CT Article … A Response to the Response

A week ago, I wrote this article: a compare/contrast between two conferences and two (I argued) approaches to “unity.” It was not meant to be any sort of definitive or even objective report on two incredibly complex, rich conferences. It was simply my honest, gut reaction to the overwhelming experiences of going to such different (but both extremely valuable) conferences back-to-back. It was an opinion piece. That’s what Christianity Today asked me for, and that’s what I gave them. It was not my attempt to take the pulse of “this moment in Christianity” in any sort of grand, arrogant way. But the fervent reactions–both pro and con, and some utterly unhinged–seemed to indicate that I touched a nerve.

I don’t wish to defend or apologize for what I wrote in the article. I will admit that some of the language I used (particularly a comment about Together for the Gospel being “like a club patting each other on the back…”) was perhaps needlessly harsh, but I don’t regret trying to make the point I was trying to make: that Christians should avoid splitting into factions, alliances, and insular bands of like-minded cohorts prone to viewing those outside their group with suspicion.

Let me be clear: I am not downplaying the importance of fighting for truth, reason, and right doctrine. Some have accused me of downplaying these things in favor of some sort of vague, feel-good embrace of “let’s hold hands” unity. I am resolutely not a universalist in any way, shape or form. If that’s the immediate place people jump to when they hear any sort of criticism of their potentially silo-making barriers, then I’d hate to think how they’d react to Paul were he here today, blasting disunity as he did time and time again in the New Testament.

I’ve been saddened this week by reading some of the comments Christians have angrily left on various blog posts and articles regarding my CT piece. On one blog in particular, the comments have frequently resorted to personal attacks, insinuating that I’m an amateur writer or labeling me “a recent college grad” or “a Princeton Seminary guy” (does that mean I’m liberal?? To set the record straight, I’m actually a “Talbot Seminary guy,” and a fairly conservative Baptist-turned-Presbyterian). One commenter even coined a new term based on my supposed crazy talk: “McCrackpot.” Others just said things like “Mr. McCracken clearly does not get it.”

What saddens me most about the low-blow nature of the response to the article is that I feel like the Reformed crowd instantly disowned me (if they ever thought I was on their side) for daring to say a critical word about them. I suppose it’s the same risk you run when you tell a good friend or loved one that you have a problem with something they said or did. They might get defensive, feel betrayed or hurt, and not want to associate with you for a while. They might badmouth you to others. The saddest thing about that sort of reaction to criticism from “one of your own,” however, is that it makes future attempts at difficult discourse all the more unlikely. If we can’t feel comfortable calling each other out on things without fear of relationship-ruining fallout, what hope is there for a fortified unity that contains and is strengthened by diversity of opinion? If every point of disagreement leads us to distrust and schism, it becomes a lot easier to just retreat to our like-minded camps and happily go about our unchecked ways of thinking and living without that pesky friction that comes with diversity.

Is Christianity in the West so feeble at this point that we can’t risk a healthy level of “all in love” criticism, for fear of completely rupturing at the seams? I mean it when I say that my comments of criticism toward Together for the Gospel (T4G) were motivated not out of bitterness or anger (as some have suggested), but out of love for the church. I went to T4G because I love those people, I appreciate their passionate articulation of Reformed faith for a new generation, and I agree with them on most things. And it is precisely because I love these brothers and sisters in Christ that I said the hard-to-hear things I said about the conference sometimes feeling like a “patting each other on the back” club.

Briefly, here are some reasons why I made this comment: At T4G, after each session of speakers, a panel would get on stage to discuss the speakers’ messages. This happened at the Wheaton Conference as well. But while the Wheaton panel was largely characterized by points of criticism and disagreement, wherein each scholar would point out errors or problematic items in each others’ presentations, T4G’s panels were almost entirely devoid of any criticisms of each other. It was almost all “that was a great point John,” or “You were right about this; well done Mark.” And given the provocative nature of most of the speakers’ presentations, this lack of critical, “might there be points you were wrong?” engagement struck me as problematic. If nothing else, could T4G not have opened it up to questions from the audience, as Wheaton did at their conference? The conference was full of rich, thoughtful, provocative sermons (I especially loved Mark Dever, Thabiti Anyabwile, and John Piper), so it’s a great shame no serious questions/challenges were brought to any of the speakers. This, coupled with the somewhat excessive amount of praise heaped on speakers by their respective introducers (CJ Mahaney’s moment of bowing to John MacArthur as he walked on stage stands out as a particularly unfortunate example), left me feeling frustrated by what I saw as somewhat of an “atta boy!” atmosphere of mutual admiration.

It seems to me that breaking into factions and dividing into subgroups is easier than ever these days, what with the unlimited niche cultures that populate the blogosphere (as well as media in general). If you have a group you resonate with or a point of view that seems convincing, it’s increasingly easy to live out a life that is only and ever informed by media that reinforces your views. But as Christians, called to unity as a church that represents the most diversity in the world, we have to fight these impulses.

One way we can fight the impulse toward disunity within the body of Christ is by seeking out those in other denominations and church traditions, and worshiping with them. I’m not saying we should church hop or anything; just that it’s healthy to fellowship with Christians across a broad spectrum of traditions. One of the great joys of my life–and something that has certainly enriched my faith–has been the opportunity to worship in a diverse array of Christian worship contexts. I’ve been lucky enough to worship with Christians in Southern Baptist churches in Oklahoma, Reformed congregations in Paris (in French!), evangelical youth camps in Northern Ireland, Baptist seminaries in Malaysia, Anglican churches in Singapore and Tokyo, missionary fellowships in Vienna, and many other places. In each experience, my view of Christendom is broadened and my love for Christ enhanced. In each experience, I’m humbled in my own view of things and reminded that there is so much I don’t know, so much still to learn.

I also think we can avoid disunity by making sure we read lots of books from lots of different points of view and lots of different time periods. Read N.T. Wright AND John Piper. Read Augustine, Thomas a Kempis, John Calvin, John Owen, Dostoevsky, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Marilynne Robinson, and lots of other things that may not even be Christian (Martin Buber!). You won’t believe every word of all of it (nor should you), but it will help you to avoid anachronism and/or intellectual narrow-mindedness.

At the end of the day, the path to unity requires each one of us to take a step back to critically examine our views and humbly acknowledge that we can learn from others. This is not to say that we should always, in everything, be throwing our ideas into doubt or re-evaluating our beliefs. But we should at least be open to hearing people out when they differ from us on certain points. We need to prioritize humility and love within the body of Christ, realizing that disagreement and debate don’t have to divide us as they do. We need to seek unity through humility, which was Paul’s advice in Philippians 2:1-5:

“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus…”

“Do nothing from rivalry or conceit… Let each of you look not only to his own interests…” This is what I hope we can take to heart as the church. Let’s put aside our rivalries, blog feuds, petty squabbles and name-calling, and try not to think so much about our own interests, our readership or blog stats or reputation (all of this goes for me too), and start thinking about Christ and being more like him.

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16 responses to “CT Article … A Response to the Response

  1. Just want you to know that i really appreciate the way you write about this issue. I immediately shared your article last week when i first came across it and it was encouraging to some of my friends. I tend to get very frustrated with the small groups who claim unity, while isolating themselves from a lot of what God is doing in most of His global church. It’s nice to know there are others who are striving for true unity that can include various denominations and theological distinctives and emphasis. You respond well to criticism, in spite of most of it sounding very childish. Hopefully, your gracious and humble attitude will be convicting (in the best way) to those who have responded so negatively. I just wanted to let you know that i’m encouraged by your response to the responses.

  2. Brett,
    Join us ana-baptists … and realize this kind of attacks/sufferings is all part of the process of suffering, revealing, diffusing and healing … the way of the cross …
    Continue on in your graceful way …

  3. Brett,

    I’ve been a fan for a while, but you’re losing me. You’re joining the fray. You’re fighting back. You’re becoming a critic instead of an artist.

    Take care,

    Bryan

  4. Brett, this reminds me of why I’m tired of religion in general. I’m more convinced than ever that Jesus came to FREE us from religion, religious attitudes, and religious community identity that sets us “inorganically apart” from anyone else on the planet. I was in conversation with someone the other day about faith. This person was convinced that Jesus came to give us a belief system – that if we carried all the “right beliefs,” we would be saved. He was also certain that he could only “fellowship” with those who shared his belief system.

    If the freedom given to us on the cross is simply an excuse to collect ourselves into religious belief-enclaves of “insiders” vs. everyone else on the outside, then I see no freedom at all. To the contrary, I see bondage to a system of ideas. A wise theologian once said, Jesus didn’t come to make us Christians, he came to make us fully human. Or as Tozer used to say, if someone can talk you into Christianity, someone can talk you out of it (reminding us that Spirit is not something we possess, nor is it a systematic).

    I suggest that the harder we hold on to our cherished religious matrix (as some of your detractors seem to be), the harder it becomes to truly grow into something more fully human. Maybe this is why Paul paradoxically advised the brainy Greeks to keep their attention focused on the eternal unseen rather than their own temporal cognition. And maybe this is the key to unity? But how do you focus on something you can’t see? That’s as crazy as loving your enemies :-)

  5. Thanks for pushing this particular button Brett. There is no easy unity among the people of God – as Christ’s followers and Paul’s epistles amply demonstrate – and further tribalization is not the answer.

    Keep up the good work.

  6. Brett,

    Thanks so much for posting this clarification on your thoughts and heart behind what you wrote earlier. I went to T4G in 2008 and I do agree that most of the discussions after the talks do not center around what could have been wrong with their talk, but rather on how much each respective pastor enjoyed it. I absolutely agree that we as Christians need to learn to live and worship together as one body. I did not intend to accuse you of bitterness or anger with my earlier comment, but your comment did sound rather harsh upon first reading. I appreciate your thoughts on both of these conferences, and it hurts me to know that believers are slinging insults and hurtful names your way. I love your blog and pray that God continues to speak through you, even through critical words that many do not want to take as loving criticism. Keep writing well brother!

    For His glory,

    Scottie Carpenter

  7. McCrackpot. Brilliant!
    Sometimes the “haters” are pretty funny.

    I really appreciate your writing. The fact that you read Dostoevsky and watch Malick are enough to keep me coming back.

    Thanks for addressing this issue. Just because an issue is very important doesn’t mean that we should forget Galatians 5:22.

    Keep it up!

  8. Shaughn Lewis

    1 Corinthians 3:1-6. It is, and has always been, and will always be, Jesus.

  9. Thanks for taking the time to thoughtfully and patiently respond. Would it be possible for CT to link this to the original or would that be against policy?

  10. Well said, Brett.

    Thank you for speaking your mind so clearly and so truthfully. That’s a tough thing to do, especially when people seem to lose all manners when they’re sitting behind a computer. So thanks for standing by what you said before, because quite frankly I also think it needs to be said.

    For the record, I agree with you completely. I hope that people act on your call to expose themselves to other thoughts and ideas, not to compromise the truth but to learn more of it.

  11. I don’t recall what first brought me to your blog. Perhaps it was your CT piece. I think it was. Regardless, this follow up re-lightens my own burden. I have been Presbyterian for many years, once R…. and now P… But I’m an import to the Christian faith — a former Mormon. As such, my hermeneutic appears to be somewhat alternative.

    I found myself appreciating such persona non grata as Norman Shepherd and N.T. Wright, even before the more recent attempts to expunge their names from the face of the earth. It wasn’t (and isn’t) as though I agree with them en toto; but their stating of the questions, and sometimes their proposed answers (at least in part), are so intuitively satisfying and true to what I’ve encountered and discovered in the Bible, that despite their detractors, I’m quite appreciative of their proposals.

    Stating this publicly, however, was met with back room, underhanded, and simply unChristian power politicking, all in the name of the gospel and allegedly in the service of God. At first I was shocked and disheartened; later I expected it, though it was deeply painful and still disheartening; then I sought to comfort others wounded by such fratricide; now I pray for and not against the “defenders” (more often than not).

    As a Presbyterian, I had to wonder if these people were simply predestined to act this way. Or was it of their own free will, as others might say? Neither alternative excused injustice.

    What I grew to appreciate, as an import into the Christian faith (and that by the grace of God), was the luxury of unity without uniformity, of charity in the midst of power-sectarianism, of the glorious fact that love covers a multitude of sins — even the sins of those who falsely accuse me.

    Amazing grace this is. But it is only as we set out in the service of others (some similarly wounded; others simply on the authentic path of discipleship) that we are able to lift our heads from licking our wounds and press on in the obedience of faith.

    Your words were published in a very public forum. Some of your words were quite critical — despite your intent, despite your hope. This led others to be reactionary rather than discerning and receiving your sincerity. Perhaps some of your thoughts were more motivated by a tinge of pride. Perhaps not. Regardless, apparently they were read as such, thus unleashing precisely why Christ came to redeem.

    Suffer well. Press on. Ponder the psalms of lament. Pray them. Then suffer well yet again. Receiving suffering as the discipline of your Father. And may Christ Jesus be glorified.

  12. Pingback: Items of note (5/7/10) : Theopolitical

  13. Thank you to all the encouraging commenters on this post. I really appreciate each of your comments. I think this whole conversation has been extremely valuable and edifying–so thank you sincerely for participating in it!

  14. Pingback: Purify Your Bride » Blog Archive » Nothin Justifies Schism

  15. I’m afraid that the people who attacked you for your piece in CT are just acting as their theological elders do. Many (certainly not all) of those authors at the Louisville conference tend to be highly uncharitable and personal with counter-view points.

  16. “There is no easy unity among the people of God”.

    Nice. Ain’t that the truth.

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