus operandi on this blog so much. Remembering my commitment to be a benefit, that may have something to do with the fact that I think there's more benefit to be given and to be enjoyed in ways other than polemical argumentation. However, I think that polemics can certainly be in the service of benefiting people by presenting Christ to them.

Not everyone agrees with me there. If you lurk around the Christian blogosphere long enough and read widely enough, you'll find that some people find any manner of disagreement utterly distasteful, and they chide you for being "divisive," "unloving," disobedient to John 13:35 (which is laughable, given the content discussed in my recent post on that passage), too worried about doctrine, Pharisaical, or -- the postmodern favorite -- "uncharitable." [Not much has changed in the year and a half since I originally wrote that, huh? Except that now it's not just the out-and-out postmodernists that are complaining about it. This area of postmodernism has crept into the heart of conservative evangelicalism and the YRR/New Calvinism.]

And if you do manage to find a group of folks who don't mind differing viewpoints, you better make sure you don't disagree with someone too severely, and that you preface your disagreement with about 150 things you like about your opponent, or about what your opponent just said, or a slew of qualifiers about how the issue you're disagreeing over is not an essential Christian doctrine, and how you're sure they're a fine person in real life. You get the idea.

But again, I disagree with these people. I think that strong disagreement and polemical argumentation can be very beneficial to the body of Christ. Why do I think that?

Well, throughout the New Testament we find statements from the Apostles exhorting the Church to speak truth each one with his neighbor (Eph 4:25). As demonstrated in my previous post, the way that the body builds itself up in love is by exposing each other to the glory of Christ by speaking truth to each other. When error is presented as truth, harm comes to the body, just as it would if someone served poison instead of food at a meal.

And we have commands exhorting the Church to "expose error" (Eph 5:11). Continuing with the same illustration, if it was common knowledge that someone was masquerading poison as healthy food, those who cared anything about the people to whom it was being served would do what they could to find out what's real, nourishing food and what's not.

Also, the very nature of divine revelation requires that it be the standard of measure of all our thinking. We are told not to believe every spirit, but to test the spirits because many false profits have gone out into the world (1John 4:1). Reproof and correction are also said to be things for which Scripture is profitable (or beneficial, 2Tim 3:16). And as he approaches the end of his life, Paul's solemn charge to Timothy is to "preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction" (2Tim 4:2).

And one of the clearest Scriptural examples that I can find of polemical argumentation being for the benefit to the Church is in Acts 18:27-28:
And when [Apollos] had arrived, he greatly helped those who had believed through grace, for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, demonstrating by the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.
Apollos greatly helped the believers. How? "For," the Scripture says, "he powerfully refuted the Jews in public." A strong, public refutation of error was of great help to the body.

And these strong, even public, rebukes were not limited to unbelievers. In Galatians 2, Paul confronts Peter. Listen to the strength of his language.
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
Even Peter was subject to this kind of rebuke. And as his error had far-reaching effects, his error found a far-reaching rebuke. His actions were presenting some idea about the Gospel that was false -- hypocritical, even. And his actions were causing Jewish believers and even Barnabas to be "carried away by their hypocrisy." And so Paul lets Peter and everyone affected by his error know that such thinking is wrong, contrary to grace, and is a blight on the pure Gospel of God.

Now, in today's "evangelicalism," Paul would be labeled a Pharisee (how ironic, right?), unloving, arrogant, full of himself, and uncharitable. He'd be told at least 27 times that his tone was unchristian, that he had a log in his own eye, and "Physician, heal thyself!" He'd be accused of being un-Christlike, because Christ said they'd know us by our love for each other. And a million other things.

But guys, don't you see how he was loving Peter?! Don't you see that such confrontation was for Peter's great benefit?! If not, here's a little wisdom from J. Gresham Machen, that great defender of the faith against early 20th-century liberalism:
Men tell us that our preaching should be positive and not negative, that we can preach the truth without attacking error. But if we follow that advice we shall have to close our Bible and desert its teachings. The New Testament is a polemic book almost from beginning to end.

Some years ago I was in a company of teachers of the Bible in the colleges and other educational institutions of America. One of the most eminent theological professors in the country made an address. In it he admitted that there are unfortunate controversies about doctrine in the Epistles of Paul; but, he said in effect, the real essence of Paul’s teaching is found in the hymn to Christian love in the thirteenth chapter of I Corinthians; and we can avoid controversy today, if we will only devote the chief attention to that inspiring hymn.

In reply, I am bound to say that the example was singularly ill-chosen. That hymn to Christian love is in the midst of a great polemic passage; it would never have been written if Paul had been opposed to controversy with error in the Church. It was because his soul was stirred within him by a wrong use of the spiritual gifts that he was able to write that glorious hymn. So it is always in the Church. Every really great Christian utterance, it may almost be said, is born in controversy. It is when men have felt compelled to take a stand against error that they have risen to the really great heights in the celebration of truth. (“Christian Scholarship and the Defense of the New Testament,” in: What is Christianity?, pp. 132-133. See, on this same point, What is Faith?, pp. 41-42; Christianity and Liberalism, p. 17.)
Also, hear John Calvin writing to the heretic Socinus (for more on Socinianism, check this out):
Were I, under the pretence of indulgence, to encourage you in a fault which I judge so ruinous, I should certainly act toward you a treacherous and cruel part. Wherefore I am willing, that you should now for a little be offended by my seeming asperity, rather than that you should not be reclaimed from those curious and alluring speculations, by which you have been already captivated. The time will come, I hope, when you shall rejoice, that you have been awakened even in this violent manner, from your pleasing, but fatal dream. (The Panoplist, Or, the Christian's Armory, p. 76; see here; emphases mine)
You see? Confronting error benefits even those in error by showing them the truth. They are benefited by seeing Christ more clearly than they had been seeing Him, and with greater precision and contour than they had been seeing Him. To gaze into a blurry image of what is perfectly beautiful is infinitely less delightful, satisfying, and beneficial than to gaze into an accurate, clear, precise image of it. Laboring to present that accurate, clear, and precise image of Christ is indeed loving, as it seeks to present to the object his greatest benefit. (See also Hebrews 12:10, 14; Colossians 1:28-2:3.)

And so, contrary to the... squishiness... of our age, we ought to be ready and able (that's a big prerequisite) to speak truth, expose error, rebuke, reprove, admonish, and thereby benefit the body of Christ. Polemical argumentation and theological debate can indeed be abused in such a way that renders it profitless. But as we have seen, there is a place for it. Even a place for it in service of love for our neighbor as ourselves.


Happy-to-be-Mrs.D said...


Specifically about “far-reaching error” needing “far-reaching rebuke”. Paul was a leader and Peter was a leader; Paul's intention was for everyones benefit in allowing everyone who had been influenced by Peter’s error to know that it was error. Paul did not go to each person who had been drawn into this sin and rebuke them, he didn’t need to because he had the authority to go to Peter and in doing so, correct everyone who had been drawn in… accountability, correction and rebuke is something that is still needed today esp. among those whom God has placed in authority as church leaders (1 Tim 5:20, Jas 3:1).

There’s def mutual benefit in addressing error publicly. Do you think, though, that it’s off topic to discuss church discipline (Matt 18:15-20) and it’s place in the context of exposing error (i.e., when should error be considered sin and does it require the process of church discipline that Jesus taught). Should the process of church discipline be applied when a leader is in error/teaching error, and then if he holds to the error, to later follow by public rebuke if they do not humble themselves to the truth… or if a leader’s hypocrisy is public, than should it automatically be addressed publicly (is the process of private church discipline not required)? How do you see it all fitting together?

Mike Riccardi said...

Good questions.

...when should error be considered sin and does it require the process of church discipline that Jesus taught...

I hope and pray that step one of church discipline (i.e., if your brother sins, go show him his fault in private) is happening all the time within the church. So, if a fellow church member is in error, you can go to them lovingly and humbly with an intention to benefit them, give grace, and build them up in Christ. You go believing the best: "Maybe they just haven't thought of it this way." And so you go and you say something like, "Hey, you've been saying x, and I'm not sure I agree. How would what you're saying jive with these passages of Scripture?"

If he listens, you've won your brother. I think it only escalates at that point if he fails to recognize his error.

But what if it's error that two Christians can legitimately disagree upon and still be saved? Well, you must consider the context. Let's say this person is in your church under the authority of the same elders you're under. (If that's not the case, I'm not sure how church discipline can/should take place after step 2.) You have to ask yourself, "Will his persistence in this error be harmful to the unity and purity of the church?" That depends on things like whether he's trying to teach against the doctrinal statement, if he's being willfully divisive etc. Then the issue becomes not his error, but his refusal to submit to authority, which is clearly a discipline issue.

I think your next question about leaders and public rebuke is a good one, but shouldn't be confused with what I was getting at here. Don't get me wrong, it's a valid question and needs to be addressed. I just want to make sure I'm clear about what I'm speaking directly to and what I'm not.

In the case of a public figure (or leader) -- like MacArthur or Turk; cf. Tuesday -- calling out another public figure -- like Patrick or Horton/Clark -- about their public material, I say it's fair game.

Mike Riccardi said...

If an elder in the church is in error or teaching error, again you've got to consider the harm done to the church. I think in the majority of the cases it will do to bring a private, loving rebuke. Love bears all things. The word "bears" comes from a word that means to cover over a ship to avoid allowing water in. In this instance, love seeks to keep one's sin as private as possible, rather than proclaiming it from the rooftops.

But if you've got a guy teaching heresy, or as in Peter's case in Gal 2, living consistent with the implications of heresy, that might be another story. I mean, think about that interaction. Nobody would tolerate that kinda thing today from anyone other than Paul. But he knew Matt 18, and he loved Peter as his brother. And he still decided that the error was serious enough and harmful enough to the church to warrant that kind of stinging rebuke.

As an example of this kind of thing, I remember Al Martin turning around to that man in his class, saying, "Sir, you're an Arian. I don't know who you are or where you've come from, but you're spouting Arian heresy and it won't be tolerated in this church." No waiting. No private confrontation. And if I was in his flock then, I'd feel extremely loved and protected.

So, in summary, and to try to answer your questions directly:

Should the process of church discipline be applied when a leader is in error/teaching error, and then if he holds to the error, to later follow by public rebuke if they do not humble themselves to the truth…

I think that should be the default. At that point, like I said above, it becomes less about the error and more about the refusal to submit to authority.

or if a leader’s hypocrisy is public, than should it automatically be addressed publicly (is the process of private church discipline not required)?

Again, depends on the error, because there were clearly exceptions as in Galatians 2.

But remember, this kind of thing (i.e., church leaders and elders in error undergoing church discipline) is different than a well-known leader of evangelicalism, like MacArthur or Sproul or Piper or Mohler, calling out the error espoused and propagated in a book that many evangelicals are reading -- even if the author would agree on the 5 points, baptism, role of women, church government, etc.

Wow. Long. Sorry.

Happy-to-be-Mrs.D said...

Haha... I wasn't expecting anything short! :)

Thanks for getting down to the particulars- and yeah- I knew that some of what I was bringing up was not necessarily what you were directing your thoughts toward. Appreciate the clarity and hope that others are benefited by it, as well.

Like your advice, on issues of error to ask "Will his persistence in this error be harmful to the unity and purity of the church?". And that church discipline is not exactly the same as a well-known leader calling out error... when done properly, both should motivate us to feel cared for.

I also appreciate that Martin example! I don't think I've heard it before.

Mike Riccardi said...

So, sadly, the blogosphere has gone and made me a prophet.

Rob Bell -- son of the Emergent Church Movement and known heretic to anyone with discernment -- has produced a book and a video advertisement for that book that makes it pretty clear that he's a universalist. Have Justin Taylor -- a Christian and all around nice guy (sometimes nice to a fault -- say in the most deferential, polite way that he believes Bell is a universalist, and the thread has 566 comments (and counting) in one day.

Granted, not all of them are from professing Christians, but some indeed are. That only goes to show the general squishiness of our age, and the necessity that the Church stand firmly on the truth by proclaiming boldly and without apology -- both to the world and to those in its midst.