by Peter J. Leithart
9 . 28 . 15
Members of the Corinthian church were filing suits against one another before the Roman courts, and Paul was livid. Saints will judge the world. Saints will judge angels. Since the saints are destined for that level of judicial authority, “are you not competent to constitute the smallest law court?” (1 Corinthians 6:2-3).
Is there, Paul asks, “not among you one wise man who will be able to decide between his brethren, but brother goes to law with brother, and that before unbelievers?” (vv. 5-6). Is there not one Moses among the Corinthians, or even one man qualified as judge? (cf. Exodus 18; Deuteronomy 1).
Paul urges that it is better to be defrauded and wronged than to take a brother to court: “It is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another” (v. 7). Paul urged the Corinthians to follow Jesus by suffering shame, rather than seeking vindication before unbelievers.
Many Christians today are resolved not to take a brother to a civil court, but try to solve disputes through arbitration or through church-courts. That is highly commendable.
Yet many Christians are perfectly content to take disputes with their brothers to the web, presenting them before the court of public opinion, before unbelievers.
What should we say about that? Does that come under the same Pauline strictures? The web, after all, is not only filled with unbelievers but is a notorious free-for-all. Civil courts have rules of evidence and mechanisms to confirm or refute allegations. The web has none of these controls, and taking a case to the web is like taking it to a court where everyone is judge, jury, and executioner. People who have no right to have an opinion get to express an opinion. Is that a good place for Christians to be wrangling with each other?
Is there a difference between public theological debate and public airing of grievances and complaints against a church or a pastor? Am I contradicting my own principle by blogging about this?
I understand the temptation to take it to the Court of Google. Resolving disputes through church channels is laborious, slow, unsatisfying. Church boards and courts make mistakes, and, as in civil courts, decisions often leave all parties frustrated and unhappy about the outcome. Many churches in the United States are nondenominational churches that don't present any obvious way of resolving conflicts that are unresolved in a local church.
We want vindication, and the web seems to provide the opportunity. That's not really true, because web disputes are more inconclusive than any court case could be. No internet dispute is ever over. People just move on to inspect the next crash site.
That laborious, flawed, church-based way of resolution seems to be the method Paul lays out. We may do it badly, but God has entrusted the judgment of the world and angels to the saints, so we had better start getting some practice.
The fundamental is: Is Jesus honored when Christians take one another to task before a watching world?
I'm afraid that Doug Wilson's got too long a track record of wanting to eat his cake and have it, too, on this kind of thing. I've been incubating a set of posts that would review the biblical literature generally and the prophetic literature in particular; and get around to an overview of the writings of the reformer Heinrich Bullinger on the office and activity of the prophet as providing a doctrinal and literary precedent for what is now called watchblogging ... but stuff takes time. In the interim, here's a few lengthy quotes from another contributor to First Things. Yes, you saw in the title it was going to be Carl Trueman, and so it is.
A free press is basic to the health of democratic culture in the civil sphere because it offers one line of public accountability for those in public office. Those who perform immediate public acts should expect to be subject to immediate public scrutiny. And what is true for the culture at large is also true for its various subcultures. A free Christian press is also important for the Christian subculture: it keeps leaders and organizations accountable.
Of course, as with the mainstream media, there is the ideal and there is the reality. The ideal is a fiercely independent media seeking the truth in a disinterested and objective way. The reality is that everyone is owned by somebody. Every radio station has its sponsors. Every newspaper has its proprietor or shareholders. Every Christian organization has its theological confession and its constituent base. It is naive to think that this does not impact how these groups respond to events and seek to portray reality. And there is a sense in which they have every right to do so. The alternative—-state control—-is distinctly undesirable.
Where the situation becomes sinister is when one group attempts to police the activities of another, or where one Christian organization or leader uses their personal power or share of the market to prevent others, with whom they are not formally connected, from speaking freely and asking the hard questions. At that point, things take a very sinister turn indeed.
the health of the Christian subcultures in our society depends to an important extent upon the freedom of the Christian press; and that in turn depends upon having plenty of public voices and different groups presenting their different perspectives without the threat of being silenced by those with power and money. I need voices that criticize me and so does everyone else who operates in the public Christian sphere. Of course, I do not like being criticized; but it is necessary for the health of public life that it be so. It would be a disaster for us all if one or two organizations or individuals came to wield such influence that dissenting voices were eliminated. If that were to happen, there would less accountability for public figures, the news would be very carefully stage-managed, and we would all be impoverished. That is one reason why the Caner case is so incredibly important and, depending on the reason for the removal of the material, why the Mefferd controversy might yet prove to be very significant indeed.
As John Milton said regarding truth: “Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter? Her confuting is the best and surest suppressing.” I am with Milton here: The freer the press, the less the innocent have to fear and the more the guilty need to be worried.
For people who haven't studied theories of the press this here is a good primer to the basics of the libertarian theory of the press. There's a modified form of that theory called social responsibility theory that I sort of prefer but Trueman's made it clear which theory of the press he's working from.
What he's highlighted in the last few years in the wake of the Driscoll controversies is something I'll quote at length:
by Carl R. Trueman
3 . 14 . 14
The recent revelation that Mars Hill Church in Seattle paid an outside company to boost sales of its pastor’s books has raised questions not simply about personal integrity but also about the very culture of American Evangelicalism.
As an English Presbyterian living in the States, I am never quite sure about whether I am an “Evangelical” by American standards. Back home, I am Evangelical without question, but here it is more complicated. I certainly hold to a traditional, orthodox Protestant faith with a strong existential twist. But American Evangelicalism is more (and sometimes much less) than that. The political commitments of the movement are, on the whole, a mystery to me. And, while the celebrity leadership of the movement is comprehensible to me in sociological terms, I find it distasteful and arguably unbiblical. It too often seems to represent exactly what Paul was criticizing in 1 Corinthians 1.
For those unfamiliar with recent American evangelical history, some background: Six or seven years ago, Calvinism became cool. More than that, Calvinism became so cool it started to become a very marketable commodity and to attract big money. A broad, eclectic, and dynamic movement emerged, dubbed that of the “Young, Restless and Reformed,” after the title of a book by Collin Hansen. Calvinistic churches seemed to be thriving as mainline churches continued to struggle. Recruitment at Reformed seminaries remained buoyant even as it declined elsewhere. Young people read serious theology and sought to connect their faith to all areas of their lives.
As a professor at a Reformed seminary and as a pastor of a Presbyterian church, I certainly rejoice in the renewed interest in the teaching of the Reformers which this movement helped to generate. I have personally benefitted from the movement in many ways. Its advent was at the time most welcome. As the poet said, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!”
Yet the movement, such as it was, soon started to show signs of strain. Mark Driscoll and James MacDonald shared a Christian platform with T. D. Jakes, a prosperity preacher and a minister in a non-Trinitarian denomination. As a result, they stepped down from the Gospel Coalition, the movement’s flagship organization, with best wishes for their future ministry but with strong hints that behind the scenes the departure had been less than amicable. Then, other issues came to light: It emerged late last year that Mark Driscoll used ghost writers to produce some of his books, and that material had apparently been taken from other authors without citation. Finally, last week, came the revelation that his bestselling marriage book had been made into a bestseller with the use of more church funds than many congregations have in their entire annual budget.
Mark Driscoll is one person, a uniquely talented individual. Yet he is also a function of structural problems within the new Reformed movement itself. Despite its distinct and in many ways sophisticated theology, the “young, restless, and reformed” movement has always been in some respects simply the latest manifestation of the weakest aspects of American Evangelicalism. It was, and is, a movement built on the power of a self-selected band of dynamic personalities, wonderful communicators, and talented preachers who have been marketed in a very attractive manner. Those things can all be great goods but when there is no real accountability involved, when financial arrangements are opaque in the extreme, and when personalities start to supplant the message, serious problems are never far away.
The overall picture is one of disaster. Within the church, I suspect most pastors look with horror at the amount of money involved in some of these projects and will turn away in disgust. Outside the church, people know sharp practice when they see it, no matter what the strict legality of such might be. The reputation of the church suffers, and sadly it does not suffer in this case unjustly.
And then, finally, there is the silence. The one thing that might have kept the movement together would have been strong, transparent public leadership that openly policed itself and thus advertised its integrity for all to see. Yet the most remarkable thing about the whole sorry saga, from the Jakes business until now, has been the silence of many of the men who present themselves as the leaders of the movement and who were happy at one time to benefit from Mark Driscoll’s reputation and influence. One might interpret this silence as an appropriate refusal to comment directly on the ministry of men who no longer have any formal connection with their own organizations.
Yet the leaders of the “young, restless, and reformed” have not typically allowed that concern to curtail their comments in the past. Many of them have been outspoken about the teaching of Joel Osteen, for example. In their early days, when the Emergent Church was vying with the new Calvinism for pole position in the American evangelical world, they launched regular, and often very thorough, critiques of the Emergent leaders. In retrospect, however, it is clear that these were soft targets. Their very distance made them safe. Problems closer to home are always much harder to speak to, much more likely to earn opprobrium from one’s friends, and thus much more likely to be ignored. The result, however, is that some leaders become very accustomed to always doing things their way. All of us who are thought of as Evangelical or Reformed now live with the bitter fruit of that failure of leadership.
If John Piper wants to say Mark Driscoll's resignation was a defeat for Reformed theology John Piper has to concede his responsibility and agency for that satanic defeat, more or less.
Anyone remember Robert Morris' complaint about how these bloggers wouldn't have a platform unless they piggybacked on somebody with a name? We can call that the authoritarian theory of the press and these sorts of people tend to be in or work for the elite that controls the means of production and distribution of media content and they work from the conviction that only those people in such a cabal have any business distributing content or managing what is available in the mass and social media. Not perhaps the most nuanced way of formulating the authoritarian theory of the press but since people who seem to lean so strongly on this theory don't seem to have any room for nuance in discussing what bloggers do and how they do it, well, sometimes a fool must be responded to according to his folly is in the Bible, after all.
I would suggest the real question Peter Leithart and others may need to address is not "Is Jesus honored when ... ?" but "What theory of the press are you tacitly invoking when you ask these rhetorical questions?" If we had an opportunity to pin down what guys against bloggers think about the level of freedom and opportunity people should have to use the power of the press I think more than just a few of them would turn out to have elitist and authoritarian views of who should be able to participate in mass and social media.