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.