There are quite a few ugly rows going on right now. There are certainly fights worth fighting and heretics that must be exposed. When Brian McLaren denies penal subsitutionary atonement, Tony Jones says homosexuality is a valid Christian lifestyle, and Rob Bell embraces universalism then real Christians must pronounce "Anathema" over them and strip them of their sheep outfits. But when the lines of demarkation drop below the level of heresy and false teaching to matters of preference and opinion our conversation should be seasoned with graciousness and love. The Lord Jesus said that "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35).
Recently two Christian men whom I love and respect, Tim Challies and Phil Johnson (their blogs "Challies dot com" and "Pyromaniacs" are two of my favorites), have taken up opposing positions in debating the issue of when to criticize and when not to. When godly men enter public debate I have found it to be very educational both in the tone of engagement, and in evaluating an opposing view. These men love each other and value their respective contributions to the body of Christ. They are big boys and man enough to weather each others criticism. And that is a major lesson for people who have been exposed to one too many ugly personality clashes in their local church. When we are secure in our Christian love we are liberated to speak our minds in the hope and knowledge that our true friends will sharpen and refine us with their observations and objections.
What started the debate was Tim's post called Evil as Entertainment where he stated among other things that:
I want to say a word today about watchblogs or discernment blogs or whatever you want to call them. I am referring to blogs that specialize in sharing bad news . . . Day after day they offer examples of all that is wrong in the church. They may vary what they offer a little bit, but what is true of them is that they offer a steady diet of negative content related to the church in general or perhaps related to just one person or one ministry . . . these blogs are really little more than entertainment. And once I had these blogs filed in that way in my mind, their popularity and their draw began to make much more sense to me. They are really just a spiritualized form of YouTube or any other site that entertains by sharing what is gross and base and negative and that does so for the sake of entertainment. There is really no value in watching boys do stupid things on skateboards and laughing when they crack their ankle bones in half; there is really no value in watching the worst pastors in America preach to the worst churches in America. Such sites offer evil as entertainment.
Phil Johnson then responded with Turning a Blind Eye to Evil is Evil Too where he agreed on some points and disagreed on others. Johnson pointed out that:
identifying what I see as the key difference between healthy discernment and the obsessive/compulsive peevishness some of our fellow critics seem to think is the mark of real orthodoxy . . . It needs to be said that "calling people out for damnable heresies that are causing people to drift away from the true faith" is a shepherd's duty, not an option—and it can be quite edifying if done well. That said, anyone can sample my preaching ministry; I invite you all to do so. What you'll discover is that when I am speaking to the flock (as opposed to lecturing in a men's meeting or exhorting pastors in a Shepherds' Conference seminar, or writing on my blog) I employ humor and criticism very sparingly. That's because when I preach, my immediate concern is to explain the meaning of specific texts of Scripture and exhort people to apply the truth to their lives in obedience to God. This blog (Pyromaniacs) serves a totally different purpose. It always has. I make no apology for that, especially here in the gutless, effeminate, faint-hearted, hopelessly "diverse," hazy-and-hesitant subculture contemporary evangelicalism prides itself on being.
It has frankly never troubled me one bit that people who hate our theological stance dismiss us as "watchbloggers" (or worse). If someone can't see how PyroManiacs differs in tone and style from the trash-talking parodies maintained by certain bloggers whose sympathies lie at the opposite end of the theological spectrum from us, that says more about their brand of discernment than it says about ours.
Look: I agree with the gist of Tim Challies' concern. (At least I think I do. The more Tim has clarified himself, the less certain I am that we agree as much as I assumed at first. Still—)
I do think it's evil and irreverent to regard apostasy as nothing more than something to mock and be entertained by. Those who fall into that attitude inevitably mirror and amplify the very impieties they say they deplore. They tend to become petty, overly-critical, thin-skinned, and surly-sounding gossip-mongers. Ditto with the sophomoric anti-watchblogs that relentlessly parody such full-time critics, raising the stakes on the irreverence game to ever-new heights. These two opposing forces feed one another's worst tendencies, and I have no desire to participate with or encourage either side in their native forums. The comment-threads on both sides always turn into adolescent insult-contests, and it can be downright ugly. It's an embarrassment. It's also an easy trap for anyone still swaddled in unglorified flesh to fall into.
Tim, as any godly individual should, weighed up Phil's words and delivered his verdict:
I guess any writer can attest that every now and then you write something that is really, objectively good; and other times you lay an egg. Having talked it over and having read plenty of feedback, I’m going to have to say that I laid an egg on Monday. While I do not feel that what I said was wrong or unnecessary, I can see that I should have said it better. At the same time, I think it sparked some useful discussion and for that I am grateful . . . Phil Johnson wrote about how he both agrees and disagrees with me. This article really helped me see the lack of clarity in my own article (well, that and my wife telling me that Phil’s article was better than my own) . . . Most of what Phil says is most of what I should have said (or said more clearly) on Monday.
There is so much we can learn from these two godly men!