Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Sanctified Rant about "Tone"

I've not devoted much of my time here at For Our Benefit to "ranting," sanctified or otherwise. Indeed, ranting on a regular basis is not for anyone's benefit. But every once and a while, it can indeed serve unto edification (1Cor 14:26). I hope that's the case here, as it regards something that's been on my mind the last couple of weeks.

One of the hallmarks of the postmodernism that has crept into the contemporary evangelical church flies under the banner of what people are calling "charitableness." Unlike true Christian charity (which comes from the KJV rendering of agape, most notably in 1 Corinthians 13), charitableness, as Phil Johnson has wonderfully put it, "is a broad-minded, insouciantly tolerant, unrelenting goodwill toward practically every conceivable opinion." The bottom line, as Phil goes on, is that "nothing we believe is ultimately anything more than a personal opinion."

A while ago, when Phil wrote that, charitableness was being championed by neo-liberals aligning themselves with the Emergent church, especially as it regarded tolerating out and out heretical views. However, though no one has been calling themselves "Emergent" or "Emerging" for a little while, the postmodernism that was the foundation of both movements has infiltrated and made its mark on what is now called conservative evangelicalism -- especially within the New Calvinist, Young-Restless-Reformed movement. The difference is, because we're conservatives, that we're not anemically tolerant of heresy. Rather, we are tenaciously intolerant of anyone within a particular theological and philosophical "camp" voicing any serious concerns about someone else who fits broadly within that camp.

Basically, if you disagree strongly with anyone who agrees with you about a bunch of other things, you will be branded "uncharitable" before you know what hit you. It won't be long before the Tone Police™ drop by a comment thread to uncharitably level the accusation of uncharitableness against you and to voice their disappointment in the "tone" of your comments. I know it's early, but I've heard enough about "charitableness" and being "uncharitable" from these people to last me for 2011. Evangelicalism is going to have to file for bankruptcy after paying the Tone Police time-and-a-half for all the overtime they've been putting in over the past couple of weeks.

I'm not sure if our brothers know this, but Christian charity doesn't require a man to check his backbone at the door and limp-wristedly offer suggestions and conjectures, complete with a slew of qualifications, to make sure no one gets offended by any particular point he's making. Can we not disagree, even disagree strongly, with what someone believes without being branded a big fat meanie?

As I alluded to before, the irony in this whole thing is that these same people who are so distraught over this horrible, needless, uncharitable infighting, are themselves willing to engage in some uncharitable infighting -- not over anything substantive, like one's philosophy of ministry or how one understands the relationship between justification and sanctification -- but over their tone. It really does astound me how many different people will actually get so anxiously, hand-wringingly bent out of shape because of people's tone. What people are saying doesn't seem to matter half as much as how people are saying it. This most certainly is evidence of our weakness as the Church.

I hear (and read) this a lot. Two or more people find that they disagree over a particular area of theology or about philosophy of ministry. So they begin to discuss it and make their points back and forth. Eventually they get to the point where they realize neither is going to convince the other, and so they just say something like, "Well, I guess we just have different opinions on this issue. But even though we disagree, it was nice to discuss it in such an irenic manner!" And then they pat themselves on the back and go away feeling unified. Now, this sounds good on the surface, and depending on the seriousness of the issue being discussed it may be appropriate. But often it signifies nothing more than a prideful fear of man, a satisfaction with superficial, false unity, and an indifference to truth.

Phil Johnson, in a different message (at around 16:25), adds the following, and is spot on:
There is such a paranoia about being too militant -- maybe it's an excessive fear that we may be falling into the fighting fundamentalist spirit -- that it shocks us nowadays when anyone does rise up in defense of some truth. One of the favorite truths of our age is, 'Let's just agree to disagree.' And then everybody is supposed to put whatever point of truth is under discussion aside, and set it aside so that it's deemed trivial and unnecessary. And that mentality...has done horrific damage to our churches and to the evangelical movement.

'Let's just agree to disagree.' Well, no. How about we agree to argue until one of us actually refutes the other and we come to a common understanding of the Scriptures? ... Truth has too often been set aside in the name of charity and unity. But throwing truth under the bus is not charitable and it doesn't produce unity. ... Authentic unity is when we all agree and say the same thing.

Within the Camp

Most of our brothers on the conservative side will agree with these principles as it applies to those who are clearly outside the faith (e.g., Roman Catholics, Liberal Protestants, etc.), and even those who are within the bounds of orthodoxy but are committed to serious error (e.g., Arminians, egalitarians, etc.). But what really burns them up is when two guys in the same theological "camp" call each other out.

The headline issues in this regard have, over the past month, had to do with (a) John MacArthur critiquing a philosophy of ministry presented in Darrin Patrick's book, Church Planter, and (b) Frank Turk's critique of Michael Horton and R. Scott Clark. All the angst and lamentations are about this notion of "friendly fire." The argument goes, "Since these guys have so much in common, especially on the essentials about the nature of the Gospel" (i.e., all parties involved hold to a Reformed soteriology), and since there's so much to fight against from those who are outside the camp, why pick on each other?"

Like it's just unconscionable that two guys who agree on the 5 points could have any justifiable reason for disagreeing strongly with one another about something else.

But there is a justifiable reason for strong disagreement even among close friends. I found the following quotes to be extremely helpful in giving that justification. The first is from Iranaeus in Against Heresies (1.2):
Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as by its outward form to make it appear to the inexperienced...more true than truth itself.
This sounds very much like Paul's warning to be on our guard about being deceived by "fine sounding arguments" (Col 2:4), arguments which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom, but are of no value in the war against error (Col 2:23). The next quote is from John Broadus (On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, p. 66):
And since errors held and taught by good men are only the more likely to be hurtful to others, we are surely not less bound to refute them in such cases than when advocated by bad men.
If Iranaeus and Broadus are right, and I think they are, that means we ought to be more ready to refute the error of our closest friends than we are our distant enemies, because the potential for harm is that much greater -- because people are more likely to accept error from men who preach truth in so many other areas. And if you think about it, that's the only way true unity is ever achieved. Agreeing to disagree does not make two people unified; it simply masks the existing disunity and treats it as unimportant.

Iron sharpens iron (Prov 27:17). An extremely durable and extremely sharp piece of metal is swiftly and repeatedly striking another. That's the picture we have of one brother sharpening another brother. With all this mollified squeamishness about tone and high-pitched whimpering about uncharitableness, I'm unsure how the Tone Police can understand this passage. Let us indeed love each other, fervently and from the heart. But let's stop whining and licking the wounds on our thin skin long enough to realize that loving each other sometimes means some straight talk.

I know, I know. Uncharitable.


mariexpx said...

Great post, Mike. I've also been thinking about this topic ("iron criticizing iron", as Todd Friel Calls it) for the last few weeks, so this was very helpful! Thank you.

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

Hey Mike :)

Totally agree with needing to be “anemically intolerant of heresy”. The truth that our heavenly Father has revealed through His word must be upheld, and if someone (especially a believer in Christ) is making a claim that does not line up with scripture, it needs to be addressed. Never having been (and never plan to be!) a seminary student or a pastor, so I don’t think about the need to address heretical and unbiblical views from the pulpit. I’ve only ever thought about confronting, and only have had opportunities to talk to, believers and non-believers about unbiblical/heretical views in conversation. I’m wondering whether there is a difference in how to approach those two different situations- thoughts?

I’ve never actually thought about “tone” or “charitableness”, I guess I just don’t think about things in those terms. When I’m having a conversation with someone about biblical (or in this case, unbiblical) things, what I do think about is how can I clearly, humbly and lovingly convey the truth of God’s word and shine the light of the gospel on the specific issue at hand. It’s always my prayer that the Lord would grant me the wisdom and the grace to be clear, direct, humble and loving… and that He would help me remember He is the only one who can change the heart of the person to whom I am talking. So because I don’t really follow all the stuff that’s going on, I’m not sure what all the “overtime [the Tone Police have] been putting in over the past couple of weeks” consists of… and of course I don’t agree that “How” we say things is more important that the “What” that we say… but don’t you think that the “How” is important, too? I totally agree that we need to “talk straight” with everyone, but I’m wondering where/how you see an attitude of humility/love fitting into how we deal with heresy (and are there different implications for one-on-one conversations and preaching)?

Mike Riccardi said...


I totally wrote a long response and it got erased. I hate when that happens.

Long and short:

1. I don't necessarily see a difference between conversation and preaching. The difference is in the audience. Are they stubborn and need to be shown their sin, or are they aware and teachable and need the hope that comes from grace?

2. The Tone Police's overtime relates to what was going on in the blogosphere of late, and that's actually the main target of what I've said. Like I mentioned: MacArthur critiquing Patrick, and Frank Turk critiquing Horton and Clark. When they called them out publicly for their public material, all the evanjellyfish flipped out that they would dare call out their 5-point, Gospel-centered brethren. It wasn't that MacArthur or Turk ripped them to shreds; it was that they perceive any correction as de facto uncharitable.

3. but don’t you think that the “How” is important, too?

Yes. Absolutely.

4. I don't think there needs to be a distinction between humble/loving and straight/direct. So to answer your question, I think we must always be humble and loving, but being humble and loving doesn't always exclude a sharpness or directness, depending on the situation. Stay tuned for Fridays post for support for that, but just to let you know I'm not making things up, check out Galatians 2:11ff, Acts 18:28, and 1 Timothy 5:20.

Mike Riccardi said...

I don't necessarily see a difference between conversation and preaching.

LOL... I mean -- in the context of this discussion.

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

Hate when that happens, too! Thanks for writing it out again…

I wasn’t sure whether to post my comment here or under today’s Defense of Polemics: Reposted, since it addresses both… so I split them up. More comments all around!

Thanks for the quickie expl. about what’s been going on in the blogosphere… makes much more sense now. I was glad, though, that you made the point about the heart of the person/audience being the difference when we consider how to confront people, and that we should not exclude the use of sharpness in addressing error, when appropriate (e.g. your post today about the error of leaders needing to be addressed publicly- as Paul did with Peter, in Acts.) And dude… I know your not making things up, lol…