Sending the Camp Into Hysterics

Something happened on Friday that reminded me of something I wanted to write.

The Huffington Post published an article designed for maximum effect, that effect being throwing a hand grenade into the evangelical camp and watching it explode. The ploy this time was to "report" on a panel that took place on same-sex "marriage" in Washington, D.C. (correction: Florida) at which Pastor Tim Keller spoke. The Huffington Post, being the paragon of journalistic virtue it is, singled out a lone quote from Keller, to the effect that "somebody can be a Christian and support same-sex 'marriage.'"

With almost no effort at all I identified numerous problems with the reliability of this quote. It was obvious to me that given the context and topic of discussion, Keller was very likely describing how many younger Christians feel about the issue; and that, of course, is a very different thing from prescribing the "way things ought to be," or expressing one's own position. My intuitions proved to be spot on; Keller issued a clarification confirming my suspicions mere hours after the hit-job appeared.

It didn't matter.

Twitter had exploded. Facebook had lit up. Expressions of deep outrage and disappointment appeared. Keller had crossed the line. He was, suddenly, "not one of us," to the minds of many whose comments I read. The trigger fingers were oh-so-itchy.

The Huffington Post was counting on that.

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Let me share a little autobiography.

I spent my late teens and early twenties in a remarkably toxic polemical environment. I am not exaggerating when I say that if you were to have followed me around with a tape recorder you would have thought, upon playback, that the greatest enemy the church of Jesus Christ faced in those days was the faculty of Dallas Theological Seminary. No joke. (If you're curious, that was because I was into neither dispensational theology nor comic book eschatology.) It was a full time job (exhausting, really) bashing and belittling every "other" group of evangelical Christians. These were the waters in which I swam.

I believe God saved me from drowning in this cesspool.

I am by no means a completed man, but I like to think that God has been and continues to teach me to put childish things behind me. Among those childish things is the inordinate sense that among our bigger problems is other Christians.

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Not everyone jumped on the "Tim Keller is a sell-out" campaign. Some interacted with the Keller quote on its own normative terms, dealing with the substantive matter (is same-sex "marriage" consistent with Christianity?), without necessarily granting its reliability and/or impugning Tim Keller for it. But we must remember (as John Frame has spent a lifetime teaching us) the "normative" question is never the only question, and it is rarely sufficient. There is also to consider the existential attitudes of the people analyzing a question, with their whole range of biases and prejudices. And, even more importantly, there is a situational context in which a question arises. The "situation" in this case seemed fairly clear to me: an anti-Christian, left wing website was flagrantly trying to get evangelicals stirred up about an alleged "defection" of one of their greatest advocates.

And, as I see it, even a mere "normative" analysis of the question, offered in this situation, does nothing but further the Huffington Post's aims. Jumping on the controversy of the question, regardless of how narrowly one wants to tailor it, has the effect of continuing to stir the pot. It contributes, especially in the social media age, to the "piling on" effect the perpetrators wanted in the first place. People dive in to this kind of commentary often precisely because they have biases they want to see confirmed: "I always knew Tim Keller was squishy!" Fine distinctions between the "normative" question and whether or not Keller really holds the views attributed to him are usually lost on such people, and all that is accomplished is to cement their own prejudices.

Oh, and they usually never stick around to read the clarification that, no, Tim Keller doesn't believe the quote attributed to him.

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What are our obligations?

We have an obligation to the Truth. That sounds simple enough. But it is actually extremely complex and multifaceted. We are obligated to the truth of whether Tim Keller said what he said and what he meant by it. And we are obligated to the truth of the normative question his quote raised.

I want to suggest there is yet another truth to which we are obliged.

One of the things that is righteous, holy, and true is the spiritual unity of Christ's body in the bonds of peace. Note: this is something normatively true. Christ's people have unity in the bonds of peace. We should be no less zealous for this truth than any other.

This means we must maintain, affirm, and uphold this unity and peace. This means being utterly zealous for the character and reputation of Christian brothers and sisters. It means being zealous for the Golden Rule. It means giving generous amounts of charity and benefits of the doubt.

And, practically speaking, it means this: When an anti-Christian, left-wing rag like the Huffington Post makes an obvious effort to stir dissension among Christian brothers and sisters, we must stop taking the bait. We must wait and see. We must seek clarification. We owe this. We owe charity and benefit of the doubt, something we do not really owe the Huffington Post.

In short: when in this situation we take the bait and jump on the bandwagon "piling on" Tim Keller, even if it is merely probing the substantive question or asking questions, we can unwittingly (and horrifyingly) aid and abet those seeking to sow dissension among Christians.

I have been guilty of this times too numerous to count, and I shudder to think of it.

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The weak, tired, scared, fragmented, cowardly, and spineless (read: the evangelical church at large) need leadership. And leadership is not effective when it comes in the form of browbeating them from behind (or, like the Russians, shooting at them from behind).

I believe far too many conservative, zealous, theologically robust organizations, websites, magazines, and blogs believe that is what leadership is: browbeating other Christians. A non-stop stream of cynical bashing the larger evangelical church for its spineless, anemic witness in our dark times. However, in my experience the typical evangelical layperson or pastor is not squishy because they mean to be. And they most certainly don't grow a spine because of somebody yelling at them about how spineless they are.

Soldiers cowering behind the sandbags respond to real leadership, which consists of encouragement from the front. They need to be shown how to engage, not reminded incessantly of how they are not engaging.

I am suggesting that dissension "baiting" does not just come from the likes of the Huffington Post. It comes from other Christians just as frequently, Christians who believe we will advance in our cultural battles by thinning our own ranks. These are the types that, years ago, decided that Rick Warren was Public Enemy Number One. I remember well reading all the blog "critiques" of The Purpose-Driven Life, completely bewildered. I actually read The Purpose-Driven Life and, while not the book I would have written, thought: "This is a pretty good book that will benefit a lot of people." (I have come a long way.)

That is all background for what I am about to say:

I personally aim to have my threshold for calling out another Christian brother or sister extremely high.

Itchy trigger fingers are ripe for being manipulated and baited by God-haters and heresy-hunters alike. On the contrary, I want to be as zealous for the unity of Christ's bride as I am for the normative truth of various questions. I believe that those engaged in cultural battles, particularly those in positions of leadership, should likewise adopt a very high threshold.

Real, lasting, and effective cultural leadership needs to be leading from the front. Heavy on artillery towards the real opposition, such as, say, those who would make us stop preaching biblical sexual ethics or force us to pay for Sandra Fluke's abortions. And, simultaneously, encouragement and uplift for fellow-soldiers, even those who are stumbling or faltering, the scared, spineless, and wounded. The Huffington Post wants evangelical Christians to shoot their wounded, not bind them up. And in the age of social media they achieve this with alarming alacrity.

This is not to say that nobody should hold Christian leaders accountable. It is to say that the unity of Christ's body in the bonds of peace requires a higher threshold than a Tweet.

Christians with itchy trigger fingers are easy targets to manipulate, and the Huffington Post put on a clinic in its execution on Friday. If Christians would care as much for the Truth of their spiritual unity and the obligations that entails as much as they are for the Truth on various cultural questions, they would be far more formidable.

As it stands right now, a single post on a website is enough to send the entire camp into hysterics.