I remember reading a college textbook in Western Civ differentiating the fascism that infected Germany and Italy and the communism had taken over Russia and was spreading throughout Eastern Europe. In my unsophisticated (ignorant, uneducated – okay, just plain dumb) point of view all I could see was that the end result of these two systems on the opposite ends of the ideological spectrum were essentially identical in practical effect. Brutal dictatorships, oppression, suppression of dissent, elimination of freedoms. Their theoretical differences were swallowed up by a common playbook of political brutality.
You may have seen a recent interview in which Harry Reid was confronted about lies he concocted about Mitt Romney in 2012. There was no sorrow or shame for his bald-faced lies, but a defiant pride that he helped secure an Obama victory. Hold on, my conservative friends. Every day I see posts about Obama the Dems that exhibit pretty much the same regard for truth that Harry Reid did. The point? The political extremes today seem to operate from a common playbook – sacrificing truth and integrity to win elections, dealing in innuendo and rumor and ignoring fact-checking almost entirely. It’s as true on the left as on the right.
The extremes on any spectrum, though ideologically opposed, tend to find themselves operating from a common playbook. While their views are different, their tactics are often nearly identical.
Observations on the Extremes
Since I joined the Baptist Blogging Bluster Brigade a decade ago, I’ve observed our tactics. I’m often more interested in the means than the ends. In some of our pitched battles, those most passionate on both sides, while agreeing on nothing, find themselves operating from a common playbook of tactics and procedures. Recently, I’ve noticed this as I’ve observed two disparate groups – neither distinctively Baptist – the self-appointed prophets of more extreme charismatic movement and the harsher denizens of the discernment ministry community.
Example the First
I recently ran afoul of a self-appointed “prophet of God” – not a pleasant experience. This young man, from a local interdenominational ministry, frequently posted his “prophecies” on Facebook. One day, he posted that a large segment of the church (to which I belong) only held to their views out of laziness because we did not want to bother to win the world to Christ. When I gently challenged him, he doubled down and let me know that I was part of the problem in the church.
He recently blew town after wreaking general havoc in the ministry he was part of and moved 1200 or so miles away. I witnessed self-aggrandizement, arrogance, petulance and the spirit of division in this man, all in the name of “the spirit of prophecy.”
Example the Second
I’ve not only followed discernment ministries, I would describe discernment as a key focus in my preaching and pastoral work. Jesus, Paul, Peter – they all promised that wolves would come among the sheep. False brethren, false christs, false apostles, false prophets, and false teachers would enter the church, seeking to lead God’s people astray. It is utter folly to abandon doctrinal discernment.
But there is discernment and then there is DISCERNMENT. There are discernment ministries that are on PEDs that leave them obsessive, arrogant, and often full of rage. Let’s use the term “discernment enforcers.” They see themselves as the doctrinal bouncers of the Body of Christ, showing not only a willingness but an eagerness to call out those who do not obey their doctrinal rules but also to toss them out of the house.
Mark Twain, in the novel Tom Sawyer, described the message that the protagonist endured one Sunday at church as narrowing the “the predestined elect down to a company so small as to be hardly worth the saving.” In 1993 I attended a major pastor’s conference in the LA area where few Christian leaders and ministries except those in that prominent pastor’s tight circle of friends escaped harsh rebuke. I came away wondering if the church was really so small as the speakers at the conference painted it. Were there so few faithful? Had everyone abandoned the truth? Had Mark Twain’s words come to life?
The self-appointed prophet and the discernment enforcer couldn’t be farther apart theologically – they have nothing in common. Each side views the other as the enemy – not many fellowship potlucks happening between these two communities. But my observation, based on extensive experience, is that they tend to operate from a common playbook. Their tactics and methods are more alike either side will want to admit.
Let’s take a look at that playbook.
The Self-Appointed Prophet/Discernment Enforcer (SAP/DE) Playbook
Please hear me – this is not about every charismatic or every person who attempts to exercise doctrinal discernment. I resent the way some cessationists have painted charismatics with the broadest of brushes. Clearly, they’ve never fellowshiped with, prayed with, served with charismatics, based on the caricatures they present. And not all discernment ministries are like the “discernment enforcers” I’m talking about. This is about the extremes not the norms. It is about the importance of maintaining balance.
So, let’s take a glance at the playbook that both sides seem to operate from.
1. Establish yourself or your views as the Voice of God.
Both sides insist on the inherent humility of their view, but too often fail in execution. The self-appointed prophet (SAP) establishes himself as the mouthpiece of God. The discernment enforcer (DE) believes that God HAS spoken and revealed himself through the Bible AS HE UNDERSTANDS IT. Both have a “sure word” – one from his inner voice, one from his peculiar understanding of the Word.
Both have a tendency to take to themselves an authority as the standard-bearers of truth. For the SAP, his thoughts are revelations from God. Who are YOU to disagree with God? For the DE, the apriori assumption is that the creed or confession he follows is an unassailable expression of apostolic Christianity and departure from it is denial of the faith “once for all delivered to the saints.” Whether it is his own inner voice or his doctrinal confession, this playbook allows him to establish himself as the standard of truth and to judge others.
Humility is sometimes lost in all of this. “I am the arbiter and enforcer of truth. Kneel before Zod!”
2. Paint dissenters in dark and foreboding colors.
We do it in politics. We don’t just disagree with Democrats – we say that they hate freedom and want to destroy America. Democrats don’t just disagree with Republicans – they paint us as dangerous extremists who seek to hurt the poor and unfortunate. The SAP/DE playbook requires that you paint the opposition in the worst possible light.
For both of these sides, cordial disagreement among brethren is not an option. Those who do not assent must be anathematized.
Scripture admonishes us to love one another, but both of these extremes routinely discount those commands by classifying others as outside the boundaries of the faith and unworthy of the brotherly love God’s Word calls for.
- Do Calvinists and non-Calvinists have some theological differences? Yes, of course. Do these differences justify the vitriol of some (SOME – did you see this word? I said SOME, NOT ALL!) on both sides of that debate? If you classify non-Calvinists as theological rubes or enemies of the gospel, you can get away with it. If you classify Calvinists as haters of evangelism, control-conspirators, etc, you can get away with it. But if you see them as brethren, much of what has been done becomes unthinkable.
- Much that has gone on in the charismatic/cessationist battles falls in the same category. We tend to define the extremes as the norm, assuming the TV crazies represent everyone in the movement. The rhetoric on both sides is despicable at times.
- I’ve even seen people anathematize others for their eschatological views. Yes, eschatology matters – more than some want to admit. But if you question another’s spiritual bona fides because their view of the end times differs from yours – well, you have a problem.
Can I point something out? 1 Corinthians 13 is inspired and inerrant Scripture. It really is. It wasn’t added by hippies in the 60s. And Paul meant it.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 1 Corinthians 13:7
In Christ, we ought to be looking for the best in one another, not fault-finding and magnifying those faults. Defining people as heretics is a last resort not a first response.
3. Require and enforce conformity.
The goal of the Christian life is to become like Jesus. Too often, though, the temptation of leaders in the church is to make others become like us. We need to remember that someone does not have to be like me to become like HIM!
While church discipline is needed and important, too often it can be threatened and implemented as a means of bludgeoning those who dissent from the pastor and forcing them to conform. The SAP speaks with the Voice of God and those who do not conform are in rebellion against God. The DE has no doubts on his interpretation and those who disagree must be called to repent, put under discipline, anathematized, “called out,” excommunicated and shunned.
Unity is a work of the Spirit produced in those who have experienced the common work of Christ’s grace. It is not a work of humanly-enforced conformity.
4. Only fellowship within your circle.
Stay within your small circle of friends. Never venture outside your comfort zone to fellowship with those who have different views, different experiences, different opinions.
- Read only books that agree with your established viewpoints.
- Listen only to preachers that agree with you and reinforce your views.
- Attend conferences of the like-minded where your views will be buttressed without being challenged!
Anyone who challenges your views is a tool of Satan and ought to be avoided! They are the enemy and we are to have no fellowship with darkness.
This is actually a problem not limited to those on the extremes. Dr. Hendricks told us in seminary that if we only read books written by those whose positions we share, we will simply be reinforcing our prejudices and never challenging our thinking. That is way too common!
5. Use ridicule and derogation as a tool of God.
The other side is the enemy. They must be squashed. In addition to caricaturing their views, it is good to hold them up to ridicule and to use social media to belittle them. Rather than engaging in serious discussions, it is better to talk about that person scorn, derision and mockery in your social media circles.
That should suffice as a summary of the SAP/DE Playbook. There are many other aspects of the playbook that could be mentioned. But it is my belief that this is not the way that God would have us converse with one another. As Paul told the Corinthians, there is a “more excellent way.”
Let’s Get a New Playbook
The Bible is a book of balance – most truths are held in tension with other truths of equal importance. This is a Baptist blog. While I’m not a cessationist, I’m not going to pretend that I support the views of a self-appointed prophet or give modern-day revelation of truth credence (I’m scoping out a series on this topic). But I think there is a new playbook we need to learn from that is superior to the one that many have used.
1) Love is ALWAYS part of God’s playbook.
Speak the truth in love. Follow 1 Corinthians 13. Do everything for the edification of the Body of Christ. Here’s a challenge for you.
Take a red highlighter and a green highlighter and use them as you read the epistles. Mark every passage in which the author calls out false teachers or warns about the dangers of doctrinal departure with a red highlighter. Mark every passage about unity and love and building up the Body of Christ with a green marker.
Yes, there will be a good bit of red, but your Bible will look like a FOREST! Green, green, green. Why? Because God knows that anger and division are in our hearts and he constantly calls us to fight that and to seek unity. We default to fighting; it is of the flesh. He wants us to walk in the Spirit and seek unity.
If your discernment ministry defaults to anger, to “calling out,” if it sees the worst in people – it needs to be renewed in the Spirit of God and conformed to Christ. Seek the better way.
2) Practice Doctrinal Prioritization (ie. Triage).
Dr. Mohler calls it triage. I have a book coming out in a couple of months on the topic (Brick Walls and Picket Fences) . All doctrines are important, but not all doctrines are created equal. If someone denies the truth of God’s Word, the deity of Christ, the Trinity, the blood atonement – these are major issues. Heresies. Division is called for. Other doctrines aren’t so stark. We don’t have to divide over every issue.
My church staff has a Calvinist, a non-Calvinist and an antinomist (me). It’s not a point of division. We do not all share a common view on the end times. If one of my associates was the senior pastor, our communion practice would be very different. We have different views on a lot of topics. We don’t fight. We just unite around our church’s essentials and operate on the assumption that I am right about everything else (fortunately, they don’t read this blog often, so I can get away with saying this).
All doctrine is important, but it is not all equally important. Calling someone a heretic or anathematizing them should only be done as a last resort. We ought to seek unity around the gospel as best we can and divide only when necessary.
3) Broaden your circle of fellowship.
I am not a charismatic, but I love charismatics. I love the purity of their passion for Christ. Sometimes, I want to shake some of them, or even slap them (in Christian love!) and wake them up. Their lack of doctrinal discernment and willingness to hoist anchor and be blown about by the winds of doctrine frustrate me. But I love praying with them and fellowshiping with them. And I’m sorry, but worshiping with a bunch of charismatics is fun – they do not hold back!
I once was reading a discernment blog and it was talking about a heretic from Cedar Rapids. There was a problem. This guy was a good friend of mine. Did he have some doctrinal issues with which I disagreed? Yes. But I’d spent hours (hundreds of hours?) talking with and praying with Francis Frangipane. This man stood by me in some of the darkest times of my like and ministry. I know he loves Jesus, loves the Word, loves the gospel and is NOT a heretic. Disagree with him? I did. We talked about it. But don’t call him a heretic. Not around me.
The difference? The men on that blog didn’t know the man. I did. You get to know people, it becomes harder to drop the h-bomb (heretic) on them. You realize that while you don’t agree with them, those Calvinists might actually be REAL Christians, those non-Calvinists might actually know a little Bible and not be complete morons! Our preconceptions fade away as we get to know people.
Let’s get out of our Gulags. In Russia, they sent people to gulags to isolate them so they could not affect the rest of the population. We’ve done that to ourselves. We’ve isolated ourselves from everyone else. The Reformed Gulag. The Anti-Calvinist Gulag. The Cessationist Gulag. The Hipster Church Gulag. The Anti-LifeWay/ERLC Gulag. The Christ-Centered Hermeneutic Gulag. There are a million. We quarantine ourselves into our little groups, isolate from others, and refuse to broaden our reach beyond our little band.
We need to get out of our gulags and get involved with others in the Body of Christ.
4) Remember Paul’s Clear Word.
He couldn’t have spoken any more clearly in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3.
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
This is essentially point 1 all over again, but it is where I want to stop. No matter how many hits we get, how famous we are, what anyone says or thinks about us, if we do not operate from a heart of love, we are nothing, do accomplish nothing and we gain nothing.
That’s what God says.