I have offended more than one of my good friends by my unwillingness to address certain topics, issues and people through the years. Some have wondered if I lack conviction or am afraid of confrontation. The first is seldom true – I’m a pretty opinionated man, more often described by those who know me as dogmatic (even belligerent) than wishy-washy. The second is a possibility. I do not enjoy conflict and I think the tendency to avoid conflict, while generally a good thing, has been one of my biggest struggles as a pastor.
But I do not believe that my unwillingness to address certain issues is simply a product of fear of conflict or a lack of principles. There is something more at work in my heart than that, a conviction that I believe is important.
Let me be specific. I would prefer to address general trends over specifics, but no one who reads this is going to be confused as to the topic. My thoughts here were spurred by the recent hiring Ergun Caner by Brewton-Parker College in Georgia as their new president and the controversy that has ensued. To say that opinion on Caner is divided would be an understatement. Those who oppose Caner do so with a passion that rivals my feelings when the Red Sox or Patriots win. And Caner’s supporters seem to do so without reservation, forcefully striking back against any who question or criticize him.
I have debated whether putting my opinion of Caner in this post would be productive or counterproductive. I am going to do so, not to open that “Can’er worms” (sorry, horrible pun), but because it will advance the point I am going to make.
I am convinced by the evidence I have seen that Caner created a mythological life-story, rooted not in truth but in expedience. He made a name for himself based on a false story. I think that, at best, he needs to repent of his in and at worst, he is disqualified from public ministry. I am convinced by the evidence Jason Smathers has put forward that Caner’s story was fraudulent.
There, I said it. I realize the irony of sharing my opinion in a post in which I will advocate that it is none of my business to do so. But I have a reason. I do not want those I address (and the bulk of this is directed at Caner’s opponents, those who share my opinion), to think I am simply defending Caner. If he was a candidate for the open position of Baptist Convention of Iowa Executive Director, you would hear me squawk (perhaps not on a blog, but at least to the committee!). If he were being hired by LifeWay or NAMB, I would write about it here. If I was a Georgia Baptist, I would have something to say.
But none of those things are true. Caner and I are not part of the same church. None of my offerings are going to support him or Brewton-Parker College. We are not part of the state convention. Our only connection is that we are part of the same association of autonomous, voluntarily-connected local churches known as the Southern Baptist Convention. That leads me to my thesis.
Ergun Caner’s presidency at Brewton-Parker College is none of my business.
Twenty years ago, I’d have had lunch with some of my pastor friends and we would have talked about how we felt about Brewton-Parker and this hire. We’d have exchanged opinions and gone on our way. Now everything is different. I don’t share my opinions with a few guys around the table, but with hundreds, even thousands of people who read this blog. Now, we have the ability to bare our hearts and blare our opinions all around the world.
And that leads to two somewhat arrogant, self-important but common opinions:
- We believe our views are of more significance than perhaps they are. We mistake the volume of our voices with the impact and import of those voices.
- We believe that we have both the right and the duty to publicly express our opinions on every situation, especially against someone with whom we disagree or someone we believe has done wrong.
Those who have voiced their opinions against Caner have consistently presented their views as noble defenses of the truth. But I am convinced that much of it is more playing the busybody than the noble voice of righteousness. Essentially, I share the views of Caner’s critics, but question their right to publicly pronounce those views and the wisdom of doing so.
Where does the Bible give me the right to publicly opine on the presidential choice of a small college in Georgia?
1) Some have claimed it is our duty to publicly address false teachers. If Ergun Caner was promoting doctrines contrary to the gospel (and my people were aware of those doctrines), I would address them for their protection. But, while Caner has been somewhat forceful (to be kind) in his confrontation of Calvinism, he holds to the biblical gospel and is part of the family. I’ve not heard anyone accuse him of heterodoxy, only heteropraxy.
2) Some have appealed to our relationship as part of the SBC. But the SBC is connectional, not hierarchical. I have a kinship with (some) Georgia Baptists, but I am not part of them. We support missions together through the Cooperative Program, but that does not give me a voice in Georgia Baptist affairs.
3) Some have referenced biblical mandates to publicly rebuke sinners – and there are certainly such verses. But I would argue that the context of those verses indicates that the forum for such verses is primarily the local church. Again, if Caner had some impact on my local church, I would warn them and perhaps confront him. But he doesn’t, so I won’t. The context of those passages does not provide a general warrant for every Christian to public rehearse every opinion he has on every subject.
- Paul’s instructions to Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:1, 2 Timothy 3:16, and 4:2 seem to clearly fall within the local church and preaching ministry that God had given Timothy. Part of preaching the Word is rebuking sin. It does not follow that this passage authorizes us to blog or tweet about another Christian we think has sinned.
- 1 Timothy 5:20 says, “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.” But the context seems to place this squarely within the context of church discipline and the proclamation ministry.
- Titus 1:13 would seem to provide cover for those who engage in the ministry of public rebuke. “Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith…” But the context there is pretty clear. Paul was referring to the “circumcision party” and those who promote “Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth.” A few of the more ardent Caner opponents have questioned his salvation (a couple I have seen who tend to question the redemption and spiritual sincerity of anyone who does not share their theological perspective), but most are simply criticizing his sinful behavior. Caner’s false statements go to his credibility but not the truth of the gospel. He is not presenting a false gospel.
- Titus 2:15, again, seems to be in a local church context and does not authorize social media confrontation of sin.
There is little biblical warrant to justify the public rebuke that we so commonly engage in today.
4) We have forgotten the biblical context of confrontation and rebuke. Two elements seem to be required for rebuke in scripture – relationship and authority. Rebuke in the NT is generally a product of authority. You never see the church at Ephesus issuing a proclamation confronting sin in Corinth. Paul, an apostle, having apostolic authority over the church, issued rebuke. Paul instructed local pastor/elders, Timothy and Titus, who had pastoral authority, to rebuke and correct. They had the right and responsibility to do so. But they were not issuing public proclamations about events a thousand miles away!
There is another element – relationship. Remember the words of Jesus to the lukewarm church of Laodicea? ”Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” (Rev 3:19) I rebuke my children. I publicly rebuke charlatans like Joel Osteen to my people, and am responsible to rebuke sin in the lives of my people needed. I have a relationship that gives me a forum for such.
Do I have a relationship with Ergun Caner? No. Never met him. Never exchanged a word, even an online word, with him. He and I are not in the same church or association. I have no affiliation with the Georgia Baptist Convention for whom he now indirectly works. We are both (now) part of the Southern Baptist Convention, but we are in connectional, autonomous, non-authoritarian bodies.
Do I have authority over Ergun Caner, or is he in authority over me? Nope. Not in the slightest.
Therefore, I do not believe that a public rebuke of him is either my duty or my right.
5) Vengeance is mine, I will repay! To all who are about to become former friends, let me wish you well and tell you I still love you! But while the rebuke of Caner is generally presented as a noble effort to confront sin in the church and protect the purity of the church, I suspect that something more than that may be at work – at least in some circles. I’m not making a blanket accusation, but am certainly making an observation.
People confront Caner about his background stories less because they are concerned about his background and more as a result of his harsh treatment of Calvinists and Calvinism. I would also say (to be an equal opportunity offender) that many have defended him for the same reason – they supported his attacks on Calvinism!
But Paul told us to leave wrath in the hands of God and not to attempt to bring vengeance and justice on our own. If Caner is what I believe he is, then he has a bigger problem than me and my opinions, or anyone else’s. If Caner is what his critics believe he is, then God will deal with him.
Romans 12:19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
Does that not speak directly to this situation?
6) Is there not some value in private instead of public rebuke? I know that many have argued (convincingly to me) that Matthew 18:15 does not directly apply to blogging. If I want to confront something someone has said publicly, I am not required to do so in private first. But, there is a value in making personal confrontation private. I could write a letter to the trustees of Brewton-Parker (which would likely land in the circular file). I could voice an opinion to the Georgia Baptist Convention, if someone would take my call. Private rebuke is better than public, most of the time. It is more likely to bring resolution.
I once wrote an article confronting an action taken jointly by LifeWay and NAMB (concerning WorldChangers). By giving them a copy of my article in advance, and inviting a response, I was able to voice my concern, be heard and build better relationships with those I was criticizing than I had before. Private confrontation is actually more productive than public.
I think the same principle works for personal conflict. It is my habit to take conversations private when they reach a certain level of intensity. If I am going to talk about Ralph McGillicutty (or Ralph wants to talk about me!) then a private exchange on Facebook or email is a better place to have that discussion than in public on this blog or somewhere else. It not only honors Christ, but is more likely to lead to healing than public arguments.
I realize that I’ve offended pretty much everyone in this post. I’ve offended the Caner supporters with my opinions. I’ve offended the Caner opponents by questioning the spiritual right and value of their public rebukes. So, I guess my work here is done. But I’d love to hear your views of my biblical case against public rebuke in this situation.
I’m not interested in another “Caner is great/Caner is evil” debate. I will, as I have time, delete such comments. I’d like to invite discussion of the general topic of public rebuke, and when it is appropriate. What say you?