Depreciating humility: The importance of being the best at being right

The words below, originally published on GRACE’s blog, contain my thoughts about an issue I consider critical to the life of the Church. They were prompted by a specific situation that continues to develop, both within a particular stream of the American Church and in broader venues, including the national media. While I believe this post will make sense even if you aren’t aware of the very public issues surrounding Sovereign Grace Ministries and C.J. Mahaney, I have posted some context and the story of how I came to write this piece down below. Feel free to read it before or after continuing with this post.

I empathize with those inclined to steer clear of these kinds of dramas; I usually am one of you. I am unable to turn away this time for two reasons: the details of this story are too grievous, and I believe they expose a deeper, growing epidemic within the Church that is in utter opposition to our identity as the people who exist to say to both one another and the world: “This is who Jesus is, this is what He is like, and this is how He loves you.”


I haven’t slept well in a week. I just cannot shake some of the recent developments in the unfolding saga of apparent abuse and, by many accounts, systematic breach of pastoral trust within Sovereign Grace Ministries. So in my bleary-eyed, restless state, I have two confessions:

I am a bit annoyed that this story is keeping me up at night.

I am just as annoyed that this story isn’t keeping more of us up at night.

See I have no real affiliation with anyone involved — not the victims, not SGM, not C.J. Mahaney, and not Together for the Gospel or most of what is commonly referred to as the neo-reformed movement. While I have many friends who travel in those circles and we share some common roots, I’m far enough removed that I should be able to grieve over the harm done and move on. To be frank about it, I honestly don’t have time to be preoccupied with the drama of other churches. I am a pastor among a beautiful, healthy, but predictably flawed community of believers in Texas, and we have plenty of drama all our own, thank you very much.

Still, I can’t move past this one, and not only because of the horrendous nature of the sexual abuse allegations. I’m stuck because this is not just a story about one church or one pastor or one ministry. This is a story about what could become of any church and any pastor and any ministry. More to my point (and insomnia), it is a story about what is becoming of many churches and many pastors and many ministries.

Let me be clear, the allegations of sexual abuse in this story are horrifying, and stories like these are more personal to me because my wife was abused as both a child and a teenager. By God’s mercy she lives in remarkable freedom from the weight of those experiences, and she graciously and gracefully tends to others who are hurting and broken in those (and many other) ways. But for her and any survivor of abuse, the journey toward freedom is long and indescribably grueling. For those of us who know that road, whether from our own pain or from sharing in the suffering of those we love, stories like these still cause us to ache in a different way. There is little that simultaneously grieves and angers me more than abuse, oppression, and the perpetuation of shame by those claiming to be the Body of Christ.

But that’s not what’s keeping me up at night — at least it’s not the whole of it.

As soul-churning as the stories of abuse are, and though I have every reason to be consumed by them, there is another scratch on the record of my heart and mind that won’t let me move on, and the line that keeps playing over and over is this:

It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor [oppressed]
    than to divide the spoil with the proud.

This is the killing-me-softly, lesser known sentence following one of those verses from Proverbs we’ve paraphrased and misused for so long it no longer has much bite for us (“pride cometh before a fall”). It is a sentence that haunts me.

That began the night that Al Mohler, Mark Dever, and Ligon Duncan released their statement regarding C.J. Mahaney and the partial dismissal of the civil suit against him and SGM (of which he is a named defendant). Just before I went to bed, I read their words on the Together for the Gospel facebook page, along with dozens of comments that were removed from public view a few hours later (a bizarre, suspicion-arousing move given that almost all of them were simply civil expressions of disappointment from folks within the camp). [Edit: I have since discovered that they also edited the statement before they reposted it on the T4G website. I detail a bit of that in the post below this one.]

I read. I reread hoping I had missed something crucial. I hadn’t. And then Proverbs 16:19 began its relentless march…

It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor [oppressed]
    than to divide the spoil with the proud.

The chasm between these words and the statements released by both Together for the Gospel and The Gospel Coalition is immense. Boz Tchividjian’s important response to the the two statements rightly diagnoses much of that gap, and I applaud his courage. Like him, I believe both statements reflect either naiveté or overt blindness to the need for a deeper humility on the part of Mahaney and his friends, even if only a fraction of the accusations are true — even if only what already has been acknowledged is true.

I fear those public statements reflect the private thoughts of men who, whether by will or ignorance, are clustering around the spoils of the proud when their calling is to be of a lowly spirit with the poor and oppressed. Even if Mahaney is a victim of some false accusations, his rush back to the platform and the efforts of his friends to protect his place at the head table ought to prompt some deep, Gospel-driven questions about how insulated some of these men seem to be from the thousands of sincere, Gospel-loving followers of Jesus they lead, formally and informally.

While the temptations to love being right, to yield to pride, and to tolerate or even celebrate arrogance are always lurking for the Church universal, I believe that they present some unique challenges among a group who assumes a vanguard identity (in this case the preservation and resuscitation of the true Gospel). In other words, in a movement where correcting error is a central task, these temptations loom large. And, when they are indulged, they easily can be mistaken for virtue and become almost self-sustaining.

The cycle goes like this: The urgency of the cause reinforces the importance of being right, which further fuels the notion that the most important people in the cause are those most skilled at being right in front of the most people. And if that is true, then those people must be protected and kept on stage at almost any cost.  Question them without an air-tight case of disqualifying sin, and you risk being sacrificed for the greater cause.

It’s all very logical. And it’s very common. It just isn’t biblical.

I don’t intend to imply that this is a significant struggle for all (or even most) churches who would place themselves somewhere in this particular camp, but I believe it is sufficiently prevalent, chronic, and serious to demand a wider conversation. While the details of this case and its context matter, again, this is not an anomaly of the neo-reformed movement. Other local churches may be free of the sexual abuse stories apparently so prevalent in SGM’s history (though these too are painfully widespread), but there are many, including some of our flagship evangelical churches led by beloved, well-known personalities, who are following very similar plot lines. The church’s identity becomes deeply entangled with the names and teachings of popular Christian leaders who members of the church will never truly know (and therefore whose authority is rooted as much in personality and skill as personal character). Narrow, extra-orthodox notions of what one must believe and do to be “right” crop up. Pastors, elders, or deacons sit at the head of a relatively impermeable and inaccessible group of leaders, and, often with success and mission as justifications, become either removed or authoritarian (or, far too regularly, both).

When shepherds refuse or fail to live humbly among the people – when leaders are consumed by agendas (however noble those agendas may be) other than caring for the community of God’s people “like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thes. 2:7) – when pastors are inaccessible, unapproachable, or just too busy to listen to and know their people…these are not secondary ecclesial breakdowns. They are an abandonment of primary pastoral calling that signals a stunning disconnect from the evangelical ethos Jesus declared (Matt. 22, Jn. 13) and prayed into being (Jn. 17) and that John affirmed as central to Gospel identity (1 Jn. 3).

Our zeal and skill for expanding the doctrine of the Gospel simply cannot obscure or replace our humble submission to life in the crucible of the Gospel’s work — the community that the Gospel creates where the greatest become least and the last become first. (And if that does not mean that the vulnerable, the weak, and the exasperating folks in our churches get at least as much attention from us as our successful friends and heroes, I do not know what it means.)

The Church is not first and foremost an audience for our sermons and our books; it is the people of God among whom we are our real selves. If we live above or apart from that Church in any way, our doctrines and words about the Gospel become theory and conjecture, not a testimony to a truth we know by experience. As pastors, teachers, leaders, and authors in the Church, for the sake of our churches and for the sake of our own souls, we ought to weigh carefully the words of the Lord delivered through Obadiah:

The pride of your heart has deceived you,
    you who live in the clefts of the rock,
    in your lofty dwelling,
who say in your heart,
    “Who will bring me down to the ground?”
Though you soar aloft like the eagle,
    though your nest is set among the stars,
    from there I will bring you down,
declares the Lord.

If those words expose us to be drifting from the simple and clear message of Jesus, the time for coming clean — that time was yesterday. Yet by God’s mercy we have been given another day, so may we heed the prophetic call:

Repent, for the Kingdom of God, which belongs to children and the lowly of spirit who dwell among children, the poor, and the oppressed — that Kingdom is at hand.


Note: I hope to add another post soon, including my thoughts on discernment in publicly addressing allegations like those made against Mahaney and others with care for the possibility of false accusation. More to come.

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Context for the post above this one: Depreciating Humility

Though I wrote this post to offer some context for the one directly above, it absolutely is not meant to serve as an objective or comprehensive summary of the events to which it refers. In fact, it is a subjective telling of both my perception of those events and the story of why I’ve written about them at all. Summarizing this very complex saga fairly and briefly seems an impossible task, so consider this my explicit acknowledgement that the words to follow do not accomplish (or seek to accomplish) that task. I defer to Google to fill in the gaps for anyone interested in doing the research to be further informed.


Over the past few years, Sovereign Grace Ministries, which describes itself as a “family of churches passionate about advancing the Great Commission through church planting” and self-identifies as “evangelical, Reformed, and charismatic,” has come under heavy scrutiny. Numerous stories of sexual abuse within SGM churches have surfaced, accompanied by descriptions of a culture in which abuse was overlooked and minimized and children were not adequately protected or cared for. The details of the allegations, both of the abuse and the way children were treated by church leaders responding to the abuse, are brutal. Some criminal charges already have been filed, and there are indications that more are forthcoming. A class action suit also has been filed against SGM, two of its churches, its school, and several pastors and leaders. Some have questioned the motives of such a suit, and I will be the first to acknowledge that litigation between Christians is always complicated and unpleasant, no matter what its motives. That said, those behind the suit insist its primary goal is to bring the truth to light and prevent similar tragedies in the future.

Intertwined in this story is the personal legacy of C.J. Mahaney, the former president of SGM and founding (again former) pastor of SGM’s original and long-time anchor church (thought it recently ceased affiliation with SGM). Mahaney is named in the suit and is accused in broad and specific ways of overseeing the cycle of negligence and shame within SGM churches (including the church he pastored). Alongside the legal issues, Mahaney faces other significant and growing criticism of his personal and pastoral dealings with members of his staff and church. His long-time right-hand-man, Brent Detwiler, left SGM in 2009 and went public with very detailed descriptions of Mahaney’s behavior, and they are complicated and, on the whole, not terribly flattering. Detwiler says he attempted to address these issues privately over a long period of time, but after being ignored and manipulated, decided a public rebuke was his only recourse. How accurate his claims are is a matter of debate. Some of Mahaney’s friends and admirers insist he has acknowledged and repented in all necessary ways and that his character is sound. Yet stories corroborating and adding to Detwiler’s continue to surface, many of them painting a very different picture. In 2011, Mahaney took temporary leaves from both his church and SGM; the former became permanent, the latter did not…and then it did after all.

About a year ago, after 30 years in Maryland and with both legal and ecclesial storms brewing, SGM and Mahaney picked up and moved to Louisville. They were welcomed publicly by Al Mohler, a friend and ministry partner of Mahaney’s and the president of Louisville-based Southern Baptist Seminary. Along with some other long-time associates, Mahaney planted Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville, where he is now the senior pastor. Mahaney and Mohler are two of a number of nationally known leaders of the growing cross-denominational movement of churches who are Reformed in doctrine and whose primary public banner is a return to the centrality of the true Gospel (that sentence contains several terms that beg definition, but I am summarizing). These leaders have formed alliances — Together for the Gospel (T4G) and The Gospel Coalition (TGC), among others — and they host conferences and churn out vast resources related to their collective missions. This spring, with a lawsuit pending and many unanswered questions about the other public accusations against Mahaney, he preached at Together for the Gospel’s national conference. He was not a minor presence, functioning in both in a keynote role and as a participant in multiple panels. It’s fair to say that move raised some eyebrows, even within the camp.

On May 17, a Maryland judge dismissed the civil suit because the statute of limitations had expired for several of those filing suit. In Maryland, if you are abused as a minor, you must file suit within three years of turning 18. The dismissal was not a surprise to the plaintiffs’ attorneys, as a challenge to the application of the statue of limitations is actually part of their case. They argue that the statute is unreasonable since it takes years for most victims of sexual abuse to acknowledge and address what they endure — a fact completely void of controversy among those who deal with the aftermath of sexual abuse. They also argue that blocking such cases from continuing based on the statute actually rewards abusers and those who protect them, since their primary goal is to prevent the abuse from being reported until it’s too late for anything to be done about it. To be clear, the court made no ruling whatsoever on the truth of any claims in the suit; it simply declined to hear the case because of the statute of limitations (and, for two other plaintiffs, because they describe their abuse as happening in an SGM church in Virginia, not Maryland). On May 28, a Motion to Reconsider was filed. If the judge rejects it, appeals to higher courts will follow. The legal part of this is a long, long way from being over.

On May 23, six days after the initial dismissal, Al Mohler, Mark Dever, and Ligon Duncan, the other three founders of Together for the Gospel (Mahaney being the fourth) released a statement in support of Mahaney. When initially posted on its Facebook page (captured here), that statement read, in part:

A Christian leader, charged with any credible, serious, and direct wrongdoing, would usually be well advised to step down from public ministry. No such accusation of direct wrongdoing was ever made against C.J. Mahaney. Instead, he was charged with founding a ministry and for teaching doctrines and principles that are held to be true by vast millions of American evangelicals. [bolding for emphasis is mine]

Comments — most of them apparently from within the T4G camp — came quickly, almost unanimously expressing disappointment with the statement. More than one person pointed out that the second sentence I have quoted here (“No such accusation…”) simply is not true, pointing out numerous examples to the contrary. Others noted that the third sentence (“…he was charged with founding a ministry…”) read like a serious distortion of the allegations made against Mahaney by those who claim to have been abused in his church and ministry, then manipulated into not reporting the abuse and, in a number of cases, sitting with their abuser in order to “forgive” them and move on as though nothing had happened. Apparently uncomfortable with the open discussion on the statement, T4G pulled it (and all comments) down, later reposting an edited version on its main website. The two bolded sentences above were altered or removed, though the remainder of the paragraph was left in tact:

For this reason, we, along with many others, refused to step away from C. J. in any way. We do not regret that decision. We are profoundly thankful for C. J. as friend, and we are equally thankful for the vast influence for good he has been among so many Gospel-minded people.

The morning after the T4G statement was released, three leaders of The Gospel Coalition released a very similar statement.

Before I continue, I want to be very clear about something: I have not met C.J. Mahaney or the men who authored those statements. I do not know their hearts, and I do not condemn them. In fact, I love them. This does not prevent me from doing whatever small thing I can do to say out loud that I believe this has been fumbled, and not only in the form of the public statements.

I believe an ethos has crept into our churches (and movements of churches) that, despite our claims to take the Bible and its authority seriously (and usually literally), has de-literalized much of what Jesus actually said. At the top of that list is His very clear description of the movements and coalitions the Gospel creates: communities where the best and brightest among us are (literally) not assumed or portrayed to be more important to Jesus or His cause than the least and where the most feeble and vulnerable are (literally) treated with particular care and celebration, never condescension.

If the teachings of Jesus are taken literally, men and women of apparent significance will search for ways to dwell among and, yes, even behind the overlooked. Precisely because what Jesus describes here runs counter to both human nature and the flow of social darwinism (alive and well in evangelical culture), it must be embraced and modeled with clarity and enthusiasm by those who lead. This is not easy; I struggle daily to figure it out and trip over the inertia of what comes naturally as often as not. But this upside down Kingdom cannot be preached with any credibility until we choose to live into its reality, and that means turning in our exemptions. I love C.J. Mahaney and the men standing with him, and I have labored without hesitation to maintain a spirit of respect and charity toward them. I simply believe they are wrong, and I believe this matters too much to the Church to not talk about it.

Whether or not all claims in the lawsuit (or the accusations leveled by Detwiler and many others) are true, I found the tone, timing, and content of these two statements to be more than a little troubling, and I wasn’t alone. T4G pulling down their statement and erasing the public response (which was almost universally civil, just not affirming) only compounded that. As you can see the in screen capture of the original T4G statement, Boz Tchividjian was one of those who commented. This was the first time I had heard of Boz, though his name caught my attention because I know of his brother, Tullian, a Presbyterian (PCA) pastor and author in Florida. I also knew that Tullian is the grandson of a 94-year old North Carolina preacher named Billy whose name might ring a bell.

To be honest, Boz’s post piqued my curiosity because I knew Tullian had some loose affiliations with some of the other leaders of this movement. I want to be clear that he was not involved in either statement and he is not, to my knowledge, officially connected to either group. I don’t intend to even passively link Tullian to the statements. I just knew he overlapped their circles some, and it was coincidence enough to cause me to pay attention to what Boz wrote.

The next day (May 24, though somehow I did not see it for a few days), Boz authored what I believe is an important response to the T4G and TGC statements: Where are the Voices? The Continued Culture of Silence and Protection in American Evangelicalism. I was moved not only by Boz’s objections to the statements, but by his call to the Church to wake up and speak up. His words poked at the part of me that already was restless over what I saw unfolding. In a weird blur of gratitude and frustration, I fired off an email to Boz intended to thank him for what he wrote. I ultimately did get around to that, but only after several rambling paragraphs of my thoughts on what is happening in the Church. Unusual for me, I didn’t even bother to reread what I sent him. In fact, I couldn’t find his email address on the GRACE site, so I guessed at it, unsure if my note would ever make it to him, and hit send.

That evening, I stood in the kitchen and whined to my wife about the way this thing was eating at me. Why can’t I just move on? There’s nothing I can do about this anyway. We talked about the ever-present pastoral dilemma of rightly dividing time and attention. I expressed frustration that something like this was invading a season of deep contentment in serving among our local community. Though my love and concern for the Church universal continues to grow, in recent months I have been less distracted than ever by discerning my role, if any, in what was happening “out there.” What was happening right here — among our people and our cities — has been calling enough for me. (I even wrote about it recently.) Suddenly being so affected by something that had no obvious immediate connection to our right here was a pain. And even if this was important, what could I do about it? “Not much” seemed to be the answer. So we ate.

Two hours later, I received a reply from Boz. He thanked me for my note, said some other nice things, and asked me if I would tweak it a bit and allow him to publish it as a guest post on GRACE’s site. Honestly, I was a little shocked. I like to write, and I confess that sometimes when I write to someone I admire or would like to impress (because I’m still trying to give Jesus that part of me that wants to impress people), I hope they like what I write. But this honestly never crossed my mind when I made my raw external processing Boz’s problem.

Perhaps no one but me will find this sequence of events terribly significant, but as I told Boz, his response sounded more or less like a, “Hey, dummy” from God to me. Yet again it appeared God was doing something unexpected that I could not orchestrate myself and I was the dummy who was surprised. Though I had no idea what impact my words might have, it seemed foolish to then side-step whatever avenue I’d been offered to address something I really believe matters. And I really believe this matters.

The result, of course, is the post that was published on GRACE’s site and that now sits above this one, here on my site. I already have heard or seen numerous folks, including various pastors and Church leaders, express the same or similar sentiments. Some are happy to do so publicly; others are less convinced that what they say or write matters or they aren’t eager to wade into the fray. I understand that. I’ve felt and acted out of both before. Yet my sincere hope is that my words will prove to be but a few among a gathering answer to Boz’s question: Where are the voices?


Note: I hope to add another post soon, including my thoughts on discernment in publicly addressing allegations like those made against Mahaney and others with care for the possibility of false accusation. More to come.

Part Four – Farewell charity: The day Rob Bell and John Piper broke the internet

This is the fourth in a series of (probably five) posts reviewing not Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, but the public conversation about that book. More than that, it is my attempt to examine the ways we (Christians) engage both one another and the concept of biblical and historical orthodoxy when we feel meaningful truth is up for grabs. I encourage you to read Part One, Part Two, and Part Three of this series before you read the words below.

Please take heed: The words below are built on an assertion that love – the kind Jesus models and empowers and the kind that the New Testament reveals and insists on for God’s people – is a core doctrine, essential to orthodoxy and not conditional to culture or season. I spent 1,691 words making that case. You don’t have to read those 1,691 words, but this post is the direct offspring of that one. Don’t be a knucklehead. Go read the other one (or three) first.

________________________________________________

This conviction that real, biblical love – for God and for other people – is a core Christian doctrine brings me full circle. I began this series examining how charitable (or uncharitable) we are, not only in discussing doctrine in a given moment, but in drawing broader conclusions about someone’s orthodoxy or lack thereof. I observe in our tribe an irony: We seem to be quite charitable, at least in some cases, to those who taught and practiced apparent heresy with respect to the core doctrine of love while we are often less charitable to those who teach or practice heresy in other areas.

What I mean is if love for other humans in the way the New Testament describes it is a core doctrine in any sense, we have permitted men and women across the centuries to violate that doctrine in some egregious ways – and consistently, not as a matter of momentary sin later repented of – yet affirmed them as orthodox, even elevating some of them as the vanguards of orthodoxy.

I’m not wondering if we should be meaner to those folks; I’m wondering if we should extend to other heretics the same grace we extend to love-heretics. I’m wondering if in understanding the centrality of love to orthodox Christian doctrine, we might more humbly assess the state of our own doctrinal purity and, in so doing, be inspired to love other heretics as we love our(heretical)selves.

At the risk of being redundant (I dare you to accuse me of being redundant for repeating what Jesus said was most important), Jesus said the most important instructions from God – the ones on which all the law and the prophets hang (or, one might say, the foundation of orthodoxy) – are to love God and love your neighbor. Right? And Jesus did not then suggest that your neighbor should have an impeccable theology in order for him to merit you showing him the kind of love that you show yourself. Right?

Both Jesus and John elaborate on this picture of the orthodox Christian life by telling us that real obedience to that command – real love for God and for others – means laying down your life in service to God and to others. “Love as I have loved,” he says. And how did he love? “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

My rough summary: Jesus saw we were bumbling heretics. This is not an untrue way of describing ourselves, certainly at least in our “still sinners” state of being – people not affirming what is true in word and/or deed. Even while were still heretics, Jesus loved us enough not only to tell us the truth, but also to lay down his life to restore us to the truth. Then he told us – and gave us the Spirit to empower us – to love other folks in the same way he loved us. Then Paul broke it down in even more detail as I have described before – you know, all that crazy talk about unrelenting forgiveness, humility, selflessness, bearing all things, and so forth.

So one would assume in our diligence to ensure our orthodox theologians are, indeed, orthodox, we would require of them adherence to this core doctrine. Love. Jesus-love that rejoices in the truth and lays down its life to reconcile people to the truth and demonstrates forgiveness and patience and so on, all because it recognizes this reality: If I know any truth at all, it is only because the Truth loved me enough to lay down his life for me. Orthodox theologians have to teach that, right?

If you aren’t smelling the trap by now you might have an errant smeller, because I’m not very subtly setting this up to make a run at a legend of orthodoxy. Before I do that, let me clarify something – I’m not taking cheap shots. What I’m about to describe really happened. And it’s really a problem that we have to deal with honestly. I know this story has been used as a “gotcha” to discredit a particular stream of theology over the years. Know this for sure: that is not my goal or my heart. I have no agenda with respect to the theological viewpoint derived from this fellow. If this guy is one of your heroes, bear with me. I believe the balance of what I’ll write about him will reveal love and grace if you’ll stay with me to the end. But I believe there is a fair point to be made in dealing in the facts, so give me a few paragraphs to try to make it.

John Calvin wrote Institutes of Christian Religion in 1536 and played a major role in the Protestant Reformation. Among Reformed Protestants, he is widely venerated as one of the most important theologians who ever lived. An entire theological system – one with enormous sway in the American church – bears his name.

Charles Spurgeon wrote about Calvin in his autobiography and had this to say of him:

Among all those who have been born of women, there has not risen a greater than John Calvin; no age before him ever produced his equal, and no age afterwards has seen his rival. In theology, he stands alone, shining like a bright fixed star, while other leaders and teachers can only circle round him, at a great distance — as comets go streaming through space — with nothing like his glory or his permanence.

Not to pick on Spurgeon, who I certainly admire, but that statement always has puzzled me. Spurgeon knew Jesus was born of a woman, right? It’s in the creeds and stuff. I’m sure Spurgeon did not mean to suggest Calvin was the equal of the Son of God and his moment of effusive praise just got the better of him. I can relate. Once in the summer of 1985 after watching The Karate Kid 17 times in 9 days at my cousin’s house I declared that Daniel Larusso had the best life of anyone who ever lived – he won the All Valley Championship, he lived near Golf N’ Stuff, and Elisabeth Shue was his girlfriend. Thankfully I wasn’t writing my autobiography at the time.

Anyway, you get the point. John Calvin is not lacking for esteem as an orthodox theologian.

A large contingent of Reformed, Calvinist folks (who obviously look to Calvin as soundly orthodox) are among those who are ill-at-ease with Rob Bell at the moment. Generally speaking, this crowd pays attention to truth, takes seriously the biblical instruction to defend sound doctrine, and engages publicly when they believe something meaningful is at stake. That description is not meant to be snarky in any way. Really. I’m just explaining the relevance of my aside about Calvin.

So here’s the rub. Calvin’s method for dealing with heretics was slightly more bloody than tweeting them farewell. During the Reformation, there was a Spanish theologian named Michael Servetus who was teaching what amounted to a non-Trinitarian version of Christianity. In essence, Servetus suggested that the Father, Son, and Spirit were not three separate divine persons, but that the Son and Spirit were essentially manifestations of the One God. He did not deny the existence, importance, or deity of either, and he did teach salvation through Christ alone by faith alone. But his teachings on the nature of Christ and the Spirit are not the traditional Trinitarian view.

Servetus wrote:

There is nothing greater, reader, than to recognize that God has been manifested as substance, and that His divine nature has been truly communicated. We shall clearly apprehend the manifestation of God through the Word and his communication through the Spirit, both of them substantially in Christ alone. The incomprehensible God is known through Christ, by faith, rather than by philosophical speculations. He manifests God to us, being the expression of His very being, and through him alone, God can be known. The scriptures reveal Him to those who have faith; and thus we come to know the Holy Spirit as the Divine impulse within us.

As you can see, he was orthodox in many ways, including in his view of salvation through Christ alone by faith alone, but he disagreed with both the common Reformation and Catholic views of the Trinity. For the record, I don’t agree with Servetus regarding the Trinity. I’m just describing what he did and did not teach.

Servetus also rejected Calvin’s strong doctrines of predestination, and he and Calvin got into a bit of a letter-writing war over their differences. It was more or less a 16th century version of what we’ve witnessed in recent weeks surrounding Rob Bell and his critics sans the iPhones, MacBooks, and marketing machines. The dialogue between the two deteriorated from tense to ugly. In 1546 Calvin wrote this to a friend:

Servetus has just sent me a long volume of his ravings. If I consent he will come here, but I will not give my word for if he comes here, if my authority is worth anything, I will never permit him to depart alive

There is no metaphor there. Calvin is saying: “Mike is asking to come talk with me about this in person, but I’m not going to invite him because if he comes, he won’t leave alive if I have anything to say about it.”

In 1553, Servetus, apparently looking for trouble, showed up in Geneva and sat in on one of Calvin’s sermons. He was recognized (which makes me think they had the internet already and Al Gore is a total liar because, really, how do you know what this guy from another country looks like in 1553?) and arrested. He was charged with heresy on two specific counts: (1) his non-Trinitarian teachings and (2) his disagreement with the practice of infant baptism. Calvin was not the chief “prosecutor” because he was in poor health at the time, but he affirmed that Servetus should be executed. Calvin favored beheading. They burned him alive instead.

Calvin’s post-mortem commentary was this:

Many people have accused me of such ferocious cruelty that (they allege) I would like to kill again the man I have destroyed. Not only am I indifferent to their comments, but I rejoice in the fact that they spit in my face.

And:

Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt.

It’s lucky for Rob and Zondervan that Calvin wasn’t born 450 years later than he was. They probably never would have gotten Nooma 2 out the door.

But seriously, if the underlying command of Christian orthodoxy is to love God and neighbor in a sacrificial-even-to-the-point-of-self-death manner and John Calvin killed a guy who taught salvation through Christ alone by faith alone but who was, in the opinion of the majority, off in some other areas including the then-essential doctrine of infant baptism, what does Calvin have to do to commit heresy against Christian orthodoxy?

No, really. What?

How can we embrace Calvin as a model orthodox theologian despite his unrepentant advocacy for killing a man, while bidding farewell to Rob Bell (who as far as I know hasn’t capped any suckas) because we suspect from a vague marketing blurb and video that his theology of hell isn’t quite right? A bad theology of hell matters, and it should be talked about openly. But how is Calvin’s error less grievous and more forgivable than Bell’s?

John Calvin wasn’t living under some different dispensation. He wasn’t operating when God was still doing the things he did in the Old Testament that don’t make sense in our modern context. He was living 1,500 years post-Christ, and this episode happened in his mature years, not his youth.

Stop and think about this for a minute. Who among us, according to Calvin, is truly orthodox? Let’s preemptively disqualify all the liberals, Arminians, Catholics, and undecideds and consider just the home team. How many self-described Calvinists these days reject infant baptism as the biblical mode of baptism? I know one or two. It seems unlikely that John would have affirmed such folks as orthodox Christians – much less good Calvinists – since he approved the execution of a man, in part, for such a belief. That leaves us with only the baby-baptizing Reformed crowd (some of whom are thinking, “it is not news to us that we are the only true Calvinists and, possibly, Christians”). Fair enough. Unfortunately, unless they affirm the execution of the rest of us, even their reformed Baptist brethren, they would “knowingly and willingly incur” the guilt of the heretics, according to Calvin.

I often hear quoted as the standard for us getting doctrine right Jude’s admonition that we “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” And man, I’m in on that. But if that’s my standard and your standard and Rob Bell’s standard, it was also John Calvin’s standard. Surely setting on fire a man like Servetus (or cutting off his head), then suggesting anyone who opposed execution for those determined to be heretics, is not what Jude had in mind. And if not, such an action – and all subsequent defense of it – is error. And if it is error, it is error not only in misunderstanding what “contend” meant, but in understanding the essence of the essential New Testament doctrine of love.

Some will have a visceral reaction to me seeming to be so hard on John Calvin, but modernize the story. Would a guy advocating the murder of theological rivals have a book deal with Crossway in 2011? I know he wasn’t the only Christian killing sinners in those days, but we simply don’t excuse our modern theologians such enormous deviations from biblical living and teaching because of their context.

If I may be frank, modern Calvinists certainly aren’t, by and large, known for their eagerness to excuse modern Christians enormous deviations from biblical living and teaching because of their context. I’m not picking on them. I don’t think any of them would dispute that observation. Most would embrace it, as they should.

If we credit Calvin with theological brilliance then we also must hold him accountable for what hardly can be construed as anything other than heresy, presumably largely a function of what was culturally normal at the time, with respect to both his involvement in the execution of Servetus and his unrepentant spirit about it after the fact.

If we still find space for Calvin in the realm of orthodoxy, it’s because of grace. Period. Grace he deserves no more and no less than fallible pastors, theologians, and other assorted jackasses today.

My point is not to undermine John Calvin. I easily could have picked on any number of other heroes of orthodoxy. If it were up to Martin Luther, we wouldn’t even have Jude’s command to contend for the faith because Luther opposed the canonization of Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation. No really. And thank God for Martin Luther (unless you are Catholic, I suppose, in which case you’ll just have to love us Protestants enough to afford us our own tainted history and heroes).

I appreciate the many tremendous contributions John Calvin made to Christian thought, theology, and practice. That’s not a token statement. I really do. I value him and learn from him and thank God for him. He also was a heretic with respect to what seems to be one of the most fundamental aspects of Christian orthodoxy. But we still allow his voice at the table. In some circles, he sets the table.

I am not uncovering any startling revelation, but at times it seems we have forgotten: even our heroes of the faith were just men. And we should rejoice in any such reminder as it sends us again scrambling for Jesus, our only reliable anchor.

See, Charles Spurgeon was wrong when he suggested that no age before Calvin produced his equal. Peter was his equal. Peter, who after eating, sleeping, healing, and praying with Jesus for years, denied him three times. Peter, whose treason and blasphemy Jesus forgave. Peter who – just days after swearing not to know Jesus – was chosen by Jesus to run point on a new little venture called the Church.

Peter was John Calvin’s equal. Why? Because he was a man, fully capable of error and fully capable, now only because of Jesus, of bearing God’s image in the world. The doctrines of grace tell us this quite clearly.

Peter. John Calvin. John Piper. Rob Bell. You. Me. Men and women created in God’s image, marred by sin, restored by Jesus, and living in the tension of perfect redemption indwelling imperfect people.

Might we learn from John Calvin’s life – or from Peter’s – that we would be wise to use discretion in dismissing people as irrelevant or, worse, malevolent to the Kingdom lest we pick the wrong moment of their lives to flush them completely?

Imagine with me for a moment that we have a Delorean, the flux capacitor, and 1.21 jigawatts of power (and if you can’t imagine that, borrow some of my faith – I have enough for both of us on this one). After brief stops in 1955 and 1984 for the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance and the All Valley Tournament, let’s dial up 16th century Geneva. When we get there, let’s have a conversation with one of Calvin’s contemporaries who believes his participation in and advocacy of execution for heresy is, in fact, contrary to the Scriptures and the Gospel.

What would you say to that person? Would you counsel him to brand Calvin a heretic and warn others to avoid him given his obvious and unapologetic violation of biblical teaching? Or would you suggest he bear with the man in his fallibility and find the value of his many other contributions to the Kingdom?

And what does your answer have to say about how you deal with men and women whose doctrine you find imprecise or blatantly erroneous today?

If you’ve made it this far, I thank you. I also know for some of you there is still a big “but…” in play. For me too. The New Testament warns about false teachers in various ways, and we can’t ignore that. We can’t just have a group hug and watch passively as anyone who says “Jesus” enough claims to speak for him, restrained from heeding biblical instruction with regard to error.

But I think the key to loving truth and loving people more purely is to learn to better discern and distinguish how we handle people and how we handle ideas.

And I’m suggesting that our public discourse reveals that we’re not there yet.

I’m suggesting that we need to be quicker to listen for longer and slower to speak (and write).

I’m suggesting we need to be slower to label and dismiss people for what we deem to be sins of wrong belief, even if the beliefs themselves bear addressing.

I’m suggesting that we look deeper into the future and consider, as Jesus did, that an error (or even two or twelve) of the moment is not the sum of a man or woman.

I’m suggesting that some of what we know that we know for sure probably someday will be determined to be incorrect – or at least incomplete – and that we should hope history will find us humble in our conviction, not eager to sentence dissenters to death, if not literally then – in the economy of Jesus – by doing violence with our words.

I’m suggesting we can – and must – be more intentional in our efforts to retain the union of love and truth even in our dealings with apparently poor doctrine. There is no question that the teaching of sound doctrine and the preaching of the true Gospel are essential to our obedient response to the Great Commission. We simply can’t exalt the Great Commission to the obscurity of the Great Commandments.

Jesus said all truth hinges on two truths: we were made to love God and love people. The New Testament further connects the commission and the commandments in teaching that love amongst the professing Church even in the face of meaningful disagreement is how the Church will be known – how the world will know Jesus is who he said he is.

And then there’s this: In the hours before he was arrested and executed, Jesus prayed for all who would believe in him to love one another fully – for us to be “perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” We have to quit running from that prayer while claiming to be people who are about evangelism and missions.

Coming in Part Five…Concluding (I think) thoughts on finding solid ground as people of love and truth.