Spurgeon on the Stiff & Stilted Pastor

Spurgeon on the Stiff & Stilted Pastor

Long has it been the expectation of social Christianity for clergy to maintain a sort of aloof and other-worldly demeanor among their congregations. It seems odd, think many, for the pastor to demonstrate some likeness or continuity between  himself and the members of the church the Lord has called him to serve. When he discloses his interests, hobbies, or shows others he, too, is indeed capable of “having fun,” the reaction is not necessarily one of recoil, but perplexity.

This somewhat amusing dynamic between a pastor and his people isn’t only cause for a chuckle, it should—I believe—be the object of some serious concern. Such an aloof attitude, while succeeding at a level of professionalism, can end in a sort of isolation or separation of the pastor from his flock. Such a disjointment often results in the pastor’s ignorance of the congregational pulse. “Where are they, doctrinally and practically? What are their needs? Who are they? How should I pray for them?” are all questions which may lack answers if such “professionalism” is allowed to form a wall between the under-shepherd and the sheep entrusted to him by Christ.

Asking Spurgeon for Help

The Prince of Preachers, Charles Spurgeon, saw the dangers of such an approach. In his Lectures to My Students, ch. 12, he writes on ‘The Minister’s Ordinary Conversation’. If our day has yielded its fair share of superficial, stereotypical ministers, Spurgeon’s day is no exception. He writes, “let [the minister] remember that the more simple and unaffected he is, the more closely will he resemble that child-man, the holy child Jesus.” Such a statement discloses to us Spurgeon’s heart on the matter. He goes on, “I have been irresistibly led to remember some of my dignified brethren of the teaching and preaching fraternity, who are so marvelously proper at all times that they are just a shade amusing. Their very respectable, stilted, dignified, important, self-restrained manner is easily acquired; but is it worth acquiring (Lectures, 166)?”

Spurgeon understood that, at the end of the day, such decorum may, in point of fact, serve as nothing but a façade. It is the fabricated wall placed between the sheep and their under-shepherd—all, of course, in the name of professionalism. Such a formalization of the ministerial office isn’t helpful, neither to the minister who is in need of knowing his people, nor to the laity who are in need of being known by their under-shepherd.

The Inhumanity of Stilted Ministers

The minister of the gospel should be relatable. The under-shepherd is but a fellow sojourner on this earth en route to the Celestial City. Nothing avails the pastor who would pretend this is not the case by abstracting himself from the rest of the flock. He must labor to see himself as a fellow parishioner. Spurgeon writes, “We must have humanity along with our divinity (Lectures, 167).”

The religious elite of Jesus’ day placed between themselves and the common-folk an insurmountable barrier. This is part of the reason Jesus’ relatability was quite the taboo in their eyes. “Why do You eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners (Lk. 5:30)?” they would ask. Jesus, relating their own sentiments, says, “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners… (Lk. 7:34).’” Jesus was profoundly relatable. If anyone possessed the social credit to exalt themselves above others, it was Jesus Christ. Yet, in His ineffable humility, He is seen relating to the people throughout the gospels.

Unlike Jesus, gospel ministers have no social credit granting the warrant for self-exaltation, yet it is often the gospel-minister who sees himself as one above his fellow congregants; if he doesn’t really think this way, chances are he acts this way. For this reason, it is difficult for the laity to personify their spiritual leaders. And this is a problem. The person who ought to be the most relatable is often the most isolated, abstract, and unapproachable.

The Effeminacy of Stilted Ministers

There are several things in this chapter worthy of serious consideration. Spurgeon is not deriding any and all professionalism for those who hold the pastoral office. Quite to the contrary, he is arguing for a genuine relatability which nevertheless maintains a self-conscious awareness of how special and important the ministerial office is. This does not, however, require inaccessible formalism. For Spurgeon, such attempted transcendence on the part of the pastor is emasculating. In a whirlwind of wit made of one part hilarity and another incisiveness, he writes:

A well-known minister was once rebuked by a sublime brother for his indulgence in a certain luxury, and the expense was made a great argument. “Well, well,” he replied, “there may be something in that; but remember, I do not spend half so much upon my weakness as you do in starch.” That is the article I am deprecating, that dreadful ministerial starch. If you have indulged in it, I would earnestly advise you to “go and wash in Jordan seven times,” and get it out of you, every particle of it. I am persuaded that one reason why our working-men so universally keep clear of ministers is because they abhor their artificial and unmanly ways.

The pseudo-fundamentalism of the 50s and 60s bred an oversimplified understanding of Christian theology, in the name of practicality, while at the same time encouraging a lucidly impractical division between minister and laity. For this reason, no matter what he said from the pulpit, the pastor failed to engender a truly practical disposition toward his people. He was and often is seen as a school-boy who can’t relate to wrench-turners, horse-boarders, or factory workers. The pastor’s hands are soft, and his inaccessible formality rightly represents his aloof ignorance of a genuine, practical masculinity. The pastor may be able to diagram a Bible verse in Greek, but the laity knows he hires someone to mow his lawn.

This is perhaps more true today than it was in Spurgeon’s. During my time in college, I was astounded at the number of seminary students who were attending credit courses on their wives’ hard-earned dime! Such a strategy sets the gospel-minister up for failure. The time will come when he is called to a church only to find himself in the midst of a bunch of men who would never think of doing such a thing.

Conclusion

There are two extremes to which pastors most often swing. Either they are overly self-deprecating (and this actually bleeds into a depreciation of the pastoral office); or they are hyper formalized. Neither of these extremes are good. The man of God must be guided by the Word of God, and his attitude and disposition, public and private, must be soaked in prayer. A hyper-formalized minister does nothing but regurgitate what he wanted to study throughout the week. Often, he has no idea whether or not it was what his congregation truly needed. And this is because he has placed a wall between himself on the one side and them on the other.

We need gospel men to inherit pulpits, who are concerned not with formality so much as they are concerned with bringing the whole Christ to their congregations every Lord’s Day.

The Magical Jab & the Unfalsifiable Premise

The Magical Jab & the Unfalsifiable Premise

This will not be a terribly long post. I have sermon preparation to do. Nevertheless, as I parsed the river of thought running through my mind, it occurred to me that I probably need to throw out into the public a response I’ve been making in my head to a mainstream argument coming from the immuno-vangelistic propaganda. This argument is typically used by those experiencing breakthrough cases of COVID 19, and it goes something like this, “I’m sick, but it would have been way worse if I hadn’t been jabbed!”

The general population, vastly under-equipped to spot logical incoherence in any given statement, let alone carefully crafted propaganda, will likely miss the terrible line of reasoning in the above example. What is wrong with it? It proffers an unfalsifiable premise. There is no reason to believe the statement is true because there is simply no way to verify its truth. They could just as easily say, “Good thing I took the jab. If I didn’t COVID may have turned me into a zebra!” Even though we might intuit the absurdity of that statement, there is no formal way to investigate whether or not its true. It would be like claiming the USA has a secret space base on the other side of the moon. The person making that statement has a right to his opinion, but there is no way his skeptical friend could prove it false. The moon is tidally locked to the earth after all.

Just because a person makes a claim, it does not mean said claim is true. At the end of the day, it must be verified by others if indeed those others are expected to take it seriously. My wife and I had COVID 19 some months ago. We were not vaccinated. And many of the breakthrough instances occurring in vaccinated persons appear to come with the exact same duration and intensity of COVID 19 symptoms. By making the claim breakthrough COVID patients are better off with the vaccine because their symptoms are more palatable is to make a claim beyond the scope of proper verification, and thus does nothing formally to boost the reputation of the mRNA shot.

 

Covenants, Law, & Nature – A Response to Gary DeMar

Covenants, Law, & Nature – A Response to Gary DeMar

Delving into this discussion is always a difficult quandary for me, mainly because I’m usually at a loss in terms of where to begin. It’s complicated, really. There are two debates: One between classical theism and presuppositionalism, and another (related) debate between two-kingdom theology and reconstruction theonomy. I will not go into details about these debates here, but Gary DeMar’s recent article, ‘Biblical Examples of Church and State Jurisdictional Separation’, sets one foot in the former debate and another in the latter debate.

Before you get sucked into reading what follows, a working grasp of both aforementioned debates would be helpful if not necessary to fully understand what will be said here. But I will try to clarify as I go along for those of you who are just now familiarizing yourselves with the broader discussion(s).

DeMar’s article fundamentally relates to the debate between a particular version of two-kingdom theology and his more reconstructionist understanding of theonomy, which largely follows a Gary North/Bahnsen-esque trend. Two-kingdom theology understands natural law to be (1) objective; and (2) knowable. And this is consistent with a classical theistic or scholastic understanding of natural revelation (what is) and natural theology (our knowledge of it). Reconstructionist theonomy tends to affirm natural revelation while denying a stable or usable knowledge of natural revelation as a basis for any sort of civil judicial system. This is because an objective knowledge of natural revelation would imply a natural theology, something rejected by Cornelius Van Til, Greg Bahnsen, and others of their ilk. It would also imply the natural man can understand something of natural revelation accurately, an idea that cuts against the grain of (especially) Van Til’s view of total depravity.

DeMar’s [Insufficient] Reason for Denying Natural Law

Right off the bat, in his article, DeMar takes to attacking the two-kingdom use of natural law, “Some will argue that [morals, governmental jursdictions, and separation of powers] can be accounted for using natural law,” he says. And this position would generally characterize the Reformers and the post-Reformed, who understood natural law to be foundational to civil ethics. Yet, by way of rejecting this position, DeMar offers an alleged reason such use of natural law should be seen as untenable, “But Darwinism ended natural law as a basis for anything except change (emphasis added).” He then quotes Gary North:

Charles Darwin destroyed natural law theory in biological science…. His successors destroyed natural law theory in social science. In the 1920’s, quantum physics destroyed natural law theory in the subatomic world. This immediately began to undermine modern legal theory.

This type of reasoning is highly problematic. If natural law is true, then neither a perversion of nor an attempted rebuttal to it would say anything about its objective reality. Let’s extend their reasoning to a fundamental claim of Christianity—the inerrancy of Scripture. Christians believe the Bible is inerrant. It is really inerrant regardless of what the scoffer might say in response to such a claim (on this we’d all agree). It would seem, however, according to DeMar’s style of reasoning, that a scoffer could invalidate the inerrancy of Scripture merely because he either perverts it (a la., Karl Barth), or rejects it (Julian Wellhausen). But orthodox Christians would never grant this to be the case, would they? Absolutely not.

Therefore, if natural law is true, then it is true regardless of what scoffers (e.g. Darwin) say about it.

DeMar’s Conflation of Being and Knowing

Everyone who rejects outright relativism either implicitly or explicitly affirms a difference between the order of being (what objectively is, i.e. reality) and the order of knowing (our knowledge of it). If these orders are confused, knowing and being becoming virtually synonymous, then our knowledge essentially creates reality. Unqualified subjectivism or relativism inevitably ensues.

When DeMar makes the claim that Darwin “ended natural law as a basis for anything except change,” he is confusing these two orders. What Darwin thinks (order of knowing) of natural law makes no difference as to what natural law is (order of being, objective reality). It is what it is regardless of what a person thinks he or she knows about it. If natural law and its validity stands or falls based on one’s thoughts about it, then relativism is the consistent result from such rationale. Reality is or is not based on what people like David Hume, Immanuel Kant, or Charles Darwin thought about it, or so it is implied. The Christian should reject this kind of thinking outrightly.

Paul clearly states that, “what may be known of God is manifest in them (Rom. 1:18), and that, “His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made (v. 20).” Romans 1:18, i.e., “manifest in them,” is further elaborated upon in Romans 2 with the law written on the hearts of the Gentiles. Presuppositionalists obviously trivially accept what Romans 1 says, but they will immediately emphasize v. 18, which says the natural man suppresses this knowledge in unrighteousness. But this does absolutely nothing to natural revelation. While the sinner is in the wrong, natural revelation and thus natural law remain an authoritative source of revelation nonetheless. It’s so authoritative, in fact, that it leaves its dissenters “without excuse,” and eligible for judgement (vv. 20, 26).

Therefore, natural revelation and natural law maintain their full integrity even though sinful man perverts and ultimately rejects it. And this makes DeMar’s claim that, “Darwin ended natural law as a basis for anything except change,” one of shame and compromise. He’s essentially claiming Darwin, a heathen, changed that which God instituted and revealed from the foundation of the world. And he’s also rejecting fundamental reality as nothing more than a Heracletian change-scape with no objective moral force. This is not a position available for the Christian.

DeMar’s Lack of Covenantal Clarity

DeMar gives another example of Joe Biden rejecting the natural law alluded to by Justice Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearings. But in light of the above, a denial of reality in thought doesn’t automatically equate to a falsification of reality.

Arguing for “biblical jurisdictional separation,” DeMar’s version of a separation between church and state, he begins to invoke the Old Testament, “Moses became the chief judicial officer in Israel, assisted by numerous lesser civil magistrates (Ex. 18:17-26).” There is nothing wrong with DeMar’s observation here, per se. What is wrong is his presupposition that the Old Covenant ought to expressly inform our understanding of modern church/state relations. This may sound foreign to some. “Isn’t the Bible God’s Word, and should not God’s Word be applied to all of life?” it may be asked.

The question assumes something that is true, namely, that God’s Word is the regulating standard for the Christian’s faith (what we believe) and practice (how we live according to what we believe). However, what DeMar does here is quite sloppy. First, he fails to make a distinction between moral precepts and positive precepts. Second, he does not even consider the implications of the New Covenant, brought out in places like Hebrews 8:13, “In that He says, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”

DeMar is arguing for the implementation of standards belonging to an obsolete and annulled covenant. The way in which the magistrate interacted with the priesthood in the Old Testament came precisely through the Mosaic Covenant. But if the Mosaic Covenant is gone, then surely the dynamics of magistrate/lesser magistrate instituted through it are gone as well. What would be our standard for understanding a quasi-continuation of the Old Covenant if Scripture itself annuls its formal and material cause, its final cause being met in Christ? There is none.

The moral law, or the Ten Words, were part of the Mosaic Covenant, and one may opine, “If government is to operate according to the Ten Commandments, then the Mosaic Covenant must be appropriated somehow.” But this is both wrong and unnecessary. The moral law or the Ten Commandments did not come through the Mosaic Covenant, but were already in force prior to it, and were merely included within the Mosaic Covenant. Even the Sabbath was operative prior to the revelation of the Law-covenant at Sinai (Ex. 16). If one were to study Genesis, they would find every moral precept in the Ten Commandments were both known and in force prior to the implementation of the Ten Commandments within the context of the Sinai Law-covenant (Mosaic Covenant).

The question, then, would be, “How were they known?” I believe Romans 2 helps us confirm an answer to this question we should be able to know through reason, “God’s law is known to man apart from the Law-covenant, i.e. Gentiles who are without the law know the law.” Even prior to the institution of the Law-covenant in Exodus 20ff, the moral law was apprehended and applied to society without any express or systematic Scriptural revelation. In other words, it was assumed. This continues to be the case today. And though these natural laws are carried out imperfectly within sinful society, this says nothing about the existence and objectivity of natural law itself. It only says something about man’s sin and his rebellion against God.

All of DeMar’s examples concerning the dynamics of church/state relations are examples drawn from within the Mosaical context, a context which no longer exists with the establishment and inauguration of the New Covenant (cf. Hebrews 8). It is mention-worthy that DeMar does not cite a single extra-Mosaical or otherwise New Covenant example to bolster his point. Consistent application of the Mosaic Covenant in this fashion would lead to a belief that any given country is obligated to be a theocracy with a monarch and an informing priesthood. And this is exactly what Roman Catholicism tried to accomplish, and often succeeded at doing throughout certain points in history. The inverse example can be found in the Protestant (often Lutheran & Reformed) churches who were ruled by monarchs. Instead of the church ruling the monarch (a la., Rome), the monarchs ruled the church. None of this, of course, bore good fruit. And, I would say, the only reason Gary DeMar is likely alive (along with many of us) is because of the tolerance of Oliver Cromwell and the eventual rebellion of the Protestant churches against the monarchs (think non-conformists). Not to mention, the nation eventually spawned by such independent thought, the United States.

All of this seems to be lost on DeMar with his over-commitment to reconstructionism, which is actually nothing more or less than a reimplementation of Mosaical institutions which the New Testament has abolished. It’s his “blind-spot,” I believe (Lord help us, we all have them).

A popular retort has been, “But Jesus said, ‘Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill (Matt. 5:17)’!” I agree! But the term law must be qualified. It’s used equivocally time and time again in the New Testament. So, which law was Jesus speaking of? The temporal Mosaic covenant, or the eternal moral law? If one reads through the Sermon on the Mount, they would see the eternal moral law is most certainly in view.

To tie this up in a pretty red bow, and bring it back to my earlier claim, that DeMar “fails to make a distinction between moral precepts and positive precepts”: Moral precepts, which just is natural law, are nothing more than a revelation of the unchanging moral character of God applied to creaturely living. Positive precepts are those things commanded beyond mere moral law, and they sit upon moral law much like a superstructure sits upon a foundation. But positive commandments come through covenant and are, therefore, subject to the purpose of the covenant, e.g. for a specific people, place, time, etc. The Mosaic Covenant included countless positive precepts which went beyond the unchanging moral law of God. Included in those positive precepts were the ceremonial and civil laws, which often intertwined with one another, as DeMar himself notes in his article. But these laws are expressly annulled by the New Testament.

The later institution of a monarch in Israel represents an amendment to the original design of the Mosaic Covenant. Yet, the Israelite monarch was a type instituted to look forward to the other and greater antitype, King Jesus.

Conclusion

I will close by summarizing my criticisms above in the form of a brief argument:

(1) If the dynamics between kings and priests are perpetual for every human society, then the laws defining kings and priests are perpetual.

(2) If the laws defining kings and priests are perpetual, then the Old Covenant is not annulled.

(3) But the Old Covenant is annulled (Heb. 8).

Therefore,

(C1) The laws defining kings and priests are not perpetual.

Therefore,

(C2) The dynamics between kings and priests are not perpetual for every human society.

Perhaps the most significant blunder in DeMar’s political theology is his neglect of covenantal distinction. That which comes through any given covenant cannot be fragmented or separated from its original covenantal context. As it is, the New Covenant annuls the Mosaic Covenant and all that which originated through it.

In my opinion, DeMar could strengthen his position if he stopped appealing to the Mosaic Covenant and its positive-temporal precepts, instead making appeal to the Noahic covenant in Genesis 8-9, which sets the judicial standard, not only for Israel, but for all creation as the result of sin coming into the world. And it can thus be applied to all societies, yet with a degree of liberty in terms of the particulars. I believe this is what John Calvin had in mind with his two-kingdom political theology in book IV of his Institutes. The moral law must be applied throughout society, since it is the natural standard for the whole world without exception. And so long as the moral law of God is what any given civil law seeks to serve, then said civil law may be justified.

I realize I now open myself to the question, “By what standard do nations execute the moral law?” But while the moral standard is the same across the board, the mode of upholding it may be compared to something like individual Christian liberty. In this case, there would be a sort of national or civic liberty in the mode of enforcing the moral law, since there is no specific mode of enforcement revealed in Scripture for nations who do not live under the Mosaic Covenant, but only general principles.

DeMar’s concern seems to be one we should all share. “How do we overcome the subjective interpretations and perversions of natural law?” But this concern doesn’t warrant a wholesale rejection of natural law theory. And to answer the question, “How do we overcome the subjective interpretations and perversions of natural law?” I would say we do so in the same manner we overcome subjective interpretations and perversions of the Scripture: We argue about it, and to the victor goes the spoils. Such is our lot in a sinful world, with no utopian solution.

This is why we need to be collectively pushing for a recovery of logic in ethical and political discourse. Arguments are the means by which we justify our theses, and this is true regardless of whether or not we see natural law or the positive commands of Scripture as the standard for civil justice. False interpretations of either will persist, and only by logical discourse can we get to the bottom of what and what is not true.

And, I would add, no other environment has allowed for this to occur more effectively than that of the environment protected by the Constitution of the United States of America over the last couple centuries.

The Amalgamated Man

The Amalgamated Man

Something about humanity has drastically changed over the last few centuries. Consider the contrast between the 17th century man and the 21st century man. At the risk of overgeneralizing, the 17th century man accomplished more in forty years than the 21st century man might accomplish in a lifetime. Often, twelve-year olds were more educated than today’s average adult, having a rather large vocabulary and even a multilingual education. Prior to the 18th century, it was not altogether uncommon to find men of the educated class who were experts in multiple fields of study. Today, everyone seems to be relatively educated, but almost no one could consider themselves as an expert in multiple career fields. Today, even individual sciences have further specifications the average schoolman might master.

Little to none of this massive shift should be attributed to genetics. Nor should we venture to blame it solely on the rise of technology (although it is not altogether unrelated). The cause seems instead to rest within the rise of modern psychology as a primary interpretive or observational science of man. Though observational in nature, psychology has, relatively recently, taken a formative role in terms of how man thinks about himself. What’s worse is the extent to which man’s psychologically-driven understanding of himself is anachronistically imposed upon figures from the past. In other words, history has been affected by man’s contemporary understanding of his current self.

Modern psychology tends to see man as an amalgamation of traits, properties, or attributes. It doesn’t begin, per se, with personhood defined as imago Dei (image of God). Instead, it approaches man as a conglomerate of personality traits and passions (especially sexual, a la., Freud). More than this, it inadvertently casts individual persons into personality molds. Once psychology assesses a person’s personality at any given life-stage, it issues a decree: “This person is X, Y, or Z.” The (perhaps unintended) effect? The assessed person goes on casting themselves as an X, Y, or Z personality. Much like a placebo, modern psychology, in its mere exercise of observation, inevitably begins to shape a person’s beliefs about him or herself.

Imagine, for example, a young boy who, throughout grade-school, is constantly berated for his love of the arts. “You’re gay!” his classmates might jest. Or, “You’re weak!” the jocks might shout in the hallway. It is no wonder a boy who hears such descriptions of himself for years on end might begin to actually believe them. Something similar happens within modern educational and psychological structures (which permeate almost every institution). In education, for example, there is now the concept of specialty. Gone are the days when medical doctors address multiple aspects of the human body. Increasingly, they concern themselves only with neurology, to name one example. And then, even within neurology, there are sub-specialties. This doesn’t only occur within the medical field, where complexity may demand more refined areas of study and thus more laborers. It also occurs in the liberal arts. Now, we could speculate as to why this is. It certainly doesn’t hurt the profit margin of colleges and universities, does it? But I’m more interested in what this has done to the modern man—

A white-collar man is now assumed to be aloof from all blue-collar work. Blue-collar men are too “simple” to converse with the white-collar class. And often times this is truly the case. But it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. There was a day when this was not the case. Those who had access to the tools of education were often not distant nor ignorant of various, practical trades. For example, William Kiffen, a Baptist minister in 17th century England, was an astute and pastoral theologian. Yet, he was one of the more wealthy men in England, granted his skillful business arrangements as a merchant. Benjamin Keach was a brewmaster (of all things), and made part of his living from such. John Owen, the good doctor himself, was chaplain to Oliver Cromwell, and was with him in the Scotch-Irish conquests. Moving backward in time, Albert the Great was a medieval physician, theologian, and philosopher. Of course, the most popular example of a man who concerned himself with multiple sciences is Leonardo DaVinci, but he wasn’t an island unto himself. There were others before and after the Renaissance who understood themselves as capable images of the divine.

We now have all sorts of personality assessment tools used in the corporate and academic world. These may be helpful in terms of communication and work-relationship improvement. But they’ve almost become definitive of how people think of themselves. If the test says the person is a strong personality, prone to less relatability having a more task-driven bent, that person may think, “This is my personality, and none else.” They implicitly trick themselves, thenceforth, into thinking they are unable to adapt to circumstances which may not conduce to their “personality type.”

As alluded to above, this thought process has been anachronistically superimposed upon Christ. In his recent, somewhat helpful, book, Gentle and Lowly, Dane Ortlund struggles to centralize the Person of Christ around a single quality, i.e. His lowliness. But this struggle is a self-inflicted wound made by the knife of modern psychology. If modern psychology sees man as an amalgamation of qualities, properties, or emotions, then it follows one such property must win out. This is a struggle arising from the faulty starting-point of modern psychology, where the nature is almost entirely absent from the conversation, while behavioral traits are the sole definitional factors in determining the nature of a person. Instead of nature giving way to various accidents and behavioral characteristics, behavioral characteristics and emotional dispositions define and even determine the nature. This is backwards, and it explains the constant teetertotter in Ortlund’s Gentle and Lowly, where he wants to affirm the centrality of Christ’s gentleness, but also wants to avoid detracting from other crucial properties of His Person (cf. ch. 3).

Modern psychology apparently sees man much like a playdough figurine. He’s compose of all different colors of playdough, some colors being more prevalent than others. The modern psychologist, upon observing what he thinks to be more prevalent colors, makes a diagnosis, and this diagnosis declares the man to be a static instantiation of his most habitual color. He cannot escape that diagnosis, no matter how hard he might want to. He is simply stuck that way. Such is the way of the contemporary opposition toward “deconversion therapy” of homosexuals, and the oft-parroted licentious statement, “I was born this way! I cannot change!” The psychologist has defined his patient, and now his patient must always think of himself according to the psychologist’s definition.

In closing, what if we stopped thinking of mankind this way? What if we understood each an every person to be, first and foremostly, a creation of God which bears God’s image. And then, what if we defined God’s image according to what God actually says it is? If we did that, I think we would have another Renaissance. And given the unprecedented availability of resources today (contra to the 17th century), we wouldn’t only have a few Leonardo DaVincis or Albertus Magnuses, we’d have countries full of them. The change agent in all of this, of course, is the gospel. It is the gospel which teaches us who man was, what man’s problem is, and where man’s restoration and glorification is found, i.e. in Christ Jesus alone (who, by the way, was a carpenter, a fisherman, a peripatetic philosopher-teacher, and orator—a nice blend of blue and white collars).

A Biblical Case for Disputation

A Biblical Case for Disputation

Disputes are not preferable.

Be that as it may, the prophets were involved in disputes. Jesus and His apostles were involved in disputes. And the church has been embroiled in dispute ever since. The early church fathers were involved in dispute. The medieval theologians were involved in dispute. The Reformers were involved in dispute. The post-Reformed were involved in dispute. Our forerunners, the particular Baptists, were involved in dispute. While not preferable, and while unfortunate, dispute is nevertheless biblical, and it is a perspicuous article found in play throughout church history. Like self-defense and giving to the poor, dispute is something the church must engage as a result of the fallen nature of man.

From this, however, we need to distinguish between holy dispute, or dispute for a noble cause performed in a noble manner, and unholy dispute, or dispute for an ignoble (not noble or honorable) cause. There is a biblical kind of dispute, a dispute which Jesus Himself and His apostles engaged in. This is incontrovertible (Matt 12:34; Lk. 13:32; Jn. 2:15; Acts 17). Yet, there is a wicked kind of dispute, characterized by Scripture as quarrelsomeness or controversy for the sake of controversy (1 Tim. 3:3; Prov. 20:1).

Because there is a holy kind of dispute, this being beyond controversy, we need now concern ourselves with the nature of it. We will begin negatively.

What Holy Disputation Is Not

In 1 Timothy 6:3-5, Paul writes:

If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw yourself.

When Martin Luther penned the Ninety Five Theses, he was engaging in a methodology referred to in the Latin as disputatio or, in English, disputation. Unfortunately, men who now claim to follow in the Protestant tradition have almost entirely done away with the practice or art of disputation. Failing to recognize the distinction between holy and unholy disputation, many men, many pastors, have come to think of all disputation as wicked—and the church is worse for it.

We need to be careful, however, lest we ruin ourselves upon the jagged rock of what holy disputation is not. In 1 Timothy 6:3-5, Paul begins with the character of a person who “does not consent to wholesome words.” Here, we find that Paul is talking about those who do not submit to, nor do they embrace the gospel—the epitome of wholesome words. He goes on to add, “even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness…” Paul is not talking about a person who is a professing believer, much less a person who’s life is marked by gospel obedience.

He goes on to remark on this person’s pride. This person is puffed up and conceited. They know nothing. They are obsessed with dispute. In other words, they live for the argument. A more wooden reading might say, “[he] is sick with disputes…” He vomits up disagreement. That’s all he can do. This person is a contrarian. More interestingly is the kind of disputation Paul identifies in v. 4. Paul is not outlawing all disputation. But he does indicate a repudiation of diputes about words, signified by the word arguments (λογομαχία). These are useless, semantic disputes. In this passage, Paul by no means makes all disputes unlawful.

Therefore, holy dispute cannot be characterized by dispute for dispute’s sake. Holy dispute is not engaged by unholy people. Moreover, holy dispute cannot be about trivial things, like semantics, word battles, competition of sheer rhetoric, etc. Those are all insufficient explanations for disputation.

What Holy Disputation Is

Paul expressly helps us with a definition when he writes:

For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, and being ready to punish all disobedience when your obedience is fulfilled. ~ 2 Corinthians 10:4-6

And also an example of disputation among believers, “Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed (Gal. 2:11).”

There are about three characteristics of dispute gleaned from these two passages. First, holy disputation casts down unholy arguments raised against God. Second, holy disputes are useful for bringing minds into compliance to Christ. Third, holy disputation can, and often does, take place among brethren. Therefore, I offer a concise and positive definition of holy dispute as follows:

Holy dispute is that Christian practice of bringing thoughts into captivity to Christ through honest disagreement and argumentation conducive to resolving such disagreement.

Holy disputation, on the Christian’s part, can be either intermural or intramural. Intermural dispute would entail a Christian disputing with a non-Christian interlocutor. Intramural dispute would be when two or more Christians dispute with one another over doctrine and/or practice.

When to Dispute & When Not to Dispute

Now that we’ve at least started a discussion concerning the nature of disputation, it would now be prudent to identify some criteria which might help us decide when and when not to dispute.

There are three questions we all must ask prior to entering into dispute:

1) Is the dispute concerning what is true? The goal of all holy disputation must be an arrival at the truth. Any other intention or purpose of dispute is insufficient and self-refuting. For disputation presupposes the categories of truth and falsehood, and disagreements arise precisely because one party believes the truth is being misrepresented by the other, and visa versa.

2) Is the dispute about God’s revealed doctrine? This could be doctrine revealed through nature or doctrine revealed through Scripture. Either way, God’s teaching is always worth discussion, and when a correct understanding thereof is at stake, it is always worth disputation. This is the very reason Paul confronted Peter to his face, in public I might add.

3) Is your intention to love your neighbor through dispute? If you are not disputing in an effort to love your neighbor to the glory of God, you might as well call it quits. Our intention, as Christians, must be in the right place prior to entering into disputation. Therefore, if your intention is any place other than obeying the second greatest commandment (Matt. 22:39), you ought to reassess yourself and, perhaps, change course.

These criteria are not exhaustive, but they might be helpful in deciding when to enter into dispute, whether that be dispute over social media or in-person. Disputes can be powerful things. They can rip apart churches, but they can also mature and secure churches, strengthening them for future challenges. Disputation, even holy disputation, ought to be the last resort. But if a disagreement arises, it is holy dispute alone that will serve as the acceptable means of conflict resolution.

Keeping the Discussion Underground: A Biblical Response

Keeping the Discussion Underground: A Biblical Response

There’s a difference between pastoral theology and public theology. Recent demands, however, would lead one to think otherwise.

The recent phenomenon of the “address public content privately” principle has become the go-to response to criticisms of American evangelicalism and its leaders. Power players such as the SBC and TGC are perhaps the greatest apologists for this principle. It affords them the opportunity to minimize the attention drawn to possible errors, and carves out room for the victimhood of professors and other leaders and makes provision for academic negligence. This amounts to an effort to keep the discussion underground. It amounts to a nil rate of productivity, the suppression of truth, and the willful malnourishment of fellow Christians who might benefit from said discussion.

Before I jump into relevant texts, I want to unequivocally state that academics in a teaching position do not have the luxury of public theological error without consequence—a kind of public theology with no strings attached. What I mean by this is that a teacher who teaches something publicly ought to be more than willing to own their public error publicly. This is basic academic decorum, a minimum requirement for all who accept the sacred opportunity to teach theology. Personally, if I publish error, I expect to be corrected publicly. If I’m being honest, the prospect of public invalidation keeps me on my toes. At the very least, if there are those who disagree with me, I most certainly expect public responses and, hopefully, fruitful public dialogue.

The Example of Apollos

Apollos is introduced to us in Acts 18:24 as a man who was mighty in the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, was fervent in spirit, and he taught accurately the things of the Lord (v. 25). Thanks to God’s grace through Aquila and Priscilla, he understood the way of God “more accurately (v. 26).” In v. 27, when Apollos arrived in Achaia, he “greatly helped those who believed through grace.” How did he help his fellow believers? He “vigorously refuted the Jews publicly, showing from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ (v. 28).”

There are three observations we need to make here.

First, godly refutation is a great help to God’s people. Those who downplay the need to refute bad ideas do not understand this biblical principle which evidences itself all over the pages of Scripture (Prov. 17:10; 19:25; Is. 1:17; Tit. 2:15).

Second, this refutation was a great help precisely because it was public! God’s people benefitted from Apollos’ exchange with the Jews because it was a public exchange with men who were no doubt also teaching publicly (as the Jewish rabbi were prone to do). Imagine if another Christian wrote to Apollos, questioning, “Did you first speak to those Jews privately? Huh? Huh?!” Such a thing would be inconceivable to the rhetorically trained first century mind.

Third, Apollos’ refutation was derived straight from the Word of God. It didn’t consist of man-made doctrine, sayings, or preferences. His responses weren’t couched primarily within the faculty of emotion, but came to him as he put his regenerate reason to work for the glory of God. He wasn’t holding age, experience, or intellect over his interlocutors as an authority (as some have done recently). Rather, he was reasoning from the Scriptures, publicly, for the benefit of God’s people. Apollos was a noble man, a man’s man, who operated according to the Scriptures, that is, with integrity and transparency.

The Example of Paul

In case the objection comes, “But Apollos was interacting with unbelievers!” I want to be clear that public responses to public content or error is the biblical norm, whether that be among believers or unbelievers. The exception to the rule is the inner operations of the local church, especially when in comes to church discipline (Matt. 18). I’m not talking about the intramural business of any given local church. I’m talking about public theology. The disciplinary procedure of Matthew 18 cannot apply to extramural discussion because Matthew 18:17 necessarily places the procedure within the context of the local church.

Moreover, Paul sets a precedent for addressing erring believers in public. Galatians 2:11-14a says:

Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all… 

Peter, the apostle, was in error. How did Paul address Peter’s error? He opposed Peter. Not only did Paul address Peter in person, an ideal form of communication, but he opposed him before an audience! Now, the reason Paul opposed Peter in front of everyone is not expressly stated, but I believe Paul’s desire was to correct Peter for the edification of those over whom Peter had the most influence.

In fact, Paul does explicitly disclose his purpose behind public interaction when he writes to Timothy, “Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear (1 Tim. 5:20).” Again, correction ought to be done in public for the benefit of all. To drive that interaction underground is selfish, cowardly, and rips away any possible way other Christians might benefit from the discussion. To drive public issues under ground is to play a card Roman Catholicism has been playing for hundreds of years: The more ignorant the public, the less power they have.

Some have attempted to use 1 Timothy 5:1 as a tool to silence those who address public issues publicly, especially when it comes to younger men attempting to refute the ideas of older men (cf. 1 Tim. 4:12). Whilst I fully affirm that our rebukes ought to be seasoned with the spice of humility, the salt of truth ought to be tasted throughout. In 1 Timothy 5:1, Paul isn’t telling Timothy to never rebuke an older man. If that’s what he was saying, he’d be contradicting what he writes later on in v. 20. Moreover, the terms used are different.

In v. 20, a different Greek term is used for rebuke (ἐπιπλήσσω) than that which is used in v. 1 (ἐλέγχω). There’s a right  way to rebuke (v. 20), and a wrong way to rebuke (v. 1). Using different terminology is Paul’s way of making a distinction. Interestingly, the context of right rebuke seems to be public.

Conclusion

Apollos, a man who was mighty in the Scriptures, publicly refuted the Jews. Paul publicly rebuked his friend, brother, and fellow apostle in front of impressionable onlookers. Moreover, Paul encourages young Timothy to publicly rebuke those who are in sin.

In the current dialogue climate, many are either ignorant or have outrightly rejected the biblical principle of public theology in public. The exhortation from prominent evangelical leadership for critics of their public content to go underground by writing letters and making phone calls (both of which have already been attempted by many) is simply not a biblical approach to public discussion. Rather, the biblical principle seems to suggest that public examples and public content, whether written or spoken, are subject to the public criticisms of fellow believers so long as those fellow believers have a mind to edify the body of Christ rather than simply tear down a personality or argue for argument’s sake.

Therefore, I conclude that the principle of “address public content privately” is a false if not morally atrocious principle designed by men (not God) to silence opposition and provide an excuse for willful academic disingenuity or irresponsibility.