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Christianity Today, October 6, 1997
When Christians Fight Christians (Part 2 of 2)
Part two of two parts; click here to read part one
All this was accomplished. The conferees left in a happy hopefulness. Unfortunately, the peace began to unravel in less than 24 hours. As most of the leaders caught planes for home, MacArthur and Sproul headed for a tv set to film a prescheduled John Ankerberg show critiquing the ECT statement. When this show was aired nationally, the ECT signers were shocked. They felt that the show renewed the attacks on ECT just as though the Fort Lauderdale meeting had never happened. From that point on, relations have gone from bad to worse.
It is a sad situationnot that the dispute continues, for there are profound and profoundly important theological issues at stakebut that evangelical leaders who share so much have become so alienated from each other. The story is not over yet. Attempts are being made to organize another meeting. But for now, the terrible irony is that an attempt at reconciliation probably made things worse.
It seems that in the flush of reconciliation, the principals thought they had accomplished more understanding than they really had. Those who had signed the ECT statement believed they had resolved misunderstandings. The critics thought otherwise. While they were glad that ECT signers would affirm Reformed orthodoxy, they still did not understand how they could also affirm ECT. As Kennedy told me, "We all felt that was not the full result that [we hoped for]. We would have preferred that they removed their names [from the ECT statement]."
Media exposure broke open these cracks. Michael Horton told me, "For these really sensitive topics, every word needs to be chosen. Emotional rhetoric, which comes easily when you are playing to an audience, needs to be kept to a minimum." He pointed out that both sides have made public statements that upset the other. Television, never a subtle medium, particularly smashed their growing rapport. It is very hard to hold on to a developing understanding while arguing your point on TV.
I suggested to Stowell that the leaders had needed to go further at their meeting, discussing what they would do and say differently as a result of the meeting. They needed, that is, to agree not merely on doctrine but on conduct. He readily agreed. All the leaders, he thought, faced pressures from their own constituencies. It might have saved the meeting if they had made time (there was none, as they all had evening plans) to discuss how they would present the results of the meeting to their supporters. "What difference will this make? What pressures will this cause?"
"For me," Horton says, "the meeting was like a seven-day tour of Europe. It was a blur. Everybody had said something, and we all remembered what we had said. Some of the people involved were so anxious to walk out with a contract that we didn't really settle on what we had achieved."
Nevertheless, Stowell talked about the breakdown as more than a lack of time or procedure. "We end up in the midst of an emerging controversy, talking to everybody on our side, rarely talking to our brothers on the other side. It's kind of weird that Matthew 18 still doesn't ring true in our lifestyles."
The ECT battle shows all the marks of the disputatious style now dominating American discourse. Leaders who shared long histories and very deep agreement in theology, who represented much of the leadership of evangelical Christianity, could not achieve a conciliatory solution to their differences. Some expressed their concerns through cries of alarm and betrayal, while others were stunned by the attack. It was extremely difficult to get them to meet, and when they did meet, their agreement quickly fell apart.
Concern for unity brought the ECT partisans together to seek reconciliation. The urgencies of their particular constituencies, the sense that proclaiming prophetic truth from "outside the walls" is every leader's first duty, the lack of deep community pressures toward reconciliation, even among leaders who have been friends and comrades for years, drove them apart.
WHAT THE SIXTIES REALLY TAUGHT US
Doctrinal battles are nothing new. In this sense the ECT dispute is a throwbackit might have been fought in the sixteenth century.
This controversy, too, had little or no intersection with the institutional church. Broadsides were published in parachurch publications or on TV and radio shows. Compare this with previous doctrinal disputes of American Christianity, fought in church councils and denominational publications. Church splits occurred regularly, but they led to the establishment of new churches and new denominations. Churches have members. Parachurch organizations have donors.
The novelty of the ECT fight goes deeper than its institutional setting, though. Like many modern disputes, it is dominated by a style that the sixties made famous: protest.
Protest is a strong, often symbolic public statement aimed at shaping public opinion. While protest is not new (Luther started the Reformation by nailing a protest on a church door), it has come to be our first and main reflex when something troubles us. Everybody today pictures himself or herself as an embattled prophet, shouting the truth from outside the walls. Our motto might be Yell First, Talk Later.
Where once protest was the last resort of people with no other access to powerin 1955 blacks in Montgomery, Alabama, could not form a committee to visit the mayorprotest has become the first resort of those who are unhappy, even if they have substantial power. Protest is the preferred tactic of both sides of the abortion debate, of every wing of the political parties, of fundamentalists and antifundamentalists, of feminists and antifeminists. Protest is perpetual.
Protest also "works." Many commentators lament the increased rancor of American politics, often bemoaning the bad manners of the people involved. Much more than character is involved, however. Rancor fits our circumstances. In a fractionated society, linked mainly by media and money, protest offers strong, clear gestures to attract like-minded people (donors). You can build a constituency around dissent, the feistier the better.
The media love protest. For reporters, it's the easiest story to write, offering two neatly separated sides. Protest suits the talk-show format, while centrism and alliance-building are boring fare on tv or radio. Protest goes well on the Internet, too, where flaming charges and sourceless reports get traded in chat rooms. Accusations and counteraccusations can move faster and reach more people than ever before.
The career of Billy Graham is, by way of contrast, instructive. He forswore protest as a tactic. All his life he has felt deeply concerned about liberal tendencies in American Christianity. The launching of this magazine was, in part, a protest against them. Yet Graham's ministry expressed those concerns in an overwhelmingly centrist way. He sought links to everybody from Martin Luther King, Jr., to Pope John Paul II. His crusades are known for their inclusive and unifying effects. It is this concern for harmony, as much as anything, that has won Graham such wide admiration. Yet, as much as Graham is admired, few leaders today seek to emulate his style.
We receive plenty of guidance from Scripture bearing on how we should handle disputes. "Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you" (Col. 3:13). "Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong" (1 Thess. 5:15). "[Love] keeps no record of wrongs" (1 Cor. 13:5).
There is a cost to conciliation. You must be willing to answer softly. You must be willing to give up the final word. You must be willing to lose your dignity, if it comes to that.
A person who seems not to remember that he was wronged, a person who returns love for hurt, does not seem very potent. Neither did Jesus, through most of his life. Jesus' example stands behind Paul's admonitions not to repay wrong with wrong, but to forgive. Paul certainly does not require compromising the truth or ceasing to speak strongly for it. Jesus did not; Paul did not. Yet love was preeminent. Its absence, Paul tells us, would make the greatest miracles meaningless (1 Cor. 13:2). Both Jesus and Paul spoke harsh words of truth on occasion, but they were best known for building a new community out of love.
How can we build this new community today in American Christianity?
More and better structures for resolving conflict would help. The attempts of groups like EMNR to clarify standards and develop accountability are admirable. So are conciliation efforts such as those that Peacemaker Ministries offers (largely through volunteers). Christians need others who will press them, gently but insistently, to seek reconciliation. We never seem to have enough such persons.
Structures work when they encourage and enable such personal contacts. Administrative machinery by itself is unlikely to reduce conflict, because each dispute is different (or seems so to the participants), and because reconciliation is a matter of the spirit more than the law.
Still, most of us do not participate directly in these controversies. But we do play a role. As controversies heat up, we are often asked to take sides, to act. Ordinary Christians can play a role in resolving quarrels by resisting beguiling versions of the truth and demonstrating wisdom in the way they respond to appeals for support. Many fights will die down if a broad Christian audience proves unsympathetic. While quarreling Christians claim they are fighting for principle, Christian constituents would be wise not to take this claim at face value but instead to ask the following questions:
1. Has there been a sincere attempt to make personal contact before concerns are aired publicly? Have the quarreling parties met and talked over their differences? This is especially important when the issue is one of personal conduct, but it applies even when differences in belief are being aired and the reputations of the people involved are at stake. Personal interaction does not, of course, guarantee agreement, but it does tend to limit the distortions and extremes we are prone to make when we only speak about each other, not to each other. Plus, Scripture demands it.
2. Would the other side recognize their position as fairly portrayed? Ten years ago Ron Sider wrote in Transformation, "There is a fairly simple way to check whether we have accurately understood and fairly summarized another's views. We can ask the other person! I suspect that at least half of the current battles in church circles would end if the major contestants merely consulted each other personally and directly to see if the views they were denouncing were actually held by the other person."
3. Are sensational crowd-pleasing formulations used as a substitute for measured analysis? Last April World magazine created a stir when they used terms such as "feminist seduction," "unisex language," and "stealth Bible," in an article describing the International Bible Society's plans to revise its New International Version. Such sensational language clouded, rather than clarified, this important subject. World came in for scrutiny as print journalism. How many donor letters and talk shows would be similarly censured if similarly examined?
4. Is guilt by association an important part of the charges? We do well to remember that Jesus was known to associate with people no one could approve.
5. Is evidence for the charges presented? If quotations are used, are they extensive, or are fragments strung together? Is the source cited so that anyone can look it up for himself or herself?
6. Have independent leaders whom you respect voiced their opinion about the dispute? Muted comments or silence from others may indicate reasons for caution. Other leaders often have information that is not generally known.
7. If expert opinion is relevant, how much are you hearing from such experts? If, for example, the concern is over book royalties, are legal and publishing authorities cited? If someone is accused of New Age sympathies, do reputable scholars support the allegations?
8. Does someone benefit from the controversy in terms of enhanced reputation, publicity, or greater power? Is it in his or her interest to keep the fires burning? Such benefits prove nothing, but they should inject a note of caution.
9. Does a generous attitude show itself in the way the dispute is presented? Is the other side given credit for good deeds or good intentions? Is there some attempt to distinguish between first- and second-level concerns? Does there seem to be a genuine wish for compromise or reconciliation?
By the grace of God we are what we are: a freewheeling, innovative, independent, and highly differentiated people. American Christians are not bound together by a church hierarchy or an ethnic consensus, but only by our call from Christ Jesus. The imperatives of the media and fundraising push us to define ourselves over and against others. By sociology, you might say we are bound to fight. But what are we bound to by the Holy Spirit?
We can, if we choose, create better structures for resolving disputes, and we can, if we try, become more discerning about the charges and countercharges we hear. More fundamentally, we who claim loyalty to Scripture need to heed what Scripture says. Again and again the Bible demands that followers of Jesus live together in peace. "All men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another" (John 13:35).
As American Christians, we need to ask God to make us a people who share his heart, not only in his love for the lost and for truth, but also in his love for unity in the family of God. "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do what I say?" (Luke 6:46).
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October 6, 1997 Vol. 41, No. 11, Page 27
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