Power struggles in the blogosphere and the pulpit

UPDATE – the following post has been seen by some as a public rebuke of Phil Johnson – it was never intended in that way and so I have left it in place without editing it. But, after reading it please see my public apology to Phil for more information and clarification.

When I started this post, I was going to begin it by saying “It grieves me greatly to report that it seems hostilities have resumed.” Having gone back and re-read my sources again, now I am not so sure. I am actually beginning to wonder if the arch rivals – Michael Spencer and Phil Johnson and more importantly their respective followers have made some encouraging moves towards engaging with each other whilst retaining a modicum of understanding and civility.

I have to say though, that I found my first reading of Pyro’s post and his links back to Spencer deeply disturbing. Usually I like to stay out of the regular mudslinging fests that seem to occur between what Spencer calls the “truly reformed” on the one side and what certain of the pyromaniacs have come pretty close to terming the “truly deranged” on the other. Last time round, I simply made some thinly veiled suggestions to both sides to ease up and simmer down. In fact that post represents some hard-learned lessons that may now seem obvious, but certainly didn’t seem obvious to me at one time.

This time, for some reason I am not sure of, I feel compelled to say something even before any possible fight gets out of hand. Why? Because I feel that the tone of some of these disagreements can quickly become frankly repugnant, and I am crazy enough to think that an intervention like this might actually help (it will probably make things worse by offending BOTH camps and perhaps even lose me both of my regular readers!). Why? Because it bothers me that seeing what appears to be open blog warfare at times is an appalling witness. Why? Because I enjoy reading pieces that both Michael and Phil have written and feel that they BOTH have useful things to say to the modern church. Why? Because quite frankly I sometimes feel the urge to bash certain people’s heads together.

It bothers me, that for many of us, and I fear that perhaps I should at times include myself in this we have a tendency to want to stand more AGAINST something than FOR something. We can sometimes define ourselves more by who we disapprove of than by what we believe in.

Anyway in the background to the latest skirmish (which so far shows every sign of remaining just that a skirmish rather than all out war) everything would have seemed to suggest that it was very calm on the western front. Michael had come out and strongly endorsed CJs book on the cross stating “this is about as good as it gets“! Strong words given how solidly conservative this book by CJ is.

But we should have realized that the rift was not far beneath the surface for the post on CJ goes on with the fantastic point “It’s wonderful to read intense Christianity that knows sin is the enemy, not the church down the street”.

Before you know it, Spencer brings up the fact that he feels his comments have been banned from a “certain TR blog” which I guess might be team pyro (Michael you are welcome to comment here all you like if you are nice to CJ!). Then, there are accusations of the “Mccarthyism of saying things like “If you deny you are emergent, you are emergent” and concerns expressed about the wholesaleale smearing of people connected in any way with the Emergent movement. (Incidently as an aside, John Piper has invited Mark Driscoll to speak at his conference this year, which I understand has caused some consternation to some of the people who I suspect Spencer has in his sights.)

But leaving aside these paragraphs, not only was Spencer bigging up CJ which is surely enough to appease the pyromaniacs, he was actually generally positive about 2 posts summarizing two of Phils recent talks here and here. Michael seems eager these days to dissociate himself from the views of some in the emergent movement – perhaps commending and linking to Phils seminar on the subject is the best way for him to make it clear that he is not emergent – which is clearly something he and Phil have in common!

In fact in Michaels discussion of Phils other seminar on the reformation he seems to want confirm that like Phil he is not charismatic, not a contented passenger on the doomed train called the evangelical movement and not happy about some trends in modern worship and not keen on megachurches. He goes so far as to say that some of the same people who have influenced Phil have influenced him as well. Of course Michael did go on to explain in this post that he is also not Phil Johnson- just in case anyone thought he was!

Perhaps Phil found this degree of appreciation coming from Michael might damage his street cred, but his response at first startled me as a sensitive Brit. His post is titled “Sendin’ Some Love to the iMonk“.

Phil begins by pointing out that he has been restrained in not responding to the “steady stream of sneers and insults aimed this way almost daily”. Clearly he blames the iMonk personally for this, and equally clearly he takes the two deplorably obnoxious boars head posts he quotes as personally intended for him. I do not defend the boars head writers for the things they say in these posts, but it appears to me that Phil feels at least in some way affronted even when as far as I can tell these posts are not necessarily directed at him as an individual – although perhaps Phil is perceived as being the most prominent of the so-called “Truly Reformed” bloggers.
Certainly, however, a quick browse of the last week or so of Boars Head didn’t reveal any anti-Phil posts I could see – I think saying “almost daily” is going a bit far, Phil!

Phil does seem to bend over backwards in the middle portion of his post to reach out to and acknowledge Michaels recent even-handedness. But implicit in that comment is an apparent surprise at the iMonks newfound favorour towards the pyromaniac. Sometimes I wonder where Michael and Phil would be in their blogging without each other to help define themselves by.

Interestingly Phil and Michael seemed to have stumbled upon the fact that some of their differences stem from a different understanding of what the word “evangelicalism” means. Given some of my own recent discussions with cessationists where we discovered that a lot of our disagreement centered around the different understandings of what the word “prophecy” meant I found that interesting. Words really do matter and we find that all too often we can simply talk past people because we are using the same words to mean totally different things.

It seems that both Michael and Phil agree on something else- their shared distaste for much of what has been called the modern evangelical movement. Hear Phil “Anyone who honestly thinks I care about preserving the 20th-century movement that co-opted the name “evangelical” hasn’t heard a word I have been saying for the past fifteen years or longer….The evangelical movement is essentially dead, and all the motion and activity you see are just maggots feeding off the corpse. . . . [We need] to rescue the idea of historic evangelicalism from the contemporary evangelical movement.””

Whilst I understand the sense of this comment it is the apparent tone that bothers me. Maybe I am foolish but I do care about saving the movement. I do believe that we have a responsibility to reach out to those who claim to be Christians or Evangelicals even and yet are drifting off into ever increasing error. Perhaps I just misunderstand what Phil means here, however as text is notorious for that.

Phil is SO right in so many of his conclusions, but yet -and here is something that may be partly due to the problem of the missing emotional tone of his words when seen in written form- I can so clearly see why so many bloggers find him very exasperating. He is not at all like that in the flesh – or at least wasn’t over coffee in Waterloo.

Given the absencense of vocal inflection, and the inability to detect the heart that stands behind what is said, I honestly believe we cannot be too careful in the way we phrase things in our blog posts. I am sure that I have said many unhelpful things, many things that sound dismissive or patronizinging. I want to learn how to be winsome in what I say without compromising on the truth.

Phil is right of course to point out that it is wrong for bloggers to on the one hand criticise the tone of others whilst at the same time being guilty of far worse as he does at the beginning of this post.

But, I do believe that irrespective of the way we are treated by others we must always reflect a different Spirit. As Paul puts it in 2 Tim 2 we should “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.”

These words seem to have some lessons in them for Christian bloggers everywhere.

1. Arguments are best avoided wherever possible
2. Kindness, gentleness and patient endurance of evil however does NOT preclude teaching and correcting opponents.
3. There is a battle that transcends the merely intellectual arena

It strikes me that we should be more sensitive to the fact that our job is not to win arguments but to win people. That is our job is not to merely persuade people of the intellectual truth of our theology but to help people get to know the person Jesus more and more.

There is another power struggle going on in the hidden realm that directly impacts on our theological conversations. This battle is between the blindness that the devil would seek to bring to all of us and the light that the Spirit would shine upon us. It really is down to God to grant both unbelievers and believers who think differently repentance – unless this happens we can argue till we are blue in the face and no change will occur.

Dare I say it, perhaps on some issues WE are the ones who are blind and need Gods revelation to see the truth!

When we are blogging and even more so when we are preaching, we must remember that there is more to it than a simpintellectualuexerciseise. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones says of mechanical commentary-style preaching “People say it is biblical. It is not. It is biblical to bring out a message. A mechanical explanation of the meaning of words, etIs is not preaching. Scripture has to be fused into a message, with point and power—a sermon has to be something that is moving and which sends people away glorying in God. We have got to bring a message and deliver it ‘in demonstration of the Spirit and of power’. M’Cheyne did not just prepare sermons. He had the burden of the people on his soul and he came from God with a message. This was the glory of a man like C. H. Spurgeon. His sermons had form and thrust and made an impact. This whole notion of a message needs to be recaptured. The hardest part of a minister’s work is the preparation of sermons. It is a trying process. There is an agony in it, an act of creation.”

Martyn Lloyd-Jones had an additional diagnosis for what was wrong with evangelicalism in his day and it is so true of ours also:- “The main trouble of evangelicalism today, apart from its slipping away from truth, is its lack of power. What do our people know of ‘joy in the Holy Ghost?'”

The Doctor sincerely believed that through his illness God had sovereignly STOPPED him from speaking about joy in the Holy Spirit because he didn’t know enough about it. Dare I say it that many of us today are in no better position than he was. Lets join with the Doctor in crying out for a fresh Baptism in the Holy Spirit for it is that relationship with God which will lead us into all truth as we study Gods word. Perhaps when we are all aware that we have drunk freely of the same Spirit (and I am not talking about alcohol here!) we will feel more charitable towards those who disagree with us. We will perhaps then be able to discuss more calmly as brothers and sisters the different theological positions we have.

For me, I go to the blogs not merely to find people who agree with me. I can find plenty of those in my church. I go to the blogs to be challenged, to be stretched, to understand what those from other groups and denominations really DO think rather than what I have been led to believe they think.

Sometimes we can get quite depressed about the level or ranker that exists at times within the God blogosphere. Actually, as I said at the beginning of this post, by the time I had read these posts more than once I realized that the potential for great progress now exists at least in Michael and Phil. I hope and pray that they can both begin to understand each other better- and indeed it seems possible they may.

Actually, I don’t think we should be too hard on the blogging community. At least in the blogosphere Christians from very different perspectives are able to talk to each other. Out there in the real world I am not convinced that much mixing goes one where honest disagreements can occur. I am willing to bet that there are not too many Michael Spencer’s that Phil interacts with on a daily basis in his “real life”.

Certainly for me, I have greatly appreciated meeting people who are as different from me as both Phil and Michael are in their own ways. I have been enriched as a result, and interacting with others has helped me to understand my own view of the bible far better than I did almost three years ago when I started this blog.

So, I guess this is a rather long winded way of saying lets keep this blogging thing going, and please lets not allow ourselves to fracture this blogosphere into little segments where only those who agree dare to go. I do believe in convergence and I actually believe that the blogosphere is one way of allowing that to occur. There is no doubt that we can learn much from reading each others blogs.

I would also however encourage more people to listen to the sermons of the blogging preachers that you read, as it is easier to catch the true heart of a person in a sermon preached. Also, it is in that preaching heard rather than the written word being read that the real power lies to bring the revelation from God that can change us in an instant.

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