by Phil Johnson
ared at Thinklings is really, really irked about certain watchblogs' tendency to rely on guilt-by-association arguments.
Now, in all candor, I think Jared's own attitude and rhetoric leave something to be desired. One could argue that the shrill tone of exaggerated disdain in his post was a breach of the very kind of charity he was pleading for. There might have been a kinder and more constructive way for him to point out the fallacy of so many guilt-by-association (GBA) "arguments."
And certainly there have been more egregious examples of invalid GBA attacks than the one Jared singled out. (Bill Hybels may not have personally laid hands on "Richarto the Clown" to ordain him as worship leader, but Hybels has certainly done more than anyone in our generation to foster the notion that it's OK to model our church services after circus side-shows.)
ut let's not quibble about all that. I want to acknowledge the validity of Jared's central point. The use and abuse of GBA attacks on people (especially Christian leaders) is all-too-common in the sector of the blogosphere we PyroManiacs inhabit.
For the record, those who write for this blog do make a conscious and deliberate effort to avoid making GBA attacks. I'm convinced one of the chief reasons the fundamentalist wing of 20th-century evangelicalism became so odious to the evangelical mainstream and was so wracked by internal strife is this: In some fundamentalist circles, the GBA test became the single barometer of who was judged faithful (or not).
For several weeks I've been speaking privately about this issue with some prominent bloggers who I know are committed to biblical principles of discernment. Several of us are concerned about the growing number of voices that seem willing to criticize almost anyone and everyone on no grounds other than some remote GBA connection. I don't mind saying this publicly: that attitude is positively wicked.
In the Interest of Full Disclosure. . .
I recently had a frustrating exchange of e-mails with a fairly influential woman who urged me to remove from my website a link to a pastor who is a friend of mine. Most of you would recognize my friend's name. Many of you have profited greatly from his books and his preaching ministry. He is a confessional Calvinistic Baptist.
Why did this woman insist I needed to remove my links to my friend's website? Because in a book written some 14 years ago, he quoted another author whom this woman does not approve of.
She is by no means alone in her disapproval. Neither I nor my friend would approve most of what's taught by the man whom my friend quoted from. But there was nothing wrong with the quotation itself, and my friend certainly made no blanket affirmation of the source from which he quoted.
Nonetheless, this woman would not cease protesting and has since gone public with her criticism of my friend.
As a matter of fact, this woman has been resolute and insistent in her condemnation of my friend, even though I pointed out two quotations from similarly-objectionable authors (without disclaimers of any kind), which were included on that woman's own website while she was criticizing my friend.
She did not acknowlede the point I was making or attempt to offer any explanation for the quotations on her own website. She just silently deleted the two quotations from her own websiteand she has let her public criticism of my friend stand.
But Wait. That's Not All. . .
A few weeks after my original exchange with that woman, she began writing to people here and there, saying she had found some similarly objectionable quotations in one of John MacArthur's sermon transcripts. (Oddly enough, this too was a 14-year-old sermon.) She did not write to me directly about this (even though we had so recently corresponded); but she wrote to several people in my circles of fellowship.
When I learned of the new "controversy," I wrote to her to inform her that I would listen to the sermon in question and if necessary bring it to John MacArthur's attention to let him decide whether to retract the quotation or let it stand. But, I explained, he was out of state for the next two weeks, so it would be a while before John himself could respond to to the concern she had raised.
She replied by informing me that she needed an answer by the end of that week, because "a news brief" about the matter was written and ready for publication on the following Saturday.
What got her so exercised? John MacArthur had quoted statements about prayer from a list of authors including Soren Kierkegaard and at least two authors who have promoted "contemplative spirituality." MacArthur wasn't promoting any kind of mysticism, of course. (It's well known to anyone who has listened to him on prayer or spiritual gifts over the past 35 years that he opposes every kind of mysticism.) But fourteen years ago, he quoted a sentence each from these men on the importance of prayer. And he did so without interrupting his sermon at that point to make a full disclaimer about the influences from eastern religions and medieval Catholic spirituality in their teaching. This woman insisted that the sermon should not be allowed to stand, and if we disagreed, she knew people who were already prepared to "expose" John MacArthur's complicity in the "contemplative spirituality" movement.
Listen: When you're threatening to publish a "news brief" indicting John MacArthur as a clandestine confederate in the great "Contemplative Spirituality" conspiracy because of three quotations (unobjectionable as to content) in a single sermon from fourteen years ago, it might be time to take a breather and do some careful reflection about biblical discernment, the sin of being a tale-bearer, the proprieties and improprieties of typical styles of Internet discourse, and the reasons behind the command in 1 Timothy 5:19.
By the way, there are some 3500 recorded sermons by John MacArthur, dating back to 1969. It would be remarkable if somewhere in the mix he didn't say a few things he might not still affirm after more careful reflection; quote a few lines from people whose views he would otherwise execrate; mess up a fact here or there; or otherwise say things he might wish to retract if given the opportunity to edit all his years-old material rigorously.
We do occasionally edit old recordings to remove statements that reflect major doctrinal issues where John MacArthur has since changed his mind. But I wouldn't normally go back to remove an incidental quotation from someone whose theology is objectionable, as long as the quote itself doesn't promote an error. (Most reasonable people understand that recordings of 14-year-old sermons might not necessarily reflect in exacting detail the preacher's latest, most careful expression of his views.)
However, in this case, I did have our editors remove the "objectionable" quotations from the sermon in question, not in any furtive attempt to cover something up, but simply because I don't have time to answer all the questions and criticisms that would be raised by that sort of negative PR campaign. (I've been down that road before.)
What About You, Dude?
Now, I admit that I'm frequently critical on my blog. And occasionally I have had to ask someone's forgiveness for the tone or the haste with which I have spoken. (Especially in the comments-threads, where I really ought to wait longer and adjust my tone before firing off replies to some of my own regular critics.) A sincere and sensitive reader might well point me to Matthew 7:1-5 and suggest there's a rather sizable splinter (the size of a telephone pole) in my eye.
Point taken. "We all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body" (James 3:2). I'm not guiltless in all my speech or writing. I admit it.
But I don't generally lean on bare GBA arguments. (Search and see.) Furthermore, it's never been my ambition to be the first person to go public with breaking news about another minister's compromise. While I'm not one to shy away from controversy or critical analysis, I honestly don't delight in it.
And especially when I am preaching to my flock, I work hard to be as positive and edifying as possible. (I invite you to listen to a few of my sermons if my blog has given you the impression that I'm just a dour full-time critic.)
That's not to suggest that there's anything inherently wrong with negative statements per se. What we deny is as important as what we affirm. And one of my reasons for starting this blog is my conviction that mainstream evangelicals in this generation are far too gullible and affirmative in a kneejerk fashion about every spiritual fad that comes along, and I'm convinced we need some men to sound notes of cautionand sometimes even shrill alarms.
But let's not be so eager to "expose" evil that we start to fit the description of Proverbs 16:27-28: "An ungodly man digs up evil, And it is on his lips like a burning fire. A perverse man sows strife, And a whisperer separates the best of friends."
And Finally. . .
Here are a few random additional thoughts and qualifications about Guilt by Association:
- Sometimes people do incur actual guilt by association. We're not to walk in the counsel of the ungodly or have any fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, and pastors in particular have a duty to guard the flock. Ministers of the gospel are not free associate with anyone and everyone in whatever context or to whatever degree they please. Any pastor, author, or church leader whose affiliations reflect a deliberate, gospel-compromising ecumenical agenda deserves criticism for that.
- But one of the main points I'm trying to make is that a thinly-based GBA accusation alone should not be used to condemn a godly pastor.
- In other words, there's a vast and significant difference between merely quoting a pithy statement from, say, Dietrich Bonhoefferand commending Bonhoeffer as a reliable, biblically-sound theologian.
- Lay people (and lay women especially) ought to be extremely reluctant to post public criticisms of pastors without an abundance of evidence. Better evidence than a GBA connection certainly ought to be a strict prerequisite to any public attack that could damage a faithful man's reputation.
- Anyone is susceptible to charges of guilt by association if the accuser is willing to dig far enough. We're all connected to each other indirectly.
- Let's not forget that Jesus' critics' chief complaint against Him was a GBA accusation (Mark 2:16-17; Luke 15:2; 19:7). By the standards of some of today's self-styled discernment "experts," that might have seemed a credible charge against Him. It was, in fact, an ungodly accusation.
Finally, someone will no doubt try to read more into my statements than what I have actually said, so I want to state explicitly that nothing I have said above was prompted by anything Ingrid Schleuter or Carla Rolfe have posted. I read and benefit from their blogs almost daily; I appreciate the passions that drive them; and I am emphatically not singling them out in any of my remarks above. Of course, I would not exempt them from this standard, either. In that sense, it applies to all of us.
Oh, and just one more thing . . .
The so-called "watchblogs" are not the only ones who fall into the trap of smearing people with GBA accusations. My post-evangelical critics have at various times imputed to me almost every evil ever perpetrated by every fundamentalist in history. I've been plastered with leftover guilt from the misdeeds of everyone from Jack Hyles to J. Frank Norris by some of the very same people who complain most loudly about the watchblogs' misuse of GBA arguments! I'm also frequently savaged for comments that other people post on my blogsometimes even after I have made a good-faith effort to refute fallacies or calm down the unruly.
I'm just saying that the GBA fallacy is by no means the exclusive domain of conservatives. So all the haughty post-evangelicals who are high-fiving one another this morning can calm down and perhaps engage in a little "contemplative" self-examination.