If You Can't Say Something Nice...
A response to recurring complaints from world-famous author, Brit-blogger, pundit, medical professional, and charismatic ombudsman, Dr. Adrian Warnock. This is part 1. Part 2 will follow very soon.
(First posted 29 October 2007)
Part 1 of 2
by Phil Johnson
he esteemed Dr. Warnock has made yet another post (plus a bonus follow-up comment) objecting to the look and feel of our polemic against some stylish doctrines and ministry philosophies which have borne notoriously rotten fruits.
Specifically, he suggests that in last Monday's Pyro-post I ought not to have criticized Willow Creek's pragmatic, program-driven ministry philosophy without first saying something really nice and affirmative about them.
These are, of course, issues we have discussed with the good Doctor before. I was going to let it pass this time, but he e-mailed me, inviting my reply. So let's analyze Dr. Warnock's view of "discernment" a little more closely.
He insists that "we really must be looking for the good in people, especially in those who have not denied important aspects of the Gospel." Note: in this context, Dr. Warnock is not talking about personal relationships between individual Christians; he is setting forth a principle for how we critique and interact with leaders of new movements, teachers of novel doctrines, and purveyors of new philosophies of ministry. Let's call it Warnock's First Rule of Discernment.
In Dr. Warnock's estimation, my failure to go out of my way to say anything positive about Willow Creek "seemed (at least to [him]) to be implying that Willow Creek has absolutely nothing to teach us."
I said nothing like that, of course, and it's a wholly unwarranted conclusion from what I did say. It's also quite irrelevant to any point I was making.
On the other hand, let's be completely candid: Even if I did go out of my way to catalogue everything I like about the Willow Creek model, it would indeed be a very short list. In fact, as I ponder the question even now, I'm hard-pressed to think of anything truly distinctive about Willow Creek's approach to ministry that I could honestly say advances the agenda of Christ's kingdom. Willow Creek's underlying philosophy is fundamentally pragmatic, not biblical. By their own admission, it is now statistically clear that their strategy does not produce authentic disciplesand therefore fails even the pragmatic test. So it's a bad ministry model even by its own definition of what's "good." More importantly, the movement also falls short by every biblical standard I can think of. Its influence among evangelicals for more than three decades has been seriously, consistently, and (I believe) demonstrably bad in numerous ways. It's about to get even worse.
So it would frankly bother my conscience to leave the impression (even inadvertently) that I think there's anything worth singling out as wholesome or beneficial or worthy of my affirmation in that.
To illustrate: There might be many nutritious scraps of food garbage in a compost heap, but if something in you compels you to go out of your way to point them out to an undiscerning toddler, shame on you.
However, according to Dr. Warnock, "if we fail to recognize something as being good and helpful and true, we fail in our discernment as much as if we blindly accepted everything in a naive way."
OK, but what if the thing being evaluated is really not "good and helpful and true"? Because (and this is the crucial point where I take issue with Dr. Warnock's position) the fact that a person or movement has commendable qualities (even lots of them) does not necessarily make the thing itself "good and helpful and true."
Let's call that Johnson's Fifth Axiom of Common Sense.
Judas, for example, was apparently a very frugal man. Do we need to congratulate him for that every time we condemn his treachery? The Judaizers' doctrine was (as far as we know) perfectly compatible with every point of doctrine enumerated in the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Definition of Chalcedon. If you were to count all the true propositions the Judaizers affirmed regarding Christian essentials, there is little doubt that they would outweigh the false propositions in their system by a very large percentage. In fact, the Judaizers' one significant difference with Paul boiled down to a single proposition about the ordo salutis. (They taught that good works precede rather than follow justification.)
But as Paul labored to demonstrate in Galatians, one apparently small, technical difference like that can and sometimes does make the difference between the true gospel and a different, damning, false gospel. Thus you'll never find Paul saying anything positive about the Judaizers.
Moreover, in Galatians 2, Paul publicly rebuked Peter just for treating that false gospel like a mere misdemeanoreven though Peter himself was an apostle of Christ who completely, unconditionally, and unreservedly affirmed the true gospel. Yet Paul did not pillow his public rebuke (or even his retelling of it) in a lot of superfluous affirmations of Peter's good intentions, or his likeable personality, or his commitment to Christ, or whatever. It was a sharp and completely unqualified public rebukeand under the circumstances, it was warranted. One's "tone" is not always the most important factor in raising a caution about false doctrine.
In short, Warnock's First Rule of Discernment isn't biblical.
Given the enormity of the errors we are talking about in the Willow Creek philosophy, Dr. Warnock's objection to straightforward criticism of that movement strikes me as terribly misguided and question-beggingand inconsistent with what he himself says in other contexts.
For example, is Willow Creek's commitment to "important aspects of the Gospel" truly beyond question or criticism? I certainly don't think so. After all, they are sponsoring a major conferenceunveiling their new agendawith Brian McLaren as the keynote speaker. He is notorious for having portrayed the principle of penal substitution as "one more injustice in the cosmic equation . . . divine child abuse. You know?" There's hardly a single gospel-related doctrine that was highlighted in the Protestant Reformation that McLaren has not somehow questioned or attacked, and the atonement is central to all the others.
As a matter of fact, based on Dr. Warnock's own steadfast (and excellent) defense of penal substitutionary atonement, I'm mystified as to why he objects to a shrill and unqualified warning about the direction Willow seems headed.
My strong suspicion is that Dr. Warnock's most basic objection to my "discernment style" has nothing whatsoever to do with any of the concerns I have raised about Willow Creek. I think the root of his real disagreement with me lies in our difference of opinion on the charismatic question. Usually, when he makes critical posts about TeamPyro, that's the central issue he brings upand this latest dust-up is no exception.
But that's a whole different issue, and here Dr. Warnock's complaint becomes somewhat more nuanced. I want to answer that part of his argument, too, but that will have to wait for another day. So I'll be back to follow this up [tomorrow, if not before].