Pastor Tullian & The Myth of the “Watching World”

Whenever there is a church controversy these days, especially if it involves online conflict (and it always does), there will inevitably be a person or persons who pipe up about midway through claiming to be the voice of holy reason. 

They will say something to the effect of, “Come on guys. We may disagree but we are brothers in Christ [typically no mention of sisters]. Jesus said the world would know us by our love, not by our right theology. All this fighting is hurting the cause! Let’s not screw this up in front of a watching world!”

Sometimes the voice of holy reason hits in the wake of conflict, when one of the fighting parties feels bad afterwards. I admit, in the past I used to fall prey to this, feeling guilty for speaking strongly on an issue or getting heated and then backtracking or apologizing or softening my statements. I used to write a passionate, strong post, and then two days later write a reasoned quasi-retraction of my own post. Some of this was just feeling beat up or tired of all the criticism of the initial statement. Some of it was just not knowing myself or trusting myself enough to stick to my guns. (These days, it’s getting easier to stick to my guns, especially now that I better understand the process of online discourse where NO MATTER WHAT YOU SAY there is always going to be pushback and then pushback on the pushback and then counterpoints and then counterpoints to the counterpoints ad infini-flipping-itum.)

During the initial days of the #IStandWithSGMVictims hashtag, the voices of holy reason made their way into the discussion pretty quickly (though it seemed that they all took the form of white male pastors sympathizing with The Gospel Coalition). But I was proud of those who stood their ground even in the midst of all the seemingly sane and reasoned pleas to tone it down for Jesus’s sake. I was especially proud of Tullian Tchividjian who, as a famous Reformed evangelical pastor, seemed to be telling the hard truth in the face of some impressive institutional opposition (namely, getting booted from TGC’s elite blogging guild without warning).

But alas, it appears that Pastor Tullian has seen fit to channel the voice of holy reason in the aftermath. I’m not doubting his intentions here, nor do I presume to know what all the behind the scenes issues are. But in the very least, this is typical of someone who is perhaps feeling more guilt or institutional pressure than they can handle in a controversial moment:

I slipped last week. I’m an emotional guy. And in my highly charged emotional state, I said some things in haste, both publicly and privately, that I regret. I never want anything I say to be a distraction from the mind-blowing good news of the gospel and last week I did. I got in the way. When you feel the need to respond to criticism, it reveals how much you’ve built your identity on being right. I’m an idolater and that came out last week. Because Jesus won for you, you’re free to lose…and last week I fought to win. I’m sorry you had to see that. Lord have mercy…

Second, I want everyone to know just how much I absolutely love and adore my friend, Tim Keller. Tim is traveling but we’ve been in touch and are planning to talk this upcoming week. We are both committed to one another and the friendship we’ve enjoyed for many years. There are few people on this planet that I hold in higher esteem than Tim. He knows that. I love him. He has been a mentor and older brother to me for a long time and both he and Kathy have been near and dear to Kim and me. The thought that I said anything at all that would hurt Tim or call anything about him into question makes me both sad and sick. I’m really sorry about that. Please forgive me.

Strangely, this statement, like the TGC statement that Tullian took such issue with last week, says nothing about the victims of child sex abuse who are currently fighting a legal battle against one of TGC’s treasured leaders, CJ Mahaney, whom TGC has unequivocally backed in the face of startling accusations to this very day.

But here’s the kicker:

As both LIBERATE and The Gospel Coalition move forward I want people to know that, while there may be differences, we’re on the same team.

The saddest thing about all of this is that, because of the public visibility of those involved, this conflict gained a lot of attention. The reason this grieves me so deeply is because the Bible says God wants the way Christians love one another to be a visual model of the way God loves us. He wants us, in other words, to live our lives together in such a way that we demonstrate the good news of reconciliation before the watching world.

As Tullian is launching his own coalition of sorts (Liberate), my guess is that he’s feeling the pinch on being labeled as an antagonist toward his powerful former flame, TGC. Better to make nice, now that the dust has settled and the new initiative is off the ground. But then the theological rationale is laid out, the voice of holy reason: this is about the gospel! Being reconciled before the watching world!

And I have to take strong issue here, because this theological application is terribly misguided.

In fact, this whole notion of “the watching world” being so scandalized by intra-church controversy, online or otherwise, is a total myth. It’s a poorly motivated attempt at maintaining religious appearances and keeping peace, not reforming religious abuses and making peace. Jesus did the latter; all the great prophetic voices and reformers in church history did the latter; all the compromised religious institutionalists did the former.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are definitely situations in which Christians come off looking like assholes to the world. Absolutely, a hundred million percent. And some of that can be highlighted in a conflict online or otherwise.

But the mere presence of conflict, especially on an issue of importance, is not, in itself, a Terrible Gospel Failure that is going to result in the church’s Total Loss of Credibility in the eyes of The Watching World. No, it’s things like corruption and coverup around child sex abuse in the church that will result in a total loss of credibility (RCC, anyone?). And I’d add to that the heartless obsession with legally discriminating against gay people, the greedy mishandling of church finances to enrich leaders, and the institutionalizing of abusive and manipulative practices as discipleship or church discipline, just to name a few other credibility-obliterating things the church in America is quite fond of doing on the regular.

Sure, some things are not worth fighting for. Sure, there are issues that are petty and dumb and divisive. And sure, some people online just take it too far, becoming pathological in their haranguing over pet issues and attacking their virtual enemies like they don’t have a filter to inform them that enough’s enough on the all-day subtweeting rants.

But this is not that. This is typically a conflict around an issue that is actually threatening the credibility of the church, which people are bold and passionate and prophetic enough to engage even online, only to be toned down by the voice of holy reason. This is pushing back on the religious walls that are keeping the marginalized out of the kingdom, only to have those who already lean towards the gatekeepers make pleas for “peace”.

Because, you know, the watching world.

Well, here’s my plea.


And speak strong.

And don’t back down.

And if you’re really, truly wrong about something (and who knows – maybe Tullian was wrong about a couple things) – then apologize for those things.

But don’t back down on the whole thing out of some gospel guilt over not keeping the institutional peace before a watching world.

What the world needs is a church that is willing to fight so that the walls which keep the marginalized out of the kingdom – and fail to protect the weak, the innocent, the widow, the orphan, the child among us – are sufficiently torn down.

No matter what celebrity leaders, or what powerful institutions, are keeping the gate.

Because if the world is watching for anything, it’s watching for whether or not we have the guts to reform, for Jesus’s sake.

Print Friendly

About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is a writer and missional minister from notoriously non-religious New England. He blogs here at Patheos and HuffPost Religion. His book, Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter, released in 2012. Most importantly he binge-watches TV dramas and plays in the snow with his family.

Find him on Twitter & Facebook!