Q&A: Fixing the Problems

Fixing the Problems

Question

I have read and heard many evangelical leaders (Os Guiness, Michael Horton, John Piper, R.C. Sproul, Ken Meyers, and David Wells, to name a few) comment on the many theological problems that the modern evangelical movement has. I agree wholeheartedly with most everything that I have read and heard from these men. But it seems like many of our theological leaders are very long on diagnosis, but very short on cures. Many times I feel like the church needs fewer theological doctors and more theological pharmicists. How do we take action to confront some of the problems that are out there? How do we avoid being bitter, always pointing out what is wrong, without having an unrealistic view of the way things are? Where is the balance between seeing things for what they are, and becoming sour and angry at some of the terrible theological abuses that are out there? Should we care at all?

Answer

I think you are right in many respects. We do often suffer from plank-eye syndrome (Matt. 7:3-5). And it is especially easy for Reformed theologians to slip from theological accuracy to theological pride. Our theology is more intellectual than most, and our understanding of the Bible is frankly more scholarly and correct. The problem is not so much that we are right, but that we begin to take credit for being right, as if we had discovered the truth through our intelligence and dedication rather than received it as a gift from God. We know that the Bible tells us it is the Holy Spirit who allows us to understand (1 Cor. 2:12-16), but we often forget that little bit of theology in practice.

Another related difficulty most Christians have (not just Reformed) is what we at Third Millennium often call the problem of the "short list." That is, we rank sins (including things like bad theology) according to importance, and we create two lists. Some sins are really bad, and we are hard on others who commit them. Other sins are more excusable, and don't inspire our anger. We may even be merciful to people who commit these sins. The "short list" is that list of sins toward which we tend to react strongly, and from which we tend to withhold grace. As it happens, almost no one includes any sins on his short list that he himself commits. Rather, our short lists usually represent those areas where God has strengthened us and given us victory over sin. So, we end up being hard on people who are weak where we are strong, and we end up overlooking in ourselves and in others certain areas of serious weakness and failing. I'm sure you can see the application to the issues you raised.

Now, just so I don't sound too critical, it's important to remember that some people are called to prophetic ministries of pointing out error. Some of the men you mentioned may fall into this category. God may have called them to diagnose but not to cure. On the other hand, other men you mentioned have ministries that extend beyond the ones for which they are well-known. For example, R.C. Sproul is not only a radio personality and popular author. He is also a pastor, and as pastor his ministry probably includes more "pharmaceutical" aspects than we normally see in his books or hear on the radio. It might also be that, in general, doctors have higher public profiles than pharmacists. The people who tend to get the press are the ones that make the biggest waves, and grace just doesn't tend to pull in the ratings the way aggression does.

Still, it really is hard to see the way some theologians and ministers butcher God's word and mislead his people, and yet to remain calm and loving toward them. Sometimes this is justifiable, as when God's people suffer at the hands of their leaders (Ezek. 34 comes to mind). Christ himself was violently angry at times, as when he cleansed the temple. Because we love the truth so much, and because we feel that only the truth can really minister to people, we are willing to bare our fangs to defend it. What we sometimes forget in the heat of battle, though, is that God is perfectly able to defend the truth through our humble resistance and proclamation. He doesn't need us to treat other believers roughly in order to accomplish his will or in order to convince them of the truth.

How then can we be balanced, realistic, and not bitter? I think the most effective solution for me (not that I'm perfect in this area!) has been to recognize first that not all errors are terrible, damaging errors. Some are a little bad, some are pretty bad, some are really bad, some are just terrible, some are damnable, etc. The less damaging an error is, the less we need to lambaste the poor souls who hold to it. In correlation with this, we need not to commit ourselves emotionally to every truth to the same degree. This is partly because not all truth is equally clear in Scripture. The more clearly Scripture speaks to a matter, the more certain we may be of it, and the more we may commit ourselves to it. Similarly, not all truth is equally important. For example, believing the gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone is far more important than the fact that Peter was also known as Simon. The more important the truth, the more we should commit ourselves to it emotionally. Finally, the biblical example is to show grace to the foolish and the ignorant, but to treat the malicious and hypocritical with some severity. Using these types of analysis, we can attempt to regulate our displeasure and harsh reactions to heresies and errors. When I apply these ideas, I generally determine that the thing which is upsetting me really isn't all that important in the grand scheme of things. On those rare occassions when it is important, I feel more comfortable reacting strongly.

With regard to those situations which do require strong responses from us, I don't think God wants us to accept them lightly, or to find a way to be comfortable with them. Sin has ravaged the world terribly, and it causes all sorts of abuses, even many that stem from theological error. Some of these should arouse our ire; all should arouse our sorrow. At the same time, to become sour is to submit to sin's control. We are a people with a great God and a great hope. When we see the sin that causes such strife in our lives, we should be troubled, but we should not allow that trouble to shake our comfort in Christ. It is hard to live in the tension of this world in which Christ reigns, but in which we do not yet see all things subjected to him. Yes, we should care, and we should not give up crusading for truth. Yet, we need to remember that despite all the error and evil, God is in control. Finally, it helps to remember that life is not black and white, and there are very few easy answers that are also correct. It takes great wisdom to make sense of the world and not to go crazy about it, and great wisdom only comes as a gift of God, and even then he seems to dole it out rather sparingly. Most of us just have to survive by constantly reminding ourselves that the day is coming when God will make everything right, and by recommitting ourselves to the near impossible goals of truth and love. Oh yeah, and last but far from least, we do have a secret weapon in all of this: prayer! God may grant us the peace of mind to survive this crazy, mixed-up, sin-riddled world.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.