On February 11 Phil Johnson used a Facebook post to accuse Thabiti Anyabwile of mission drift. The following is a screenshot of Phil’s original post:
For those who are not aware, Phil is the Executive Director of Grace to You (John MacArthur’s resource and media center), and Thabiti is pastor of Anacostia River Church in southeast Washington, D.C.
What followed was a brief interaction between Thabiti and Phil, which can be viewed at the following links:
Since it appears this topic has not received any attention here at SBC Voices, and since the issue seems to have been resolved, I thought it might be fruitful to see if we can draw some conclusions from their dialogue.
And just so we’re clear, I must say up front that I’m writing this with the assumption that you’ve read the articles linked to above (preferably in order). It is not my aim to debate who was right or wrong, but to see what we can learn from this interaction about how to (and not to) have fruitful dialogue.
Before diving into this I should also say that I have a deep respect for both of these men. They have labored for the gospel in ways that are truly inspiring and I’m thankful for both of them. That said, here are my thoughts now that the dust has settled.
I don’t understand Phil’s strategy/goal behind his initial Facebook post. In his blog article he calls this a “poke.” I think that’s probably a reasonable analogy, but I’m having trouble finding an example of this type of interaction in my Bible. The tones that seem to fit his post do not seem to be embodied by Proverbs 15:1 where we are told that “a soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” I don’t see the Bible encouraging this type of hit-and-run “correction.” Did Phil really think Thabiti had drifted from the gospel mission and would receive this as a word of correction? Or was this just Phil blowing off steam? The brevity of such statements on social media make it virtually impossible to grasp the original intent. I’m very thankful that a more fruitful discussion came out of this “poke,” but we should still ask ourselves if there was a better way that this conversation could have been started.
I also don’t understand how Phil felt justified in making such a serious accusation toward a fellow brother who is also an elder. First Timothy 5:19 is pretty clear: “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.” Now I realize we need to bear in mind several things when applying this passage to this situation. First, Phil and Thabiti are not in the same church. Second, this passage cannot be used as a prooftext by pastors to avoid legitimate accusations. Third, this passage does not prohibit us from sharpening one another through questioning each other or seeking clarification. However, the underlying principle seems to be that the office of pastor is to be treated with the greatest respect and if you want to accuse a pastor of drifting from his mission of preaching the gospel, then you’d better have your ducks in a row. A very straight row. And you better have at least three ducks. Phil’s initial Facebook post offered no evidence of his accusation.
Now I’m guessing some may think I’m being too nit-picky here, so if that’s the case ask yourself this question: Would Phil Johnson have posted a comment like this about Pastor John MacArthur or one of the other elders at his own church? Of course not! He would’ve gone to him privately and sorted things out. If the same blood that bought Phil also bought Thabiti, and if the same Lord that Phil serves is the same Master that called Thabiti to shepherd his flock, then is it really asking too much for that commonality to be reflected to all the onlookers on Facebook? [See clarification below.] If we are to reflect the character of the Bible to the world around us, then – at a minimum – we need to show respect for those we disagree with by legitimately arguing our case in a Christ-honoring way. I think Phil does that in his blog post where he replied to Thabiti’s first article, so again, I’m thankful these brothers brought it together. But what about the times when things don’t come together? Often things can quickly escalate and get out of control. This is where I believe we can learn a lot from Thabiti’s initial reply.
If we are going to engage in public discussion we must be eager to listen, slow to speak, and we must learn to guard our tongue. Whether you agree with Thabiti’s position or not, I believe his first reply is a great example of earnestly trying to be gracious, honest, and winsome, while still welcoming further clarification from Phil. Similarly, I believe the case that Phil makes in his blog article is done in a respectful manner while still defending his position unapologetically. This is where we need to be careful. We need not apologize for the case we are making, but we should avoid at all cost any unnecessary offense. And while we don’t need to apologize for our case, it might turn out that we need to apologize for our assumptions. We actually see a great example of this in Thabiti’s final article in his point number 9, where he calls himself out for taking things for granted that he shouldn’t have. Props to Thabiti for being honest enough to admit that. That kind of transparency can go a long way in building trust.
Now, I know I said I wasn’t going to take sides, and so in one sense, I’m holding to that. But this last observation depends on the fact that I believe Thabiti has defended himself well enough to dispel Phil’s allegations. My final observation is that when we feel compelled to confront a brother over something we believe is out of step with the gospel, then we should endeavor to believe the best about that brother rather than jump to the worst of conclusions. When we resort to strawman arguments and nasty name-calling we have put our lamp under a basket and instead have taken up the scheme of Satan. May God help us to recover a love for one another that helps us guard our hearts against such tactics. When we must address or even rebuke a fellow brother, we can prepare ourselves for the disappointment if our fears are confirmed, but we should be earnestly hoping that there is a simple misunderstanding, even if it means we might be the ones who look foolish. This type of character should be natural for Christians who have been shown grace upon grace by a God who had every right to sentence us to eternal damnation.
I pray this helps us all think about how to engage in open discussions most effectively for the sake of Christ’s Kingdom and God’s glory. Grace and peace.
Based on some of the discussion in the comments I have realized I was not as clear as I should have been in point #2. I unintentionally made it sound like I was saying that Phil should have contacted Thabiti privately before posting anything publicly. Obviously if I believed that then I never would have posted this article without contacting Phil Johnson. If you re-read point #2 you’ll notice I never actually said that, but I understand why someone could take it that way. What I did say was, “If the same blood that bought Phil also bought Thabiti, and if the same Lord that Phil serves is the same Master that called Thabiti to shepherd his flock, then is it really asking too much for that commonality [i.e., their unity in Christ] to be reflected to all the onlookers on Facebook?” That last part was my clue that I have no problem with Phil having a public discussion. My point in referring to how Phil would approach one of his fellow elders was simply to highlight the respect owed to the office, not to make a one-to-one prescription. I apologize for any confusion this may have caused for the readers, and I hope this clears things up.