Friday, November 26, 2010

"Some times churches go liberal because the men of principle and backbone bail out too early."

This is a characteristically thoughtful post from Carl Trueman on churches, denominations, and how left-ward trends gain momentum. Sometimes conservatives are too conciliatory, and sometimes they bail too soon.


Brandon said...

Huh? I just always thought if you cared about the Gospel at all, you'd just leave the church and start a new one 3 miles away, or better yet, right down the street... =)

Dan Salter said...

It is amazing how blind we become when dogmatically leading the charge for our own pet beliefs, while denouncing other groups for confusing non-essentials with fundamentals. If you take Carl Trueman’s article and replace his references about ordaining women with those of acceptance of contemporary music, you discover—presto change-o!—you have the classic pseudo-fundamentalist argument against one of the neo-revivalistic taboos. Pardon the overused expression, but if it weren’t so dangerously serious, it would be funny.

“Oh, but wait!” cries the current non-vital-issue dogmatist. “You misunderstand. What WE are talking about relates unmistakably to fundamentals (in our minds). Look, let me outline the extrapolation for you.” And then after citing a fundamental, clear, slippery slope logic is shown to be the natural and inevitable result of the pet taboo, resulting unavoidably in (lowered, echoey voice with organ music emphasis) the fall into liberalism. To cap off the argument, an example is given of somebody—anybody—that is now squarely in the liberal camp who ever embraced our decided evil. There. Finished. Irrefutable. And if someone should dare to question the legitimacy of classifying the original issue as error, we either stick our fingers in our ears or use them to form the sign of the cross while shouting, “Heresy! Heresy! Denial of the Bible’s authority!” And once removed from those questioners, we simply shake our heads at the presumed blindness of others and wonder why everyone just doesn’t see it the way we do. “Ah!” we realize, unhesitant in ascribing motive, “They are cultural slaves—willing to toss the fundamentals out because they are not men enough to hold my views on the basis of my, I mean…our, I mean…the Bible’s authority.” More headshaking.

You would think that some would hear the ring of the bell, linking and reminding of the scowling demands of the revivalist-fundamentalists. But sadly outsiders, with view of both revivalist-fundamentalists and current-age non-vital-issue dogmatists, “looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which” (Orwell, Animal Farm, chapter 10).

Ben said...

Aside from the fact that Trueman's article is addressing actual exegetical issues (unlike the contemporary music debate, as I'm sure you're aware), he's also writing about denominational politics (quite unlike the informal sorts of pressure in revivalistic fundamentalism, rooted more in fear of man than church discipline trials) and matters of confessional subscriptionism and manuals of church order.

What's more, I don't see Trueman arguing that these matters have anything to do with fundamentals. He does recognize, as I hope we all do, that we do have to agree on more than the gospel to function together in a denomination, let alone a particular local church.

Don Johnson said...

Ben, interesting article. Dan's comments are very interesting also, but I am not sure I buy his conclusions.

But I think you are incorrect to assume that Trueman is talking only about exegetical issues. See this quote from the last paragraph: "The most egregious examples of mass ecclesiastical exoduses are of those who bail out of churches for non-theological reasons, leaving the centre exposed simply because the right has a personal beef with a particular person or cultural issue."

I think that confirms the essentials of Dan's observation regarding contemporary music.

Trueman's observations are accurate, not only in describing the issue of ordaining women, but the battles over modernism in the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. I think what he describes is exactly what happened in the Northern Baptist Convention and the Presbyterian church. Eventually, the right wing decided they were in a losing battle and withdrew. That changed the center of gravity in those denominations and essentially caused in them the reality we have today.

I do agree that sometimes the right will pull out too early. It is very difficult to discern where the point of separation is. Ketchum came out of the NBC long before Riley did. Ketchum was probably right, in my opinion, but I would think that, wouldn't I?

Finally, I think that some non-exegetical issues may be markers that warrant at least controversy and often withdrawal. The markers of church decay are not always blatant theological denials. The devil is much more subtle than that. I would say that we have to be careful about branding all deviations as 'heresy', but we have a responsibility to discern directions and trends in order to lead our congregations rightly.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Dan Salter said...

I think my point was missed in that I was not addressing Trueman's focus point of the article, but rather one of his presumptions. That presumption was what I equated to the revivalist-fundamentalist presumption about music. Those who now may embrace contemporary music would rankle if Trueman had used that as an example of the clutches of liberalism. The assumption that ordaining women is beyond any conservative possibility, already in the leftist camp presumably because of a liberal disregard for fundamentals, is the unstated assumption. It is the idea that a view in favor of ordaining women cannot be held without denial of fundamentals.

This, I think, is what is dangerous. It is more than simply denominational or local assembly difference. Presuming a denial of fundamentals is a charge of heresy--not something to toss about lightly and blithely go on.

This attitude of categorization seems extreme in its bounding and limiting exercise. It seems similar to that of those who argue that Galatians 3:28 has nothing to do with the issue of women's roles because the context concerns only equality in coming to God. This (to me) absolutely silly argument attempts to divide a faithful initiation to the spiritual inheritance of the New Covenant from the benefits of the spiritual inheritance of the New Covenant. To say that Gal 3:28 speaks to the fact that all, without distinction, may come to Christ by faith, but implies nothing about direct access to God and activity as representative of Christ--two of our spiritual concerns made possible by the New Covenant--is (again, to me) a horrid misunderstanding of the New Covenant. It is like saying that it may be all of God that brings salvation to us, but we must rely on something else for persevering in salvation. God's authority and activity in saving implies his authority and activity in persevering. Just so, we don't suddenly exchange the common spiritual condition of faith in coming to Christ for a gender-based hierarchy in spiritual deployment after we are saved.

So summarizing-- What is dangerous about the whole thing is that conservative evangelicals (including fundamentalists) so associate a complementarian perspective with conservative fundamentals that any attack against complementarianism is perceived by them (and liberal and non-Christian outsiders) as an attack against fundamentals. This confuses and therefore weakens gospel impact. I would like to see conservatives viewing liberalism as compromise on fundamentals, not as compromise on certain pet "slippery slope" ideas.

Ben said...

Dan, thanks for the clarification, but I simply don't see him arguing in any way that egalitarianism = liberalism. He's arguing that when churches or denominations alter their confessions or church order docs so that they tolerate egalitarianism, conservatives leave, and the theological center of the church/denomination shifts to the left. His argument isn't that egalitarianism IS liberalism, but that tolerating egalitarianism empowers liberalism.

Now, you're right that CEs/fundamentalists often closely associate complementarianism with the gospel. I'm not going to debate your exegesis of Gal 3:28 or the other relevant texts here. Though I'd like to think I could offer a stout response, I'm sure you've been left unconvinced by far more capable folks than myself.

Instead, I'll simply observe that a complementarian interpretation of Ephesians 5 makes an explicit connection between gender roles and the very essence of the gospel. You may disagree with that exegesis, but I suspect you're able to see why people who hold the complementarian interpretation see the relationship and its significance.

Ben said...

Don, I don't think your observation is connected to Dan's argument, but I may be missing something. You are right that, at the end, Trueman is addressing non-exegetical issues. My initial response to Dan wasn't intended to mean that Trueman said *nothing* about non-exegetical issues in the entire article—merely that Trueman's argument was absolutely addressing exegetical issues at the point I understood Dan to be attacking. I think that observation is relevant, assuming I'm understanding Dan right.

To your subsequent observations, I agree that these matters are difficult to navigate, and there won't always be a clear right vs wrong option, particularly regarding timing. I actually think that's a very helpful point, to grasp the obligation to exercise biblical wisdom and prudence. And that may not always look the same for everyone. In fact, just for fun, let me ask you this: Who was right? Ketcham or the guy who left a year earlier because he saw the handwriting on the wall?

Dan Salter said...

I suppose I understood Trueman the way I did from his 3rd paragraph in citing the ordination of women as the "best example" of his opening thought of church retreat to liberalism. I would probably have to agree that my response may have been somewhat knee-jerky.

Yes, I would disagree with the complementarian interpretation of Eph 5. But while an egalitarian should be able to see the complementarian's connection between the gospel and women's roles in Eph 5, the complementarian should also be able to see the egalitarian's disconnection w/o branding that person out of step with fundamentals. That's my only point here.

Don Johnson said...

Hi Ben,

To answer your question, who was right, the guy who left one year before Ketcham or Ketcham himself... well, can I equivocate and say both were right? Both would be fighting for the fundamentals in their own way.

I am not one to say that a fundamentalist must 'come out' in order to secure his fundamentalist bona fides, but he must be militant, whether within or without.

One more thought on the egalitarianism thing: I think the issue is related to the gospel tangentially (is that a word?). The primary error is one of the authority of Scripture and inerrancy. That's where they start to go sideways and some of them keep on going...

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Ben said...


I think the question we'd have to consider at this point is whether we have the same definition in mind for "fundamentals." If a fundamental is what one must believe in order to be converted, then I'd agree that complementarianism is not a "fundamental." Obviously, disagreement over matters that are not fundamentals will still limit cooperation or unity to varying degrees in various circumstances. I assume you would not disagree with that.


What about the guy who stayed in the NBC ten years after Riley and fought like crazy for his convictions every step of the way, until he finally gave up and left? (I know of a congregation that just left in the past year or two and is maintaining a decidedly conservative direction.)

Or what about the guy who's still in (what's now the ABC) doing the same thing?

Don Johnson said...

Hi Ben

To respond to your last two questions:

1. What about the guy 10 years past Riley who fought for truth every step of the way?

Well, a guy like that might be admired for his tenacity, but one would think that after the major battle was over, the conservatives had left and liberals won, one would have the wisdom to realize that it was time to move on. I think even Riley knew it was time to move on before he did, but it was emotionally difficult to make that last step. (This is my impression from what I read about it, I don't know that for sure.)

2. What about the guy still in and still fighting?

Such a fellow would be a rare bird indeed. I would think that by now he should have been able to figure out that the cause was lost.

I have had some correspondence with an ABC pastor who told me he was from the "renewal" wing of the ABC (i.e., the more conservative guys that are still in it). Yet one has to wonder what is the point of staying in. Another correspondent was in a PCUSA church, but then he realized that everything he was doing as a pastor would very likely be undermined by his replacement. He left and joined the PCA. Can't remember if he sought out another pastorate or led his church out.

I guess the short answer to all of your questions is this: its complicated. We can more or less explain the theory of our position, but when it gets down to the nitty gritty of real life practical matters, its complicated. And in the end we answer to God not men.

So while I may admire men on the inside of such groups as the ABC or PCUSA who are still fighting for truth, I would keep my distance ecclesiastically, while encouraging them personally. Not because they answer to me, but because I, too, have to answer to God for what I do.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Ben said...

Don, I agree. It's complicated. I think you've framed the issue helpfully. What is wisdom, prudence, patience and optimism to one man's conscience might be naïvety or compromise to another's. I'd argue that both just might hear, "Well done, good and faithful servant." But we will give account.